Chairwoman’s Blog: Running a Volunteer Organisation

 

History of Lettering and Type. Lethaby Gallery. CSM.

In the first of our tri-yearly LMG Chairwoman’s Blog, Judy Willcocks reflects on the challenges and rewards of chairing a voluntary organisation.

I’ve been in the driving seat of the London Museums Group for five years now, and have had to steer us through some pretty choppy waters including the worst economic downturn since the Second World War, the demise of the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and a complete overhaul of the Renaissance in the Regions Programme. Arts Council England (ACE) have done a commendable job of taking over some of the strategic functions once managed by MLA, and we’re incredibly lucky in London to have a pro-active Museum Development service which is keeping afloat in spite of funding cuts. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing and, despite the best efforts of ACE and the Museum Development team, and the London museum sector has still had to face a considerable reduction to the training and support available over the last six years.

Add to this the funding cuts, the lack of jobs and the vexed future of many local government museums, and it feels like London’s museum professionals have had a pretty tough time of it recently. When I took up the Chair in 2011 I strongly believed that LMG should do what it could to step in and pick up some of the slack. We’re aware that we can’t change the world, but there is much we can do in terms of consulting, lobbying, keeping our members informed and providing a place for networking and low-cost sharing of best practice.

It has proved a tricky but rewarding journey. Chairing an organisation like LMG is particularly difficult because we are asking everyone to give their services for nothing. As Chair I am asking busy people to give more on a voluntary basis at the same time as their paid roles are upping the ante – I think it’s fair to say that everyone in museums is working harder since the economic crisis hit. Fewer staff are trying to do more than ever, and I can see some of my colleagues literally fraying at the seams!

There are times when this troubles me, and I wonder if what I am doing is entirely fair. At these times I think it speaks volumes to the dedication of our board – LMG’s Vice Chairs both work in local government and have plenty of their own problems to deal with. Our Secretary works for the National Museum Director’s Conference and is so up to her eyeballs in government white papers it’s a wonder she ever gets the minutes written up. At the last count there were four freelancers on the Board, and I know that for all of them time is money. My Treasurer was practically checking the bank balance on her honeymoon. I take my hat off to them all.

But getting good people is one thing, keeping them is another, and high turnover is always problem for volunteer run organisations. Freelancers get full-time jobs, heads of service get swallowed up by funding bids and/or structural changes, and in the last year we’ve lost two of our younger members to Bristol because the London housing market makes life in the capital near impossible for those on a low wage. It feels like we’re constantly recruiting.

In many respects that’s a good thing and I firmly believe that new blood is of critical importance to an organisation like ours. This year we launched a campaign targeting early careers professionals and we’ve been delighted to welcome five new members to the Board. Between them they’ve brought new skills and experience and a refreshing take on life at the coalface. They have been incredibly proactive in taking on roles in blogging, tweeting and events organisation and I’ve learned a great deal from them about how social media can be used to engage people in our work.

I hope they feel they get something back for their efforts. One of the things I find really exciting about the direction LMG is taking is that our Board meetings have become a forum for key players in the cultural sector to update one another on current activities and to share best practice. We have scheduled reports from HLF, Arts Council England, the London Museum Development service and the National Museum Directors Conference each time we meet and the MA also make a regular appearance, so hopefully our new recruits are learning a lot about how the sector works.

In all honesty, there are times when I leave Board meetings feeling exhausted – defeated by the enormity of the problems facing the sector and saddened by the difficulties faced by friends and colleagues. But more often I am buoyed up by our meetings; by the dedication and generosity of my colleagues, by the success of our activities, by just how much we manage to do on a shoe-string and by the creativity and resilience of museums and museum professionals in the capital. More power to your elbow LMG – it’s been one hell of a ride.

Judy Willcocks is Chair of the London Museums Group Board and Head of Museum & Study Collection/Senior Research Fellow, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London

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