Service of Volunteers

April 16th, 2012

Categories: Charity, Volunteers


The old saying “never volunteer,” takes on a new meaning since last week when I read about The Brooklyn Museum and how it treated its now defunct Brooklyn Museum Community Committee: It tossed out the 64 year old group like last week’s garbage, half promising to dedicate to it yet another wall plaque.

In “Ousted Museum Group Angry Over Breakup,” in The Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Maloney described the committee’s beginnings in 1948: “The group, tasked with raising the museum’s profile, started a docent program, gave presentations in low-income schools with items from the collection, and planned events.”

Until December, its office was in the museum but it paid all its expenses, such as a part-time secretary, from the money it raised. At one point the committee produced the yearly fundraising gala which was taken over by professionals about a dozen years ago. One committee member had served 50+ years. Quoting the museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, Maloney wrote: “‘The world of fundraising has become much more complicated, much more sophisticated and much more competitive over the past couple of decades.'”

She continued: “Indeed, in order to compete for public and private dollars, nonprofit institutions must have trained professionals on staff to coordinate fundraising, said Marian Stern, adjunct assistant professor at New York’s University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.

award2“Even as the Community Committee’s role shifted, its relationship with the museum’s successive administrations was positive, members said. When it no longer had a gala to organize, the committee created an annual award to honor women in the arts. The museum administration and curatorial staff became increasingly involved, committee members said.

“But last year, committee members said, the relationship soured. In the fall, without explanation, they said, the museum began intercepting their mail, sending it instead to the development office.”

wallplaqueThe article ends: “Ms. Williams, the museum’s spokeswoman, said a plaque in the museum lobby lists the Community Committee among major donors. The possibility of another plaque or marker to honor the group is under discussion, she said.”

I was gratified to read that some of the ex committee members have removed the museum from their wills and that one is giving her print collection to the Jewish Museum. I congratulate Jennifer Maloney for writing the story and The Wall Street Journal for covering it. I hope that readers of the paper’s “Greater New York” section who currently support the museum [or plan to], either write the director or follow the lead of the disgruntled committee members making clear the reason.

I belong to an organization that grosses about $1 million for its major fundraising lunch, run by a fulltime volunteer, supported by other volunteers–all women. They are professional at what they do but not one makes a living fundraising.

I can’t think of a good reason for the Museum to have disbanded its committee of 35 to 40 people. Some conjectures:

The museum….

**Didn’t want an image associated with old people in favor of hip, wealthy up-and-comers  

**Fired its PR and/or community relations department and then made this decision

**Needed the office space used by the committee for another activity

**Forgot it was in Brooklyn and that a contingent of longtime borough supporters speaks well of it

**Knows that neither its professional development nor administrative staff will get old and seemingly useless

**Fired the person who coordinated fundraising efforts with volunteers

**Lacked the imagination to put these loyal, enthusiastic promoters to work

What do you speculate the institution had in mind?


19 Responses to “Service of Volunteers”

  1. DManzaluni Said:

    The Museum is hopelessly outmoded and won’t rebuild its premises so its steering committee is planning to move it lock-stock-and-two-smoking-barrels to Los Angeles where someone has promised to give it a glitzy new building? And on one running it could care less about what anyone in Brooklyn thinks?

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Yours is a far more creative reason than any I came up with! OF COURSE! Like the Brooklyn Dodgers who moved across country, the Museum plans to follow.

  3. ASK Said:

    Perhaps the development office felt the committee was siphoning off or spending funds in a manner incompatible with the museum’s overall goals. Sometimes longtime and/or enthusiastic volunteers set their own objectives without regard for the overall mission of the administration. Sometimes longtime volunteers are reluctant to implement change. Perhaps the committee members did not see eye-to-eye on committee objectives.

    Fundraising is very, very difficult in the best of times.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’ve had organizations as clients and their members are volunteers and I don’t always think that they select the most effective option. It may be frustrating but it’s too bad. One of my jobs is not to upset the client.

    I think of the development office in a similar dynamic: It’s up to them to get along with the volunteer donors no matter how crotchety or backward they may think that they are. There are other crotchety old donors to bring into the fold…let them do it. Give them specific tasks. Don’t fire them or drown out their fire for the organization. It isn’t necessary and as a PR person at heart and actually, I think it is very poor PR.

  5. Claire Coleman Said:

    In my experience volunteers run the world. Almost none of the public institutions and non-profit organizations could function effectively without the enthusiasm and dedication of volunteers. They’re highly under-rated considering the hours and efforts that they dedicate to their chosen organization. While some may not be top administrators, many have the talent and skill and imagination to have been competent corporate executives (some actually are in their “spare” time)!

  6. A Peabody Said:

    I came across your blog by chance and was struck by your piece on the Brooklyn Museum. I’ve had ties to both Brooklyn and the museum that go back many years, and I had not heard before about what had happened to its volunteers. Although saddened, I am not surprised.

    After 80 years of having seen wealth redistributed from the hands of the few to the many, during the past 40 years there has been a dramatic shift of wealth in this country in the opposite direction. Now there is a new, vastly richer, affluent class of donors with very different ideas about what charity is all about from those held by the formerly rich. If you don’t cater to them, your fund raising efforts will flop.

    For a quarter century, I served as a trustee of an 150 year old New York State chartered institution that had over time accumulated a comfortable endowment from donations by the likes of the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Dodges, the Harknesses and the Morgans. The board, which was populated, at least in part, by descendants of similar donors, seeking new blood elected a bright young woman with inherited wealth. She rightly told us if you don’t imbibe from the fund raising troth, you’ll die of thirst. So we embarked on a modest $20,000,000 capital campaign to increase the endowment and hired (for $500,000) a bunch of professional fund raisers to get the job done. The pros told us that giving starts at home and that we trustees must be prepared to commit at least $100,000 to the campaign. Having been asked to join the board because of my expertise in its field of specialization, not my wealth, I felt I would be shamed when my peers gave their hundreds of thousands and saw that I was only giving $1,000. Consequently, I resigned from the board despite my being an officer of the entity.

    After a three year campaign, it had raised about $1,500,000,out of which $1,000,000 was a gift already promised us long before the campaign was even a speck in our new trustee’s eye. Obviously, most of the other trustees didn’t have $100,000 in loose change lying around either, nor did the descendants of the 19th century millionaires that had vested the endowment in the first place.

    If you are going to raise money, first, whether you like them or not, you had better curry favor with the people who have money now. Second, you’d better have an up-to-date arsenal of sophisticated, tested, legal gimmicks to help them shelter large chunks of their wealth from taxes. And, third, you’d better have plenty of stuff that can be named after donors. Having a good cause isn’t enough. “Charity ain’t what she used to be.”

    While I feel badly for the ladies in Brooklyn, I feel badly also for the institution to which I devoted so much of my time for so many years. It did not do what the Museum is now obviously doing, that is change.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Just because somebody hasn’t worked at a job for pay doesn’t mean they are incompetent or unrealistic which may be an undercurrent of the article and an assumption about the older women on the committee.

    As for executives, I had a friend who was on that committee years ago. She was one of the top marketers in the country when she married late in life and quit her job to travel with her husband whose work took him all over the place. The museum was the beneficiary of her creativity. She’d still be on the committee, if it existed, but she died far too soon–don’t think she was yet 50.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Wow A. Peabody,

    So the outcome of spending $500,000 on a professional fundraiser generated $500,000. He or she did nothing more for this organization than pay for one salary–his/hers. WOW. Now why can’t I pull this off?

    What a shame that the organization lost you. I bet more than half the board took off. And just because folks didn’t fork over $100,000 didn’t mean they didn’t have it to give–it simply meant that they didn’t want to give it to this particular cause.

    Every committee or board I’ve ever participated on has a range of talent and committment: Some write big checks–they need do nothing else yet often do. Others have great ideas and can’t implement a thing on time. Still others are the workhorses. This balance doesn’t change. The professionals who work with volunteers must show patience, learn to harness the best ideas, see that they get done while making nice to the wealthy.

  9. Lucrezia Said:

    It would be a great deal of fun to rant and rave over the museum’s stupidity. After all, the idiots have just cut themselves off from what could be millions in much needed revenue. But why lavish time and effort to do so? If nature takes its course, these actions will come back to bite rears. The Wall Street Journal has done its job advertising what may be financial suicide, so let’s all sit back and enjoy the show.

    PS Down deep, I hope disaster is prevented by rapid expulsion of the blockheads, and restoring of sanity along with respect for the hard working and selfless volunteer(s).

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I got my point of view off my chest and thought that others might enjoy doing the same.

    The types that A. Peabody described–paid $500,000 to generate a bunch of dust and no more than $500,000–are a waste of time and money and yet they impress with their charts, jargon and iPads. How could raising money NOT change today; everything else has!…But that doesn’t mean that you pretend that some of the tried and true old fashioned means of communicating are done.

    Would a restaurant tell customers “don’t bother to come” if they couldn’t reserve through a smartphone? There will still be someone at the phone taking reservations along with those who scoop texts off apps and iPhones.

    I agree with you: May the geniuses who thought up this plan be fired and the Committee be invited to return. Can’t you just see the documentary? The case history will be in the “oops” marketing anals along with Classic Coke’s recipe change and change back and the car manufacturer that figured out why its NOVAs didn’t sell much in largely Hispanic parts of the country.

  11. Dianne Devitt Said:

    I’m for a picket line since I teach Volunteerism at NYU.

    The three stages of volunteerism are recruitment, retention and reward. Recognizing people and saying thank you is what most people need.

    This action was against everything that Volunteerism is about; making people FEEL good by doing good and, in turn, receiving the pleasure (and physiological reaction) it brings. Not to mention, the lack of respect.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I empathize with the volunteers, having been one for umpteen years and I continue to be one, giving each project the best I can in the time I have. The symbolism of closing down such an effort smarts.

    I have also seen the spectacular work that volunteers do. If a cause is a good one, the more the merrier, I think. It’s a question of directing the energy of volunteers combined with never insulting or demeaning the constituency.

  13. Debby Brown Said:

    I think you struck a chord! Redistribution of wealth is one of the big components certainly in the high profile institutions in NYC. Alas, if you can’t pony up the big bucks, you’re often not “invited” to volunteer.

    Debby Brown

  14. jeanne Byington Said:


    You are right–A. Peabody had a similar conclusion/example–and it’s too bad that this museum waited 64 years to chop the volunteers and decide it was too big and important to act human. Maybe we should be thankful they tolerated the committee for as long as it did.

  15. Liz Mayers Said:

    If, in fact, this is being done for fundraising reasons, it is really silly. A volunteer corps is priceless for visitors and donors, and demonstrates the institution’s interest in the community. Even if the Development Department has done an internet search and found that the net assets of these members are not impressive, their human capital represents a most generous donation. Furthermore, “do you have volunteers” is a question frequently asked by funders…

    If on the other hand the reason is that volunteers are a nuisance, the staff should learn how to work with them. If the problem is that they are old, with old-fashioned ideas, then advertize for younger ones to join too.

  16. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You’ve hit on it: The Development Department might have guided the committee as to how to attract and add younger members. In an institution as big as this museum, there had to be many things that older members could do. And as folks are living longer these days, the museum had best get used to seeing older members visiting its exhibits and happy to pitch in.

    In addition, while the net assets of the committee might not reach the level set by the Development Dept., these people have friends and relatives some of whom might have nice, fat checkbooks that they’ll open if the project is right and they are asked.

  17. Martha Takayama Said:

    The action of the Museum is not only ungrateful, but supremely naive and foolhardy. Alienating your supporters is not a very wise strategy nor is it a very noble attitude.

    This is not the first time this Museum has received attention for controversial behavior or questionable judgment. I tend to agree with Claire that the service of volunteers cannot be undervalued or ignored. Perhaps the not terribly savvy powers that be should be advised of the consequences in other museums of radical revision of customs and dismissal of volunteers. It would certainly be appropriate for artists as well as former volunteers, and the wide network of friends or family they may have, to take their support elsewhere.

    The timing certainly could not have been worse as the global economy continues spiraling downward. Why not permit people to continue to generate interest, support, publicity, and even funds using their own time and energy on behalf of the Museum? However, perhaps even more important, the Museum seems to have lost a sense of its purpose or mission. I would recommend that the decision makers direct their attention to James Cuno’s brilliant book “Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust.”

  18. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your fresh thoughts are passionate, I would guess, because you and your Boston gallery are important in the world of photography and I know that you support your local museums in many ways.

    You are the first to bring up the words “Public Trust”–from the title of Cuno’s book. Kudos.

  19. David Dosamantes Said:

    Thank you for highlighting the issue of inadequately valuing volunteers. Creating a culture of innovation and success depends increasingly on appreciating and engaging human capital – especially volunteers. A tree can grow in Brooklyn – even with volunteers.

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