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Sole staff people often face steep morale challenges. How do those of you who are alone in your museums do it all? Id especially appreciate some tips on gaining perspective on work when the work is overwhelming, work-life balance, and scoring excellent volunteers. Good thing I like my job!


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30 Responses to Steep Morale Challenges

  1. Marci says:

    I just had an email forwarded to me from a resident complaining that our society provided him with bad service. (He didn’t do his part in researching and finding the photos he wanted us copy for him, but nonetheless, his complaint had made its rounds.) So, so I’m familiar with "steep morale challenges." I’m not sure if what my experience will help, but here goes…

    I felt for a time that I had 40 bosses (all the board members and volunteers) and I couldn’t fulfill everything they wanted me to do working part-time. I worked with them to develop a five-year plan and list of priorities. That has helped tremendously!

    Even if you can’t take on a long-range planning session, write your real job description (what you really do as opposed to what you may have been hired to do.) Provide estimates of how much time you spend doing each task and present to the board.

    Sometimes people just don’t understand how much work is involved in a project. A colleague at another society was overwhelmed with requests to change the exhibits (something she said she could do once a year, but others thought could be done *monthly*!) She assigned a board member to develop one and he quickly discovered how time-consuming the work was and decided once a year was often enough.

    Figure out what you can "hand off." I delegate anything that does not need my involvement in making a decision or executing it. For example, my events committee handles all refreshments, decorating, room set up and clean up. They’re good at making everything look beautiful and handling the logistics, and I don’t have to worry about napkin colors or nametags or whether we should have bars or cookies.

    Network. I find a lot of support from other professionals in small historical societies like ours. Go to MHS training sessions. Call Tim Glines or David Grabitske — they’ve always been very helpful in directing me to resources so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

    Finding good volunteers is challenging and probably worthy of a whole other post. I was lucky enough to inherit a good group of volunteers. I’ve found others by recruiting from our visitors/researcher list. (You already know they appreciate history). I also have partnered with community groups when there is a good tie-in with our exhibits or programs.

    As for work/life balance, decide for yourself what your limits are. I work Saturdays (which works for my family but maybe not for others), but I work very few evenings. I have a great board member who represents us at community functions. I felt guilty about not going to everything, but I decided that given my limited hours, I could best serve our society by focusing on the tasks that needed professional expertise.

    It’s hard to say no when you love what you do. And most of the time, I can’t blame anyone else for my workload — my stress is usually self-inflicted!


  2. David Grabitske says:

    Marci alludes to one thing I’ve suspected about feeling overworked. That is, under-marketing what you do to your "40 bosses." Sometimes in talking with folks around the state they tell me that most people think they just sit around waiting for history to happen, when in truth there is too much to be done with the time and workers alloted. Perhaps readers could chime in on what they do to help their constituents understand the length and breadth of what it is they do.


  3. Mike Worcester says:

    What I often find both amusing and maddening is when our members/volunteers/governing officials return from a trip where they visited a facility that is much larger–both in scope and staff–than here, and invariably wonder why we cannot do everything they do.

    My ususal response to that is, "Good idea, but what will give up to do this?" With two people on duty (1 full, one part time), there is a finite amount of work time to get projects done, never mind the $$ discussion. (Let’s face it, MHS probably spends more on coffee for staff than I do on exhibits in a year (kidding David!).)

    I find the best morale booster is to talk to colleagues–whether it be to commiserate, bitch, laugh, or just chat about something that has nothing to do with museums–like me and Claudia discussing Rob Van Dam’s expolits in the ring.

    And like Marci, I too self-inflict much of my own stress. Guess it comes with the territory when we like what we do.


  4. Suzanne Fischer says:

    It’s impossible to do it all, especially since I work part-time, but some fabulous volunteers started my museum and still give enormous amounts of time toward staffing, exhibits, and volunteer recruitment, freeing me to work on other projects. Unfortunately, the basic work leaves little time for PR.

    But the biggest challenge is working alone down in the basement workroom with no windows!


  5. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Much of what Marci recommends I am already doing. And I could really identify with the self-induced stress.

    Part of my struggle may be old news to some of you–the work of starting up a new museum (even one that is 30 years old!) is enormous, and I feel that I need to work really hard now to get things moving. By the same token, I am seeing that I am the only person in the world for whom this is among the top two most important things in my life. Relying on volunteers, almost none of whom feel the museum is a top priority, slows things down considerably.

    I do need to mine our lists better for potential volunteers, and it has become abundantly clear to me that I was asking way too much from potential helpers. I’m trimming my expectations somewhat, and hoping that some people may be willing to give me 2 hours a week, when I’d really like 8.

    And it is a good thing for all of us to remember: if you do the impossible, they will come to expect it!



  6. Mary Warner says:

    I’m writing this while taking a vacation day. As you can see, it’s hard to stay away from museum work. It’s just so darn compelling. Good thoughts, everyone. There is too much to do . . . we could all use a dozen more committed employees or volunteers . . . most people don’t understand the full scope of what it takes to run a museum. Just meeting the legal requirements keeps us on our toes. My suggestion? Try to take those vacation days, if you’ve got them, find someone you can talk to in order to blow off steam (this blog is a good way, ’cause we just found out we’re not alone), and create volunteer projects that are focused, so you’re not having to oversee every aspect of the volunteer’s work. It also helps if you can find work volunteers can do at home.

    Oh, and Suzanne, you might want to try a full-spectrum light and some pictures of the outdoors in order to cope with that lack of windows.


  7. David Grabitske says:

    Mike brings up a good point about what economists call "opportunity cost." What do we give up by running ourselves ragged? Sanity, serenity, good health, planful progress towards goals, etc. That is, in addition to various new demands competing with established programs. Mary’s admonition is good to remember when feeling overwhelmed: take vacation and days off seriously.

    Someone once told me that another key to a better work environment is creating a separation ritual. What this person meant was that I was supposed to end work everyday at roughly the same time and do something that would serve as a cue to stop working: go to a coffee shop, buy a paper and read it, even the drive home and preparing dinner might serve in that capacity.

    So, what are some of your separation rituals?


  8. Sara Hanson says:

    In response to your earlier question-something that we’ve implemented here since last spring is for me to send a weekly update via email to all of our current board members, recent past board members and key volunteers. This has helped tremendously. I’ve lost count of how many times a board member has said, "I didn’t realize all the things we/you have been working on!" or something to that effect. It’s amazing-I report our activities at the monthly board meetings but it’s incredible how much is missed from the day to day or how much people do not retain. I would say that has created major progress for educating our board and others on the effort it takes to keep this place rolling. An added bonus is that our board meetings themselves have actually gotten shorter since I don’t have to explain each project in detail!

    It is very true that we are not alone and we do inflict a lot of the stress on ourselves (I certainly do) but we are also very fortunate to be doing something about which we are passionate. Try to remember that during the more challenging days!



  9. Mary Warner says:

    My separation ritual is to explain everything that happened at work to my husband when I get home. Once I’m done with that, I can leave work behind (mostly) and move on to other stuff.


  10. Mike Worcester says:

    Sara touches on an interesting and vital point. Most people truly do not understand what it takes to run a museum. Many of my friends will ask me "So, what exactly do you do there?" Apparently there is this perception–nasty stereotype if you ask me–that all we museum people do is open the doors each morning and make sure the precious stuff is dust free.

    Part of this might come from the innate humility that the vast majority of museum people posses as a character trait. We don’t like to call attention to ourselves. We don’t want the public to focus on us, but instead on what the institution offers. As one of my former board members used to tell me: "Mike, there is nothing wrong with running a victory lap once in a while." True, but I also want to make sure that the attention is where it belongs, on the museum, not the person.




  11. Lisa Plank says:

    Oh where was this blog a year and a half ago?! Having just gone through the creation of a new history center and much more in an institution that has never had a staff or regular operating hours etc. I can completely sympathize with all of these comments. I found one of the best things to keep my sanity, and my perspective, was to talk with colleagues.

    Being the only part time staff doing a million things every day to get that ball rolling and keep in moving, you can loose perspective pretty quickly on how much you really are accomplishing.

    Into the third year now of our new History Center etc, I am starting to see the fruits of all of the crazy hours and stress levels. I found that I had to make a pact with myself to stick closer to the part time hours I am being paid for. There is so much work to be done, that whether I put in 8 or 20 extra hours, it still won’t all be done. Once I got past feeling guilty about working the hours I get paid for, I found I could really devote myself while at work, and then regain my personal life after work. I joined a gym. I go after work and work out my stress on a bike before I go home. I have found this really helps to seperate the two.

    We still get an amazing amount of work done, have a great volunteer pool (which is invaluable) and I get to have a life too! Hang in there, set limits, celebrate your successes, and I must say this blog is great for just knowing you are not the only one experiencing this.


  12. Mary Warner says:

    Speaking of this blog, there is a great, but subtle, way to advertise your websites here. If you’ll notice, some of our comment names are highlighted in blue. When you’re posting a comment, be sure to put your full web address url in the website box. This will cause your name to be a link to your website. (For some reason, some of these now link back to the blog. Don’t know why.) I check these links to get background on your organizations if I’m unfamiliar with you. Simple, but effective.


  13. Sara Hanson says:

    I think there is some truth to Mike’s concept of letting the history "shine" so to speak. I have been urged recently and repeatedly by our current board president to "put myself out there" and "capture the limelight". For me that’s not the point. As much as recognition is wonderful, that’s not the reason I’m here and I think that is true for most of us. On the flip side as I have been trying to do that more and more during this year it is rewarding and it also serves the purpose of educating our board, members and the general public on the fact that so many of these things would not be happening if the staff wasn’t here, trained and extremely dedicated.

    With that said, I can completely commiserate with Lisa…I too was hired as the sole and first staff person for our organization. At the end of this year I will have completed six years so far. I often lose sight of all of the things we have accomplished and focus on what still needs to be done. One of the things that helps me is to look at it as a long-term process. I’ve visited museums and archives across the country and even in the Caribbean and when I have commented on how organized, accessible and wonderful they are the answer is almost always something like, "You should have seen things around here twenty years ago!" I often joke that I’m on a twenty year plan, but there’s some truth to that. The good news is we are not alone! Keep at it…it makes a difference.


  14. David Grabitske says:

    For information on why some links take you back to the Blog, as mentioned in Mary’s 10/18 post, see: <a href="http://discussions.mnhs.org/mnlocalhistory/index.cfm/2006/10/25/Note-on-using-URLs-with-your-names">Note on using URLs with your names</a>


  15. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Lisa’s and Sara’s comments remind me of something I struggle with on an almost daily basis: focusing on the things undone, rather than the things accomplished. I often find myself looking at the museum through binoculars, trying to get a closer-up look at everything that we are doing. It takes a conscious act of will to reverse the binoculars and look at the museum from the 10,000-foot level. From there, things look pretty good.

    The bulk of my experience has been at much bigger institutions, and I often fall into the trap of thinking how un-museum-like my place is. My board, on the other hand, looks at it and says "Holy sh*t! Look how museum-like the place is!"

    It is truly a matter of perspective.


  16. David Grabitske says:

    Are morale challenges any different during the holiday season at local historical organizations?


  17. Mary Warner says:

    Actually, we quite enjoy the holiday season because very few visitors come in, which gives us uninterrupted time to work on concentrated projects and to do planning for the upcoming year.


  18. Sara Hanson says:

    I would definitely agree. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is generally our most productive week in the sense of catching up on collections, paperwork, cleaning up the office, and really getting things organized for the new year. It is remarkably quiet over that time and is a welcomed respite from the general atmosphere.


  19. Ben Leonard says:

    I know we’ve pretty much beaten the morale thing to death with Director’s, but what about other staff? There are lot’s of one-person shops out there, but there are a lot of multiple-person shops as well. How do we keep staff morale up in general? I have chosen museums as my career. If something doesn’t work out where I am I’ll go somewhere else. That would be sad, but not the end of the world. I think, however, that many museum employees are not careerists, they’re locals taking advantage of an opportunity. They have an interest in history to be sure, but they could go work somewhere else too. How do we keep them happy with crappy pay and crappy hours? I don’t have a particular problem at my shop – but honestly that surprises me sometimes.

    The second thing is more work for David and Tim. Maybe we could have an "employee of the bi-month" feature in the interpreter. Just a little kudos to someone who deserved it. I would have a lot easier time showing that to my board than advocating for myself. How about others?


  20. Merlin Peterson says:

    Great idea for promotion, Ben. It could be short snips like in the Business page – people in transition or promotion or accomplishment.


  21. David Grabitske says:

    Ben and Merlin have good points about positive reinforcement for paid staff. However, is MHS necessarily the ideal authority to make this kind of judgment? I am inclined to think that the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums might be more appropriate. I’d be curious to read your thoughts on that.


  22. ben leonard says:

    Thanks David. You’re right, I think MALHM can do that too. But, I think a "good job" blurb in the Interpreter would be awesome. I love and respect MALHM and MAM, but my non-museum-professional board is way more impressed when MHS says something.

    I have good morale today because I finally finished my budget. It’s comforting to know I get paid next year 🙂


  23. David Grabitske says:

    Another consideration in awards programs is politics entering into decisions, or at least the perception that politics enters. Think about wellknown awards programs like the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. How would you propose to make the process transparent? MALHM appeals to me because they have a board of peers that could more fairly make decisions like this than could MHS staff.


  24. Merlin Peterson says:

    It’s not so much an award from MHS as a news column like this from the MN Council on Foundations:

    Gary Geiger was appointed to the Southwest Initiative Foundations (SWIF) Board of Trustees.

    The Catholic Community Foundation elected for members to its board of directors: Norbert Conzemius, Eric Ly, Brian C. Murray and Roger Vasko.

    Carleen Rhodes, president of The Saint Paul Foundation, received a College Leadership Award from St. Cloud State University.

    The fact that MHS would pay attention to local historians is helpful to show that we are connected and don’t work in isolation at the local level. The Friends of Barns workshop last Saturday was a great connection of various preservation groups too.


  25. Mary Warner says:

    Ben – Can you tell me why, specifically, your non-museum-professional board is "way more impressed" with MHS than with other historical organizations?

    Merlin – How are we connected to MHS, other than as professional colleagues? Each of us represents an autonomous organization. My organization pays a membership fee to belong to MHS, albeit, I believe, as an Institutional Membership, it’s a lower fee than regular members pay. What specific benefits does this give to Institutional Members that regular members don’t get?

    David – Sorry, I’m throwing a little gas on the fire. Maybe this could be a new thread, but could you enlighten us as to how MHS sees its relationship to the other historical organizations in the state?


  26. Merlin Peterson says:

    I connected with MHS primarily through workshops. That relationship deepened significantly when Glenwood hosted the fall statewide preservation conference a few years back. I have also sought out professional services in photography, duplication and artifact conservation through Tim Glines and SHPO. These connections have taught me a lot. This in turn makes me sound more confident and informed when I take projects to my board of directors. They become better informed of the scope of work needed to maintain our reputation as a museum.
    We are all working to preserve and interpret the history of Minnesota. I don’t see any advantage in doing that alone / autonomously when I have MHS and the Alliance as such great resources. The work I’ve had done through MHS has been at a significant discount from commercial vendors. I’d have to say our membership has paid for itself many times.


  27. Mike Worcester says:

    At the risk of joining Mary on a thread hijack (can I say that on an open forum?), here it goes. An be forewarned, this might get a bit long–though hopefully not long-winded 😉

    We here are also Institutional Members at MHS. Our bylaws dictate this. Like Ben, "my people" do respect that MHS has to say because, well, they are MHS and are supposed to have the expertise to assist other agencies. Now this does not mean that, like those of us in the Alliance, cannot offer expertise to each other. Far from that. We all can learn from each other. By education my board, I have helped them understand that we can learn from many sources, including from the Alliance and AASLH. Nothing wrong with seeking out as much information as possible.

    Some time ago, I was talkling to Maureen Galvin about the multiple organizations in the state that we could belong to. She made the appropriate comparison to AAM and AASLH. They both serve a museum audience, but not necessarily the same one. It does not mean that one has less value than the other. Only that there is a difference in focus. I saw this first-hand, as did many of you, when AAM held their annual meeting in Minneapolis a few years ago.

    Another example–I don’t regularlly attend the regional MHO meetings. This is not because they have nothing to offer. Hardly. Some people attend MHO and Alliance meetings. Some only Alliance. In the end, we all can share what we learn at these multiple events and all be the better for that.

    Okay, so what was I originally going to say? Simply put, this field is much more collegial than when I got invloved almost 15 years ago. That is good. There are more state-wide orgainzations to work with for advice, fellowship, and the like. Again, that is good. I continually invoke to my bosses what "my professional colleagues" do as a way of showing how the field works. It is through the various get-togethers that this information is shared. Including now this blog. Also good.

    That’s all folks. I’m done. Thanks for listening.



  28. Mary Warner says:

    Here, here, Mike! That’s exactly what I was trying to get at.

    By using the word ‘autonomy’ I did not mean that we are all out here floating alone. What I meant was our LEGAL autonomy. That means that MHS is not responsible for our budgets, our funding, our collections or staffing decisions, or any of the like. We are our own nonprofits, just like they are. That means that we have a certain amount of authority just by virtue of existing.

    So, yes, Merlin, you may learn a lot from MHS, and that’s a good thing, but I’m willing to bet that you and your organization have contributed to MHS as well. My wish is that all of us organizations, be we small or large, own up to our own authority and see each other as equals, rather than submitting to a perceived position of servitude.

    MHS has had the good fortune of a head start, having formed in 1849, and having direct support from the State Legislature for all/most of those years. Think about all the marvelous things we smaller organizations have accomplished in less time and with less money. That’s worth celebrating.


  29. Ben Leonard says:

    I’m jumping in late, but for what it is worth….

    My board respects MHS because it knows what MHS is. I serve both MAM and MALHM. I think they are both great – I mean no disrespect. I’m just saying, my board doesn’t really know who they are. They really don’t know who AASLH is either, who I am involved with as well. I think peers are great. Frankly I consider MHS a peer. I really wasn’t talking about an award really – just a kudos, mention, pat on the back, etc. I think the Interpeter is currently the best vehicle for something like that.

    Let’s face it MHS is the best historical organization in the state. Some people can argue that (and some could make a decent arguement) – but as much as they do and for as well as they do almost all of it – they are the best.

    That doesn’t mean we should feel crappy about ourselves. CHS’s are like RC Cola. We can make a damn fine cola people will enjoy and feel good about. I won’t ever be Pesi or Coke, but that’s okay. It’s not my mission to be Coke. It’s my mission to be the finest cola I can be given my set of circumstances.

    I don’t feel bad about that at all. I don’t feel like I’m less of a professional than they are (I worked there, they are just like many of us). But, I also don’t spite them for their success – just like I don’t spite Stearns History Museum, or Stevens CHS’s great addition, or Sherburne CHS’s fantastic new building, or Carver CHS’s wonderful Dakota exhbit.



  30. Mary Warner says:

    Can I be the strawberry soda?


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