Sometimes you just have to be a little bit cut-throat to get ahead. In the following post, William Tregaskes discusses his experience of being a ‘mercenary volunteer’ – a term which many of us first heard at the Museums Association’s Moving on Up Conference at Cardiff in February 2018.

I have been a mercenary volunteer. The reality of the sector has meant that I wanted to develop faster than I could through conventional volunteering and I wanted to develop skills which just did not fit in my current role at the time. I wanted more control of my volunteering and my personal development. What I found myself doing was being a mercenary volunteer – but what does this term mean?

‘Leader of Mercenaries’ by da Vinci, 1480. In the British Museum.

Mercenary volunteering is something I have come to personal terms with over the last year. It is also a term which was used by Ed Lawless at the Moving on Up Conference in February. He mentioned the term “mercenary volunteer”. This notion surfaced again at a later panel, and prompted the statement from Shaz Hussain and Charlotte Morgan that no one should have to volunteer as a prerequisite to finding paid work. Based on the amount of discussion about this topic it is becoming an issue for many – and one I will tackle in a future blog.

Liam tweet
Liam Wiseman responds.

In the current climate, however, volunteering has become a prerequisite for finding employment in the sector. This is problematic, volunteering requires you to give yourself for free, it can prevent people from less wealthy backgrounds from entering the sector, decreasing diversity. Today it is virtually impossible to gain a museum career without volunteering. So how can we take back some control?

For me, the answer was to become a mercenary volunteer – volunteering for my personal development only, targeting the skills I wanted to improve, taking agency of my volunteering, and ultimately volunteering for my own gains. I saw my time as currency, something to get the highest price for. My time is valuable to me – it is not going for free!

If I was going to volunteer I would be selective with my volunteering – exchanging it for specific skills I wanted to develop and to exchange it for progress in my personal development. I was not going to volunteer and get nothing out of it. I cannot afford to do that. I was freely giving up my personal time, in reality I could had been working for money. I was just getting by. So if I was going to volunteer, I simply would not and could not afford to do it solely for the good of the museum. I wanted to make progression in my career. This was my situation.

I had been volunteering as a student, and I had gained a lot of experience. I was beginning to discover why I loved museums. I was working FoH in a museums role and applying for jobs across the sector, but I was getting little feedback from my applications (this is a huge problem in this sector and needs discussing). When I did received feedback (often from those stretched furthest without no or little HR departments) I would pour over it.

Through this feedback, I built a personal development plan. I knew they were skills I would not get from my current role, as it is so often they were skills you can almost only get from the working that exact role previously or something similar. The only way I could get the experience and skills at the time would be through volunteering. I saw it as a transaction; time for skills, volunteering would allow me to reach these skills, my choice to volunteer to acquire skills just as people go through an apprenticeship or study at university to acquire skills.

So how to be a mercenary volunteer? I looked around, looked to see what volunteer opportunities were available to me. I choose to not just stay with one museum. I worked for a number of organisations, and created job titles for each role, so that they could go on Linkedin. This was not just in the ‘volunteering’ section, but in the main section where they belong.


For me it ended up with two roles – a more regular role at one museum and museum consultancy at another. Both were small local museums, with small numbers of staff who proportionally need volunteers more. This greater need for volunteers makes your time more valuable, leading to potentially greater control in what you do, and greater parity as a result of your increased value. There are also many good volunteer schemes where personal development has been enshrined in their structure. These have been created to attract volunteers such as us, those who are after personal development. Shop around, find the museum which best fits your needs! It is your time you are giving. Make sure you are getting what you wanted. Ticking the skills off your list. Once you have the skills you want, move on, take on new roles, discuss with your volunteer co-ordinator your personal development, discuss new role titles, do new things.

Ultimately, if you are not getting what you want from volunteering, you should consider your next steps. If you are not growing and developing, consider whether you should move on to your next volunteer position. I couldn’t just float waiting for development and for something to come along. I wanted to continue to develop. Consider moving on if necessary. It can be a tough decision – you may form a sense of loyalty with that museum – but sometimes you have look at what is best for you, and if the skills you want are not forthcoming you have to question why you are volunteering.

There may be another advantage to moving on. Volunteering with multiple museums gives you time to network a chance to connect to museum professionals, gain more advice, a chance to talk and form friendships with museum professionals who quite possibly will remain in your life for a long time.

In the next post, we will consider the impact of mercenary volunteering on host organisations. Will volunteer supervisors be supportive?

To read more about volunteering for career development, see my previous posts on Looking at Job Adverts to Identify your skills gaps, and How to Fill Those Skills Gaps Parts One and Two.

3 thoughts on “Mercenary Volunteering: Part One. Taking Control of your Career Development

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s