Cost-Benefit Analysis of Docent Programs (Data Template)

How can you quantify and assess the relative benefit of staff teachers to docents? Not easily, truthfully. This is a fuzzy math problem, at best. But, before I lay out some ways to consider this, let me offer some useful thoughts and questions to help you on your path.

Mission-Driven & Client-Driven

Most, if not all, museums have education in their mission. Yet, education is the most likely element of the mission largely delegated to volunteers. What does that mean? Simplistically, one might see a value proposition; education is the only mission-driven function that can be value-engineered to be accomplished for free.

But, this simplistic notion is patently untrue. Docent programs are far from free. Using volunteer educators can be as much about meeting the need as trying to do so in a cost-effective manner.  In some areas, there might be more need for gallery teachers than available staff. Without docents, they would not be able to meet that need.

That said, cost-effective or meeting need are only two elements in decision-making. Meeting the need in budget only counts if you meet the need well. If you meet this need badly, eventually you will look clients and the need will go down.

Costs and Benefits

Before running the numbers, let’s think of ideas. There are several ways to think about the advantages and drawbacks for docent programs. Let’s create a sort of ledger of ideas.

Costs: (you can also download these as a table for you to fill out)

Easily quantifiable costs: Some costs are easy to tally. Think about things that show up in your budget ledgers. Every year, you spend X about of money for a docent party. If you don’t have a staff party, or you make it potluck, the docent program is costlier.

Relatively easy to quantify costs: Parking is another quantifiable cost at some institutions. It is one that I always dreaded in my monthly ledger. Most docent programs are considerably larger than staff-led programs. As a result, many more parking spots would be used for docents than staff. Why calculate parking if it doesn’t show up in your ledger? Parking is a finite resource in most areas. If your staff and volunteers use spaces, you are displacing paying people.

Complicated costs: Other costs are harder to quantify but important to understand. Think about printing. My first museum job, one that I proudly earned after getting a master’s degree, was to photocopy out of print books for the docent program. Think a little about the costs there, leaving aside my salary for the moment. There is the cost of the paper and the printing ink but also wear and tear of the printer. That poor, sweet machine, my old office-buddy, bit the dust long before any of the other machines in the building. As a rule, docent programs have far higher printing requirements than staff-led programs. Why? A few reasons. First, staff usually have broader access to libraries and the stacks than volunteers. Second, staff often come in with degrees and as such don’t need copies of books. Thirdly, staff is expected to have the education underpinnings to be able to find and use the appropriate resources. I cannot remember a time when I was a gallery teacher that my boss gave me a printed book, but I certainly remember her checking my sources.

The most imperative, and perhaps hardest to quantify cost comparison is in terms of staff time. In terms of staff time, what percentage of your staff interacts with docents, particularly those who don’t have the word “docent” in their title. Think about the variety of people impacted by docents. How much of your security staff is spending time reprinting badges? How much of your curatorial assistants’ time is spent answering questions for docents? What about time spent communicating protocol changes? How much of the visitor experience staff is spending time answering docent questions? You might find that every division is spending time working with docents. I am not making a value judgment; I assure you. When we get to benefits, you will see that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Opportunity losses: Finally, make sure to account for opportunity costs. Where are you wasting money without even knowing it? For example, most docent programs have a room that is easily accessible to those with low-level access. In other words, they occupy a space that could be used for visitors or for fund-generating programming. Account for each opportunity lost when you use resources for docents.

Benefits: (you can also download these as a table for you to fill out)

Benefits are the portion of this equation that pushes us into fuzzy math. I want to diverge for a moment into a memory. Not too long ago, I was at the funeral for a docent I knew from my days in museum education. I sat at one of the largest churches in Cleveland, a town with ecclesiastical structures of scale, looking down at more than 100 people touched by this one docent’s commitment to one museum. Time and time again during the service, people shared that they learned to value the museum through the eyes of this one man. This docent happened to be an extraordinary man; he was the kind of person who knew teaching required constantly learning. But, his life also shows how part of the value of docent programs is “the love they share.”

The unquantifiable: Hyper-committed individuals populate docent programs. These people have the time to lavish time on an institution, and their bank accounts usually reflect his ability to spend time at your museum. Docent programs are donor groups, marketing machines, as well as teaching forces.  Staff teachers are not going to be able to donate the amount of money that docents are. And, in terms of the soft benefit of marketing, most staff teachers don’t regale their friends with the type of unmitigated love for a museum that docents do. Docents are in it for the love; it’s their avocation. (After all, staff usually gets to see the good and bad; and we all enjoy taking a break from work)

Quantify marketing benefits: So, how are we going to think about this? Well, let’s think a little bit about some concrete things. You can think about things like the number of times docents share your messaging. Compare that to staff messaging.

Quantify donations: Most museum educators don’t have the ability to donate money, but some do. Compare what money comes in from docents compared with staff. In many ways, in your docent program, you are creating a highly engaged donor class. You might not have been able to get these donors without this type of engagement.

Quantify Total Percentage of Actual Teaching Capacity: More than anything else, docents allow you to impact more patrons. There is no way to argue that 80 people can teach more people than 8. It is important to quantify this. (I have created a spreadsheet to help you do this.) Additionally, numbers are an essential metric when showing value; grants, for example, usually seem the number of people served as a measure of success.

Visitor Experience

But, now here is the wrinkle. Is the docent program helping you get out the best product? One way to think about that is to see if your program is growing. Now, be warned many variables impact growth or decrease in any program. But, comparing the change in scale with visitor feedback will help you get a picture of perception of quality. In other words, if the numbers are going up, and your reviews are good, the docents are probably doing good work.

Yet, the equation is still not complete. Think about what your visitors might want. Schools might be asking for in-depth programming that teaches specific standards with measurable assessments. Can you train your docents to do that? Will your docents want to do that? Will your docents do that well? How much time will you spend training them? Will this eventually result in greater benefits (more students, more grants, and/ or more revenue)? (Remember, also, in the US, volunteers cannot do work that is a staff function, so be careful not to accidentally start a tussle with the Department of Labor.)

Now for the Numbers

Years ago, when I got through 1/2 of business school, I had a terrible revelation that accounting is magic. And while that is a story for another day, it is important to remember what I stated over and over here. This will be fuzzy math.

Take your notes from the costs and the benefits and start adding them to the spreadsheet. Do this for the docent program. Then do this for a staff-led experience.  Now add your visitor experience information. Which one outweighs the other?

In the end, your equation should be:

Docents: Costs + Visitor Experience Opportunity Losses VS Benefits + Visitor Experience Benefits 

Staff: Costs + Visitor Experience Opportunity Losses VS Benefits + Visitor Experience Benefits 


Where does this leave you? Well, you will likely come up with useful data but not an answer.  One will side of this scale will be higher. Visitor experience considerations might make staffing a better choice. The scale of impact might make docents a better choice.

You might not be able to make a change due to hard cash. After all, even if staff is a better choice, you might not have the money to hire them, right now. So, why do this?  Well, this is the kind of planning tool that will help you move forward in a strategic manner toward your best solution for putting your mission of education into action.

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