The Value of Our Volunteers

Dr. Skorton takes some time to visit with our volunteers and introduce a new feature on Torch, Volunteer Voices.


Each April, we give extra recognition to our Smithsonian volunteers during Volunteer Appreciation Month, but in truth, I am grateful every day to our colleagues who contribute so much of their time, wisdom and talent to the Smithsonian.

More than 16,000 people—6,900 onsite and to date, nearly 10,000 digital volunteers—make our mission possible. Our volunteers are as diverse as the Smithsonian itself: They are former fighter pilots, artists, doctoral students, pre-teens, animal lovers, educators, scientists, and, on a particular day, even a Smithsonian Secretary.

Secretary Skorton with visitors

Secretary Skorton helps a young visitor and her family plan their Smithsonian visit during a stint working at the Castle’s information desk. (Photo by David Haddock)

Some of our volunteers are the friendly faces of our museums and galleries–answering questions, giving tours and demonstrations, engaging our visitors and helping make the Smithsonian experience educational, entertaining, and enjoyable. Even more work behind the scenes, in collections management, conservation, and curatorial support. Our volunteers work in our greenhouses and weed our gardens; volunteers research corporate donors, assist with special events and staff the phones. Their help allows the Smithsonian to host the Folklife Festival year after year. Some very dedicated volunteers even clean up after the elephants at the Zoo, where Friends of the National Zoo have been providing invaluable support for 60 years.

Keepers scrubbing an elephant

Volunteers are a vital part of the team caring for the National Zoo’s Asian elephants. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian’s National Zoo.)

Increasingly, our volunteers work digitally, allowing us to leverage the power of crowdsourcing. For example, the Smithsonian Transcription Center connects people around the world online to our mammoth and expanding effort to digitize our collections. Volunteers have helped transcribe and review more than 358,630 pages of field notes, diaries, ledgers, logbooks, currency proof sheets, photo albums, manuscripts, and specimen labels since June .

This month’s theme, “The Value of Our Volunteers,” invites us to think more deeply about our community. The numbers alone are staggering: our volunteers contributed more than half a million hours to the Smithsonian in fiscal year 2017. But volunteering is about so much more than numbers. It’s about giving, contributing, and saying “yes.” It’s about working together to build a better community and gaining and sharing experiences. Our volunteers’ contributions, coupled with those of the staff, show the power of working together as One Smithsonian.

To that end, the Torch, our venue for news for, by, and about the Smithsonian community, is launching a new permanent feature section, “Volunteer Voices.” Here you will find news of volunteer programs and events, profiles, fun facts and much  more—and not just in April!

To further this discussion on the value of volunteering, I hosted a Volunteer Town Hall meeting Tuesday, April 10 in the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium. I greatly enjoyed the Town Hall and, as always, gained much from the conversation. Watch the webcast.

On behalf of the entire Smithsonian, I offer my great thanks to our volunteers for everything they do for us.

Posted: 13 April 2018
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.