Docent Corps Takes Portland

Add Pizzazz to Your Event with a Master Docent® Volunteer Guide

While being trained as a volunteer tour guide for a botanical garden in Portland, Oregon, I was encouraged to upgrade my work to that of a “docent,” like you find in museums and art galleries. This enhancement included using scientific names for plants instead of the common names. The first time I used the term Arctostaphylos uva-ursi with a tour group, a few members snickered. Nevertheless, I was determined to act like a docent, whether the unschooled liked it or not. So a few months later, when Portland launched its Master Docent® training program, with only 30 privileged candidates to be accepted into the inaugural class, I applied immediately.

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Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Terry Glase, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center)

Like similar programs around the country that produce Master Gardeners, Master Composters, and Master Recyclers, the Master Docent Program is designed to appropriate idle time from retirees and eco-zealots in order to staff public programs otherwise starved for funding. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, Portland ranks sixth in the nation for volunteerism, behind Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Charlotte and Rochester. (I can understand why Salt Lake City is ahead because of all those white-shirted young Mormons on bicycles, but what’s with the Midwest?) Also, Portlanders can breathe a sigh of relief that Seattle moved down to seventh place after beating the Rose City the previous year. Regardless, why does Seattle, with its exorbitant sales tax, need so many volunteers to run the city, anyway?

Ever-committed to staying on the cutting edge, Portland is the first city in the country to establish a Master Docent program. Envisioned as an elite corps of gracious and knowledgeable guides, screening and training for the docents is selective, rigorous and expensive. While it costs participants a mere $50 for the privilege of being trained as a Master Recycler, for example, aspiring Docents gladly cough up $200 to become an MD. No one dares question the price tag because to do so might reflect poorly on their loyalty and team spirit.

The selection process begins with a 20-page online application that covers one’s life history, employment experience, hobbies, general health and medium-term goals (Where do you see yourself in five years?) Next there is an in-depth psychological assessment to weed out introverts, pessimists, anarchists, substance abusers, and other social misfits. Desirable personality traits, on the other hand, such as talkativeness, self-confidence, assertiveness and exceptional friendliness, are rated highly. New arrivals to Portland need not apply. To be eligible to become a Master Docent, one must have lived here at least five years. In addition, requirements include having previously volunteered at least 200 hours in each of three different “Master” type programs, preferably in Oregon. Lastly, the applicant must commit to attending weekly training sessions for 25 weeks. Absences are excused only for deaths in the family and emergency volunteering for an approved organization.

Those applicants that successfully meet the selection criteria are then scheduled for an audition. They choose a real-life non-profit organization to be volunteering for, and a scenario is made up to represent a typical encounter with a visitor. Judges observe the applicant interacting with a simulated visitor, rating the encounter on qualities such as sincerity of smile, enthusiasm, spontaneity, engagement and thoroughness of message. Impressive scores on the audition qualify the applicant to be accepted into the Master Docent Program.

The training itself covers the usual topics such as how to maintain eye contact with someone across the room who may have glanced in the direction of your station but has not yet decided to walk over and be officially guided. The important thing is to avoid letting them get away without the benefit of your finely tuned and well-rehearsed spiel. Once the target has moved within range, you must do everything in your power to get them to agree to the tour. Polite excuses are easily brushed aside, but the more serious obstacles, such as “my car just exploded,” require more creative tactics. “Oh, yes, I’m so sorry to hear about your car, but really, since it’s already blown up to shreds, what’s the hurry?” And it is of paramount importance to ensnare the target before a mere volunteer, who is not part of the elite corps, gets to them first. You see, there is stiff competition among civic programs in the number of people contacts and hours worked by its volunteers. Contacts and hours are reported quarterly, and play a role in determining future program funding.

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Some creative strategies have evolved to enhance the contact situation, especially when there are more volunteers present than needed, which is not uncommon. One is to have two docents perform a duet with a single visitor, trading off seamlessly in reciting the litany of relevant facts. By using two stones to hit a single bird, the contact tally is doubled in one fell swoop. Once, when I had the temerity to question a fellow docent about whether it was really necessary for him to barge in on my encounter with a guest, he lectured me on the importance of playing as a team. Some volunteer activities, of course, can only be performed by one person at a time. Take mending garments at a repair event, for example. It’s very difficult to have more than one person operating a sewing machine (believe me, it’s been tried). I recall one event where I arrived early to set up and be ready go when the first client arrived. Meanwhile five other volunteers set up their machines on either side of me. When the first customers arrived, somehow the jobs were distributed to everyone else and I had nothing to do. Seething with frustration I announced loudly, “I can’t believe that I was the first volunteer here and don’t have anything to fix.” The other women only smirked and shrugged as they hoarded their work. Later on, we learned how to increase mending volume by encouraging people to bring in their pet garments.

Sewing machine

The first Master Docent class graduated with much fanfare. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales presented the coveted ID badges shaped like the city of Portland. In his remarks Hales praised the work of all the city’s volunteers, noting that the city would grind to a halt were it not for the free labor provided by its generous citizens. He also announced some exciting new expansion programs, including the Master Dumpster Divers and Master Bottle Collectors, designed to benefit particularly the homeless population. Still other programs under development are the Master Protester class, Master Trendsetter training, and even a Doctorate in Volunteering. With such diverse opportunities at our disposal, surely Portland will soon take its rightful place as the most volunteering city in the USA.

For more information contact doughscents.org.

Read about M. J. Coreil’s volunteer work in  Oregon Humanities and at Resourceful PDX