Where have all the volunteers gone? 100



View Profile

The 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) findings by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), released in June this year, reveal some challenges for volunteering in Australia.

On face value, the statistics are extremely positive. The figures suggest that 5.8 million Australians, or 31% of the population aged 18 and over, volunteered in 2014. They devoted an impressive 743 million hours to community organisations and causes.

In spite of this positive snapshot, trend data reveal a different, not-so-bright picture. With close to two-thirds of Australia’s population not volunteering in 2014, the volunteering rate has slipped five percentage points from a high of 36% in 2010 (when equivalent data was last collected). That decrease reversed a 20-year trend of increasing participation.

Examining hours devoted to volunteering reveals a parallel story of slowing growth and decline. As an indicator, total hours volunteered has shown incremental, slow growth. This has been mainly fuelled by Australia’s growing population.

Viewing the statistics at an individual level, however, the median annual hours contributed by volunteers has fallen from 74 hours in 1995, to 72 hours in 2000, and to 56 hours in 2006.

Unfortunately, the two subsequent GSS exercises have not reported on this important indicator of the health of Australian volunteering. Given the increasingly busy lifestyles of Australians, it is not difficult to imagine that this long-term trend has continued.

What could be causing a decline?

Collectively, this snapshot suggests that volunteering in Australia, if not already in long-term decline, may be in danger of being so. This raises a number of related questions for which the evidence base is poorly supported. These include:

  • Are increasingly busy Australians finding it harder to prioritise volunteering as part of their lives? Are we becoming more selfish as a nation and less inclined to help others?
  • Is volunteering “on the nose” with young people, the next generation of volunteers?
  • Do mum and dad recognise (and therefore account for) doing canteen duty for their kids’ footy club as volunteering?
  • Does the decline in volunteering reflect the long, slow decline of rural Australia, where volunteering rates have always outstripped those of their city cousins?
  • Has population decline and an ageing population in these areas reduced the supply of willing and able-bodied volunteers?
  • What can be done to convert non-volunteers into volunteering with all its immense benefits to the volunteers, the community and society?

Or is the ABS’s rather prescriptive definition of volunteering as “someone who, in the previous 12 months, willingly gave unpaid help, in the form of time, service or skills, through an organisation or group” failing to capture the full gamut of formal and informal volunteering efforts across Australia, as well as newer forms such as spontaneous and online volunteering?

In addition, examining the ABS glossary of volunteering reveals that these measures exclude online volunteering, corporate volunteering and international volunteering. It is possible that people are not volunteering less, but rather volunteer in different ways to their parents. The census may be yet to catch up with recent trends.

Finding ways to attract volunteers

These questions, and more, are being explored by researchers from Curtin, Flinders, Macquarie and Erasmus (Netherlands) Universities and William Angliss Institute in partnership with Volunteering Victoria, Volunteering SA&NT, Volunteering WA and the WA Department of Local Government and Communities. In a world first, the ARC-funded project is examining the conceptual, practical and policy levers that may be applied to convert non-volunteers to the benefits of volunteering.

The three-year project is in its early stages but already 12 exploratory focus groups have been conducted in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. The focus groups include current volunteers, lapsed volunteers (volunteered in the past five years but not in the past 12 months) and non-volunteers (not volunteered in the past five years).

The groups explore issues relating to people’s willingness, availability and capacity to volunteer now and in the future. These have revealed differential awareness of volunteering and access to volunteering opportunities across the groups.

Promisingly, most non-volunteers express some willingness to volunteer in given circumstances. Overall, all participants highlighted that they are extremely busy people. However, compared to their volunteer counterparts, the lapsed and non-volunteers were sceptical about finding time to volunteer.

These exploratory findings suggest that Australian volunteer-involving organisations wishing to bolster their numbers need to be clear about the benefits they can offer to potential volunteers. They also need to offer a variety of flexible volunteering opportunities. This will allow people the option of multi-tasking their volunteering together with other life commitments.

These and other proactive solutions aim to address the societal implications of declining volunteering rates across Australia. A broad range of community services and causes depend in part or in full on volunteers. With this in mind, it must be hoped the decline can be reversed.

The Conversation

By Melanie Oppenheimer, Chair of History, Flinders University; Debbie Haski-Leventhal, Associate Professor in Management (Organisational Behaviour), Macquarie Graduate School of Management; Kirsten Holmes, Associate Professor, School of Marketing , Curtin University; Leonie Lockstone-Binney, Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Higher Education, William Angliss Institute, and Lucas Meijs, Professor of Volunteering, Civil Society and Businesses and Professor of Strategic Philanthropy, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guest Contributor

  1. I’ve been happily volunteering for the same organisation for the past 10 years and I do not intend to stop for quite a while………………….

  2. People need to work longer and police checks and red tape just make it too hard

    3 REPLY
    • Lorraine the police checks are simple and painless it takes 2minutes to fill out a form. Surely this is not too much to ask

    • If you want to volunteer for different organisations they expect you to have a different police check for each one. I mean how many times do the police need to give the same report? Not to mention the endless courses you are expected to undertake to make you suitable to do anything? I’ve gotten to 65 without ever having had a criminal record and I refuse to go through this palaver so I can volunteer my time. I’m sure lots of people are put off volunteering for the same reason.

  3. I have been volunteering for last 9 years but find less and less people doing the same and all the work gets done by the same few.

  4. Wanted to become a volunteer driver for Red Cross. Paper work red tape and stipulations made me back off. Even you are not employed by them you are virtually signing your life to them. All responsibility falls back on you should something go wrong. All fun taken out of volunteering.

    5 REPLY
    • I certainly agree there David. You just want to help people but by the time you get through the reams of paper you say “forget it”

    • So true David! I went to all the classes to become a leader of a Walking Group,and when I asked if someone fell what happened that’s exactly the answer I got. So I also totally backed off.

    • I was a volunteer for about 10 years putting in many hours. The day I happily told them that it was my 70th birthday I was told that I could not come anymore as I was no longer covered by their insurance. No thanks for your help, not even a note or phone call. Very sad.

    • Sorry to hear Jean. Unfortunately today we are taken for granted.
      Anyway I will thank you for your devoted service and the time you put in volunteering. Many many thanks well done.

    • Red Cross as well as all reputable not for profit organisations have the correct insurances in place in case something happens whilst you are volunteering for them. The paper work etc is to ensure you are trained correctly and orientated to the position you are undertaking. The checks are what anyone would expect to be undertaken by anyone working with vulnerable people, I would certainly want to know that they had done the appropriate checks.

  5. Most of us are still working to survive,volunteering will have to be a paid job in years to come……

    1 REPLY
    • Are you serious? Well it won’t be called volunteering it will be work,and I don’t think it will ever come to that. I hope not anyway.

  6. Would volunteer again but they need one to be on timetable and if I want to travel its not an option here just to do few hours they ask more and more..

    4 REPLY
    • Thanks for liking maybe need to address this aspect I realise that the places need to know whom is on when, but for others it b would be nice to have opening just to help out whenever

    • I ensure my volunteers have time off when they want it, that is one of the benefits of volunteering. There are good places out there.

  7. I volunteer. Only real work I can get. Maybe the volunteers are disappearing because people need to earn wages. To survive.

  8. I was a volunteer patient for medical students for 7 years. I had to stop due to family circumstances. Want to get back to volunteering in some form locally in the future.

  9. too many NFP’s now paying high wages to CEO’s etc, that people get fed up with raising funds for them just so paid staff can rort the system & claim as expenses. I wont work beside them, taking the same risks & responsibilities for nothing. I would rather play golf, Bowls or pitch a tent beside a trout filled river.

  10. To much red tape, forms to fill out, rules to follow. To hard, don’t need to be scrutinized to do volunteering…

    4 REPLY
    • Sad thing is, I used to go to the local hospitals and read or do puzzles and color in with the kids while their parents had a break. No more, might be a pedophile or some thing. Breaks my heart that I cant do that anymore.

    • It is federal legislation that anyone who works/volunteers around children undertake a working with children check. It is the organisation who has the responsibility to make sure this happens. It is usually free for the volunteer and very painless. Shouldnt really be an issue.

    • The police checks are a necessary evil. But it is simply a matter of filling out a form.
      Would you like to have your grand children cared for by a pedophile or would you prefer to know they are in a safe environment.

    • I don’t even live in Australia but find that hard to take. I would love to do volunteer work when I retire. In fact I could do some now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *