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Volunteers Worth More to Australia Than Mining

28 August 2012 at 4:19 pm
Staff Reporter
A University of Adelaide study has found that volunteering in Australia is now worth more than the mining industry, declaring the true extent of its monetary value to be more than $200 billion a year.

Staff Reporter | 28 August 2012 at 4:19 pm


Volunteers Worth More to Australia Than Mining
28 August 2012 at 4:19 pm


A University of Adelaide study has found that volunteering in Australia is now worth more than the mining industry, declaring the true extent of its monetary value to be more than $200 billion a year.

Its economic contribution to Australian society outstrips revenue sources from mining, agriculture and the retail sector, according to Dr Lisel O'Dwyer, a Senior Research Associate in the University's School of Social Sciences.

“More than 6.4 million people volunteer their time in Australia, which is double the number in 1995. And with the looming retirement of the first wave of baby boomers, these figures are likely to increase at an even more rapid rate,” Dr O'Dwyer says.

“There are many ways to measure the value of volunteering and the benefits flow both ways.

"Volunteers get a lot of satisfaction from helping others, enhancing the quality of their life and their health. The benefits to the recipients are obvious and there are also positive spin-offs for governments and workplaces."

“The value of volunteering is difficult to measure. Volunteers gain a broad range of new skills that are transferable to their workplace, for example. They are healthier, fitter, more mentally alert and more socially connected than people who do not volunteer. These benefits may even act as a pathway to employment,” Dr O'Dwyer says.

She says current estimates relating to the economic value of volunteering are likely to be "gross under-representations" but warns that focusing on the monetary value may even be damaging if it reinforces the notion that volunteering is all about saving money.

“The research conservatively calculated the hourly rate for volunteers at around $7 per hour or 25 per cent of the equivalent paid job”.

“To use the full dollar value would be just mind-boggling,” Dr O’Dwyer told Pro Bono Australia News.

While the economic value of volunteering to Australia is huge, Dr O'Dwyer says the true value of volunteering goes far beyond a dollar figure.

“One hour of a volunteer’s time needs to be valued not just once but up to 9 times – and at different rates – from the society, the employer, the organisation, the government program and the volunteer themsleves.

Dr O’Dwyer said a previous study in 2003 by Dr Peter Mayer from the University of Adelaide revealed one of the less tangible, potential effects of volunteering is a reduced crime rate.

Dr Mayer's study suggested that even a one per cent increase in social capital (including volunteering) was likely to lead to falls in homicides, sexual assaults, burglaries and vehicle thefts.

“If a volunteer fire fighter saves the life of a child, what is that worth? If environmental degradation is slowed because of millions of trees planted by volunteer conservationists, what is that worth? And if an elderly person receives a hot meal five days a week, what is that worth?

According to Volunteering Australia, people aged between 40-54 comprise the highest bracket of volunteers, with slightly more women (40 per cent) than men (37 per cent) giving their time to voluntary work.

Employed people are more likely to volunteer, as are couples with dependent children aged five to 17 years.

The 2005 Giving Australia: Research on Philanthropy in Australia report revealed the number of hours donated by volunteers had risen 16 per cent since 2000, with 41 per cent of adult Australians volunteering 836 million hours with an average of 132 hours per year per volunteer.

Dr O'Dwyer's research findings form a chapter in a forthcoming book, Positive Ageing: Think Volunteering, which will be published by Volunteering SA & NT later this year.

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  • Andy Fryar says:

    I find it interesting that Dr O’Dwyer only uses a rate of $7 per hour to measure volunteer effort (or 25% of the full rate)

    The first issue I have is that this undervalues the efforts of volunteers! Surely the output of a volunteer receptionist doing the same role as a paid receptionist is equally as valuable – so why not measure the two at the same rate?

    The other issue I have with this is it assumes that all volunteer activity is equal – and it is not!

    To put the same value on an hour of volunteer work by a volunteer gardener as a volunteer doctor working with ‘doctors without borders’ makes no sense to me.

    My two cents worth

  • I agree with the above comments and find it hard to believe that a country with a national minimum wage of nearly $16.00 AUD only values the volunteer hour at $7/hr. Much like the USA, volunteering would differ across Oz, comparing Perth to Sydney for example. Further, the donated hour of a specialized volunteer (accountant or lawyer) would be valued at market earnings instead of the average for the province. We have a fairly good system in the US for estimating the dollar value of the volunteer hour, which varies by state and is based on local costs-of-living and federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (similar to Australia’s Bureau of Statistics).

    Volunteers may donate time and labor, but make no mistake, they are definitely a part of the country’s workforce. I’d venture that the economic impact of volunteerism in Oz is even higher than $200 billion/year.

  • Anonymous says:

    Without detracting from the importance of volunteering, I think this title is designed to grab headlines
    . The correct way to value the contribution is to take benefits minus costs, rather than benefits alone. I think the writer has conveniently chosen to ignore opportunity costs here .

    The net value could in fact be negative if you consider opportunity costs . For instance, i work at a consulting firm and we basically had to give up a day to “cleanup Australia”. In effect this involved us picking up rubbish – an activity that would not be valued at more than $10 per hour, even though our charge rates were $400 to $1000 per hour when we worked for clients.

    My question is whether we added $10 per hour or destroyed $390 value for every hour in which we did a task well below our true capabilities. Even the tax revenue from $400 per hour is about $120….so what this really becomes is not the creation of value for society but merely a transfer of wealth from the more privileged to the less privileged, in a way that is not efficient. Wouldn’t it have been better just to work, earn money and donate?

    In contrast, the mining industry actually creates a commodity that is a building block for real economic growth multiplied many times through the economy, not an inefficient transfer of wealth that is perhaps designed as much to enrich the giver (emotionally) as it is to enrich the recipient (economically).

    Not trying to diminish the importance of charity but simply to look at the underlying logic underpinning it

  • Shindig says:

    This is the debate of the decade: how do we measure the economic contribution of volunteers, for what purpose and for whose benefit? Social Return on Investment (SROI)? Outputs/Outcomes? Results focus? Or Impact/Social Change? Or what about Social Capital enhancement, strengthening Civil Society?

    O’Dwyer says ‘current estimates relating to the economic value of volunteering are likely to be “gross under-representations” but warns that focusing on the monetary value may even be damaging if it reinforces the notion that volunteering is all about saving money.’

    When the work of volunteers is monetised we ignore, patronise and downgrade the spirit of generosity, the goodwill and commitment to social development, and a whole heap of human aspirations and social relations. Not to mention the fundamentals of community association and participation.

    Please can we be more inclusive, get past the industrial comparisons, and start thinking about the contribution of volunteers to a measure of quality of life.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think Duncan Ironmonger did a great job in calculating the value of volunteer work where he included opportunity cost on the plus side. I am also unsure how the level of $7.00 was arrived at or justified in the O”Dwyer study. As an aside I am quite willing to have my mind boggled if the value of volunteering turns out to be double or triple the level suggested in the study.

    The above comment though raises some interesting issues beyond the value of volunteer work. For example is it a good use of a skilled volunteer’s time to be employed in work that does not best utilise their skills?

    Secondly is a cleanup ever a good use of people’s time especially if it is not voluntary given? Volunteer roles should have some intrinsic value and one section of of the community cleaning up after the other seems more to devalue volunteering. Perhaps education programs on littering and a school/family volunteer program where a few life lessons can be dealt with might be more effective. If that fails how about paying to have rubbish collected?

    Thirdly don’t let’s ignore the financial value to corporates who engage in volunteering; the benefits of CSR are manifest and cannot be undestimated – unless of course you make your employees volunteer! Then it just becomes confusing.

    A win-win would be for corporate volunteers to use their skills directly for the benefit of a not for profit.

    As a final comment – volunteering isn’t charity

  • Anonymous says:

    Responding to Anonymous of 3 Sept, thanks for sharing these thoughts and insights.

    In response to your question asking if it’s a good use of a skilled volunteer’s time to be employed in work that does not best utilise their skills, volunteers contribute many parts of themselves, and not just their intellect. Here are the words I use when running an Introduction to Volunteering session for prospective volunteers:
    “You have a wonderful gift to share with others: YOURSELF
    Your time
    Your skills
    Your knowledge
    Your experience
    Your wisdom
    Your clever hands
    Your agile brain
    Your fertile imagination
    Your loving heart
    Thanks for your generosity”

    I myself enjoy my “unskilled” volunteering probably as much if not more than i do my “skilled” volunteering.

    As for clean-ups, I agree in general that we should clean up our own rubbish. Big clean-ups, however, often need the impetus of a group to make the desired big impact in a short time. Our Scout Group participates in the annual Clean Up Australia Day and it’s other people’s rubbish that we clean up, not ours. I’ve loved the look of triumph on a Joey Scout staggering under the weight of a pink toilet bowl they’ve found in the bush, the energy of Cub Scouts demolishing a secluded drug-users’ cubby and the delight of Scouts having an excuse to get wet and dirty while hauling five shopping trolleys out of the nearby creek (using the appropriate knots on the ropes, of course.) I think that participating in these clean-up days is an excellent use of our time for many reasons, including cherishing our bushland surrounds and practising life, safety, bush and citizenship skills. Go volunteers!

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