Close Search
News  | 

Volunteers Report Bullying as Major Rights Violation

5 September 2013 at 11:35 am
Staff Reporter
Bullying is the dominant way in which volunteers’ rights are violated in Australia, according to new research unveiled at the National Conference on Volunteering in Adelaide.

Staff Reporter | 5 September 2013 at 11:35 am


Volunteers Report Bullying as Major Rights Violation
5 September 2013 at 11:35 am

Bullying is the dominant way in which volunteers’ rights are violated in Australia, according to new research unveiled at the National Conference on Volunteering in Adelaide.

A crowd gathers at the National Conference on Volunteering in Adelaide.

Bullying was the reason for almost 40 per cent of complaints in the preliminary findings of a study by all state volunteer peak organisations, Volunteering Australia and volunteer resource centres that invited volunteers to register their complaints.

The second most frequent sources of complaints were bad management and governance matters which made up about 15 per cent of individual complaints. Personality clashes and issues between paid and volunteer staff were moderately occurring, with each reported as the cause in almost 10 per cent of cases.

Least frequent were issues including uninteresting tasks, discrimination, insufficient work, grievance procedures, and exclusion by other staff/volunteers, with each comprising less than 5 per cent of cases.

However, the researchers remained cautious about calling for a Volunteering Ombudsman to deal with volunteer complaints.

Evelyn O’Loughlin, CEO of Volunteering SA/NT and representative of the Volunteer Rights and Advocacy Working group, welcomed the research.  

“When I first started my job five years ago one of the things that became actually apparent was that there is very limited protection for volunteers in Not for Profits when things go wrong in that moral contract,” she said.

“My own gut feeling is that maybe in the past volunteers walked if they had a problem. I don’t think the articulate well educated people that know their rights…they’re not going to walk and they say ‘I’m going to fix this, maybe not for me but for the next person to come along’.

“In time when we get a fuller picture we will come up with some policy directions which we will then use to advise the Federal Government.”

Whether volunteer rights could be protected by a Volunteer Ombudsman, advocacy or counseling remained to be seen, she said.

“So it may well be that an independent volunteer mediation authority, or Ombudsman role, is the best way forward,” O’Loughlin said.

“However that will be determined after the final research results are in when we gain a greater understanding of the nature and scope of the issues.

“The findings will form the basis of a sector policy position to be pursued with the Federal Government. Our principle object being, to identify suitable remedies so volunteering rights are safeguarded, particularly with changing demographics of an ageing population and declining retention rates in key volunteering areas.

“There is caution around harnessing the volunteer effort and making it something that its not.

“We really need to do a lot more work before we come to a conclusion.”

The preliminary findings address 113 of an expected 600 cases and follow a six-month data collection period.

Analysis of the 113 cases showed that about 11 per cent were serious enough to have legal ramifications, and a further 5 per cent were unable to be resolved.

The researchers said some 32 per cent were serious to the extent of requiring significant time and support to reach resolution.

Cases resolved with little support or minor issues requiring no support at all comprised of 26 per cent each.

The Children and Youth sector was the dominant source of the complaints, making up nearly half of all cases. Arts and heritage (21 per cent) followed by health and welfare (12 per cent) were also a more common origin.

Emergency services, sport and recreation and religious organisations had the lowest number of complaints, making up 2-3 per cent of cases each.

The most common means to attempt resolution of complaints was referral to the host organisation’s complaints procedure, which occurred in 49 per cent of cases.

Arbitration and mediation was the second most common method, at 19 per cent, however it was also the least successful in resolving the problems.

The organisation’s complaints procedure and provision of support were the most commonly successful in actually resolving issues.

“When things got sorted out, they got sorted out really well,” O’Loughlin said.

There were also 27 complaints against volunteers submitted by organisations, spurred most frequently by poor volunteer behaviour.

“The complaints that get to us are usually awful. It’s not a perfect world, and it’s not all about the organisations being terrible and the volunteers being perfect. People are people and things happen regardless of whatever shirt you wear,” O’Loughlin said.

Mara Basanovic, CEO of Volunteering WA, presented an update on volunteer workplace bullying research in her state at the launch.

“We’re not in a position yet to provide an extensive outline,” she said.

“The incidents of bullying were not high according to this research however the magnitude and ongoing consequences were often quite significant to people involved at all levels.”

Basanovic recounted one case where a young volunteer having a cup of tea with a female colleague asked her about her marital status.

“The woman claimed her privacy and human rights were being impinged and how dare this young person question her about that,” Basanovic said.

“All of those things are about very common human factors. It also has to do with good policies, good procedures and good inductions.”

There had also been two cases of high profile, highly respected organisations in Western Australia trying to push out volunteers in favour of paid staff to receive more recognition as professionals and attract greater funding, she said.

Lynne Dalton, CEO of The Centre for Volunteering in New South Wales, spoke of rights enforcement issues arising in her state.

“I take calls weekly or even every second day for volunteer issues. We don’t want any more red tape, especially not for volunteers. We developed a set of principles in NSW that have now been adopted by the government,” Dalton said.

“My most recent case study was a volunteer who after 18 years was summarily dismissed because he dared ask the question of when new volunteers were going to get trained. And who sacked him? The New South Wales Government.

“We not only have to do the talk we have to walk the talk. These principles are not a piece of paper, they’re not a book on the shelf. Too often it sits on the shelf and its not applied.

“It’s applied if you’re a paid worker because it’s sitting over their head. They are not lesser people. They are doctors, nurses, truck drivers, tea ladies, you name it. Why would you treat them differently?”

The second stage of the project will go beyond volunteer resource centres and will go out to volunteers and volunteer involving organisations.

The development of the study in Australia followed a Volunteer Rights Inquiry conducted in the UK, which found a pattern of breaches of trust between volunteers and volunteer involving organisations.

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

PB Careers
Get your biweekly dose of news, opinion and analysis to keep you up to date with what’s happening and why it matters for you, sent every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

Got a story to share?

Got a news tip or article idea for Pro Bono News? Or perhaps you would like to write an article and join a growing community of sector leaders sharing their thoughts and analysis with Pro Bono News readers? Get in touch at or download our contributor guidelines.


Panel Discussion Webinar


  • QueenHeart says:

    I worked as a volunteer for an organisation that dealt with victims of sexual abuse. It was terrible. I was guilted constantly about how bad the director had it and pressure she was under etc. I ended up doing many straight weeks on end when I really only wanted to do 2 days. I was even guilted into doing weekend work. It got to a point where I had to pick up and leave. I always felt so bad for how the clients were treated. It was quit ugly to watch as the help was lacking so much. I ended up not believing in the charity. The volunteers were treated so disgustingly and were always verbally made to feel lacking. I ended up very ill from the negativity and watching these poor victims get counselled by an unqualified and inappropriate person. It’s really sad to see and I have now turned my back on charities and a lot of government bodies also from this experience. I have stopped my studies and will help people in my own way if our paths cross. I would never direct them to a lot of these places, ever. The best source of counselling I ever got was from a friend or from a lifeline volunteer I once called. These charities make me feel sick and should be made to be accountable.

    • Heather says:

      I have volunteered for the best part of 50 years. Bullies are in every volunteer team. Why? Because they can get away with it. They target well-meaning, polite people and have their fun. I have started saying ” are you another volunteer bully?” if I see the behaviour start. Expose them. Stand up to them. Avoid them. Volunteers have that right. They will turn good people away if they are allowed to continue.

  • Robert (Bob) Roberson says:

    I have just read the Volunteer Bullying articles because as a Volunteer I have unfortunately seen many cases of volunteers being bullied by people in an organisation with titles like Governors, President, and even members who because of their length of service, believe they have the right to bully others. There needs to be an easy avenue for Volunteers to address these problem. In some organisation there is a Code of Conduct but it appeaes the above mentions office holders suddendly forget these Codes because of held positions to the detriment of other Volunteers. Thus the victim leaves to organisation

Your email address will not be published.


Seven things the for-purpose sector can learn from the Census

Danielle Kutchel

Wednesday, 29th June 2022 at 6:28 pm

Victorian social strategy wins global award

Danielle Kutchel

Wednesday, 29th June 2022 at 4:43 pm

‘Dysfunctional’ jobactive system slammed by users

Danielle Kutchel

Wednesday, 29th June 2022 at 4:24 pm

pba inverse logo
Subscribe Twitter Facebook

News for those with purpose.

Delivered free to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Thank you - you have successfully subscribed.

Get the social sector's most essential news coverage. Delivered free to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

You have Successfully Subscribed!