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25 Years On... Volunteering in 2014

13 May 2014 at 10:46 am
Staff Reporter
As National Volunteer Week enters its 25th year, Brett Williamson OAM, CEO Volunteering Australia, looks at how volunteering has evolved in Australia.

Staff Reporter | 13 May 2014 at 10:46 am


25 Years On... Volunteering in 2014
13 May 2014 at 10:46 am

As National Volunteer Week enters its 25th year, Brett Williamson OAM, CEO Volunteering Australia, looks at how volunteering has evolved in Australia.

This week is the 25th anniversary of National Volunteer Week, a time each year when all Australians collectively take the time to celebrate and thank their volunteers. This acknowledgement is critical when you consider that there are around 600,000 not for profits in Australia – and only 10 per cent of them have paid staff.

The rest of what they do is supported by more than six million volunteers. Probably more – but that’s what we know from data collected on formally recorded volunteering.

And of course, volunteering existed well before a special week was devoted to highlighting its value to our community. It is changing and evolving as rapidly as our community needs and preoccupations are.

At this 25-year milestone, as we celebrate the power of volunteering, we are undertaking a review of the definition of volunteering. It is time to challenge the long held assumptions of what constitutes volunteering in Australia in 2014 and examine how we have changed.

The definition of volunteering was identified via a set of principles adopted in 1996 by Volunteering Australia. These principles still underpin volunteering policy for not for profits, government and business.

But back when they were developed, ‘corporate volunteering’ – that is, employers encouraging or arranging volunteering for employees through employee volunteering programs, was an emerging concept. ‘Micro’, ‘bite sized’ and episodic volunteering were not as prevalent as they now are.

Twenty-five years ago, when National Volunteer Week was new, our focus was on celebrating volunteers who maintained a long term, regular commitment to a traditional organisation – such as a charity.

Those volunteers are still essential, but the following facts about volunteering today highlight why we need to revisit the definition:

  • Young people’s rates of volunteering is increasing – it was 16 per cent in 1995 and 27 per cent in 2010;
  • The number of volunteers has doubled between 1995 (3.2 million) to 2010 (6.1 million);
  • The average number of hours contributed by each volunteer per year has decreased from 74 hours in 1995 to 56 hours in 2010.

What we also know about volunteers today challenge some ideas about who volunteers. We know that:

  • Half of all volunteers are in paid employment;
  • 44 per cent of volunteers take on short term volunteering only;
  • Volunteering is more common outside capital cities (32 per cent on average in capitals, 38 per cent outside them).

This year’s National campaign aimed to showcase the diversity of volunteering across the nation. Of course they include people who volunteer in op shops and social and community support services and emergency services.

But they also include those involved in education, teaching and mentoring, working with animals, conservation, culture, sport and recreation.

More difficult to depict are the pro bono lawyers, doctors, vets, IT specialists and tradespeople, to name a few, who offer their skills to assist and support organisations that would otherwise be unable to afford them.

Any contemporary definition of volunteering must embrace the work done by all volunteers in the service of our communities.

The definition of volunteering is critical reference for the volunteering sector, but also because it has a bearing on decision making by government in policy and funding matters – two areas where the volunteer contribution can be taken for granted or under-valued.

Twenty five years ago, all Australians took it for granted that women would retire (if they were still working at that age) at age 60 and men at 65 years. Most aged or supported care facilities were government or Not for Profit run organisations and child care services were commonly provided by local government or other not for profits. Environmental sustainability was a niche interest area; petrol was less than a dollar a litre.

Times have changed. Volunteering has changed and continues to change.  So while we celebrate the power of volunteers in Australia this 25th anniversary of National Volunteer Week, and pause to imagine just how we would be as a community without them, we also need to rethink how we define what it means to volunteer.

*The project to review the definition of volunteering is being led by Volunteering Tasmania with the support of Volunteering Australia and all State and Territory peak volunteering bodies. A process of consultation and engagement with volunteers, volunteer involving organisations, government and the corporate sector will be a part of the process, which is expected to conclude in December 2014.

For more about National Volunteer Week, click here.

About the Author: Brett Williamson has been the CEO of Volunteering Australia since October last year. For the previous six years, he  was the CEO of Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA). He holds qualifications in human movement studies (BHMS Ed), a Bachelor of Education and a Corporate Directors Diploma.


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