Rural volunteers in crisis
20 March 2019 at 5:19 pm
Rural Western Australian volunteers are under immense stress, and receive little government support despite being the “lifeblood” of most communities, new research has found.
The report, published by Curtin Economics Centre, is the first piece of research to provide in-depth data and analysis on rural volunteers, and how much communities rely on a core group of people who volunteer their time across many different organisations.
The report found that while volunteers were delivering more community services than ever, and were under more pressure to deliver services, there had been a decline in volunteer participation, resulting in a workforce shortage.
As a result, many adverse effects were identified.
“Volunteer burnout is a major risk facing rural volunteer organisations, the workload created by volunteering activities can be a major source of stress for individual volunteers, particularly those volunteers managing multiple volunteering commitments,” the report said.
According to the report, the shortage is due to a number of factors many rural communities were facing, such as volunteers leaving the community within two years, an ageing population, and a lack of young people in the town to volunteer.
Rural volunteers run many essential community services including fire services, ambulances, SES for cyclones and floods, health care and library visits and meals on wheels for older people.
Report author Kirsten Holmes told Pro Bono News many people who volunteered left their communities because the services were not good enough, but that only made the problem worse.
“If they leave, the service is going to be worse without the volunteer,” Holmes said.
“It’s a vicious circle.”
She said structural ageing was a particular problem in WA, and was made worse by the fact that many young people were forced to go to bigger towns or cities to receive an education.
“When we interviewed the volunteers they talked about how young people aren’t volunteering, but if you look at the census data there just aren’t young people in that community,” she said.
She said government policy around supporting rural communities and volunteers was “contradictory” and needed to improve so communities could survive.
“Policy is encouraging people to visit as tourists or move to rural areas, while the long-term disinvestment in service provision for rural areas continues,” she said.
Holmes also said the short-term nature of grant funding was also a major issue for organisations as they were not sustainable, and required skills that many of the volunteers did not have.
“We found in one of the communities we went to, there was one woman who had the skills needed to apply for all the grants, and so ended up doing it for everybody,” she said.
“It’s time consuming, and there is a lot of paperwork that’s required for what is a relatively small amount of money.”
She suggested organisations could better manage volunteers by being flexible in their rostering, and not expect volunteers to find a replacement when they moved on.
“We did find issues around proactively managing the workload of the volunteers, as many of them are volunteering for multiple organisations, succession planning, and being very flexible in the rostering,” she said.
“There’s a recognition that with emergency services, you’ve just got to do it, but with many organisations, if someone doesn’t turn up one day it shouldn’t fall apart.”
Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone told Pro Bono News there was a common misconception that volunteering was free, and labour often went unaccounted for in grants and funding, or it was left up to organisations to find funds to appropriately resource volunteers themselves.
“The government has a role to play in boosting volunteerism in Australia, particularly in areas and sectors with the highest unmet need,” Picone said.
“And this can’t happen without adequate resourcing and investment for all volunteers, including those in rural areas.”
Holmes said most of the issues outlined in the report were nationwide issues which needed government action immediately.
“Federal government and five states have ministers with specific responsibility for regional areas, and with the federal government’s new temporary visa for regional workers in progress, there is no sign of any policies designed to support rural volunteers and keep these communities viable,” she said.