Volunteering and COVID-19
20 May 2020 at 6:16 pm
As we celebrate National Volunteer Week, it is hard not to focus on the current situation and the profound impact it is having on volunteering, writes Adrienne Picone, CEO of Volunteering Australia.
National Volunteer Week is all about thanking volunteers for their contribution to our community. From local sports and the arts, to community services such as homelessness, migrant, aged care and disability programs, we know volunteers play a vital role. Volunteers truly are the fabric of a healthy society.
However, as we celebrate National Volunteer Week, it is hard not to focus on the current situation and the profound impact it is having on volunteering. The COVID-19 pandemic quickly affected volunteers and volunteer programs right across the country.
“Between February and April 2020, almost two thirds of volunteers stopped volunteering.”
As restrictions were imposed, volunteers had to consider whether they could continue their roles, and volunteer-involving organisations had to make swift decisions about adapting or closing their programs. Many organisations have successfully innovated and maintained essential services. Others have had to temporarily close their doors.
New research out this week reveals the scale of the impact. Between February and April 2020, almost two thirds of volunteers stopped volunteering. It is estimated that this reduction in volunteering is equivalent to 12.2 million hours per week.
This research is the first analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on volunteers and volunteering across Australia. The paper, commissioned by Volunteering Australia, from the Australian National University (ANU) Centre for Social Research and Methods, undertook analysis of the experience of volunteers during COVID-19 to date.
The analysis demonstrates the significance of the volunteer workforce to our nation’s economic and social well-being. So much of the work normally undertaken by volunteers has been paused. This has clear implications for the wider community in Australia, now and into the future. If these volunteers do not re-engage, services and activities that provide support to vulnerable Australians and which foster social capital will be diminished. Our society is increasingly dependent on volunteering activities and programs.
Volunteering also has important benefits to volunteers. The new research shows that those who continued to volunteer during the COVID-19 crisis had a significantly and substantially smaller decline in life satisfaction and psychological distress than those who stopped or who never volunteered in the first place. Those who continued to volunteer reported lower levels of loneliness. Maintaining volunteering activity appears to be an important protective factor in times of stress.
“As we move into the recovery phase, we need to ensure volunteering is reinvigorated and explore how volunteer opportunities might be extended to more people.”
These findings provide food for thought in the context of growing concerns around mental health as we enter what is likely to be a prolonged recession. Volunteering is often conceptualised as being about selfless behaviour in support of the common good. This remains true. Yet, the benefits to individual volunteers need also to be more widely recognised.
Volunteering is a win-win – bringing benefits to communities and the volunteers themselves. As we move into the recovery phase, we need to ensure volunteering is reinvigorated and explore how volunteer opportunities might be extended to more people.
But from where we stand today, there are grounds for concern. The volunteering sector has just taken a massive hit, and this follows decades of diminished funding and a lack of strategic engagement from the federal government. The reinvigoration of the volunteering sector will not be easy.
Yet I remain optimistic. Over the 14 years I have been working in volunteering peak bodies I have seen so many examples of the resilience of our sector, and the power of volunteering. Volunteers are the true leaders in our community, solving some of the most complex problems and, as we have seen in recent times, being at the forefront in times of crises. As we move into the recovery phase, our community will again call on the volunteer workforce to ensure we have a strong economic and social recovery.