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Look how far we’ve come: Volunteering

11 June 2020 at 8:00 am
Luke Michael
“I think that as a sector, we are valuing volunteer contributions more and more… we're expanding our view and recognising the many diverse ways that people contribute.”          

Luke Michael | 11 June 2020 at 8:00 am


Look how far we’ve come: Volunteering
11 June 2020 at 8:00 am

“I think that as a sector, we are valuing volunteer contributions more and more… we’re expanding our view and recognising the many diverse ways that people contribute.”          

The first two decades of the millennium have been bookended by two great surges of community-based volunteering, one in celebration, one in catastrophe.    

These events the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the bushfires that devastated Australia earlier this year – helped redefine the volunteering sector. Not only did this result in tens of thousands of Australians giving up their time to help out, it also broadened the scope of what constitutes volunteering in people’s minds.

Between these moments, the nation’s volunteering culture – once viewed narrowly in terms of time donated to not-for-profit organisations – has evolved rapidly, with Australians choosing to donate their time in less formal ways that take place outside an organisational setting.   

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came along, shifting the volunteering landscape in a way no one thought possible. Social distancing has left an enormous workforce gap in many volunteer-reliant charities, as Australians have been forced to take their volunteering efforts online.   

As Pro Bono Australia celebrates its 20th birthday, we reflect on some of the key moments that have shaped volunteering since 2000, and where we are headed next. 

That was then   

By the start of the new millennium, it was clear volunteering in Australia was on the rise. Five years earlier, in 1995, around a quarter of adults donated their time. By 2000 this had risen to 32 per cent of the population – or 4,395,600 Australians – with the value of that volunteer labour estimated in 1999-2000 at $8.9 billion. 

Volunteering had been a huge part of Australian society since the 19th century, when the colonial government relied heavily on faith-based organisations and other charities to provide for the disadvantaged. Over the years, volunteers had become the backbone of civil society, helping to meet needs in the community, while also developing social networks and cohesion throughout Australia.

By 2000, volunteering was a more formal affair – taking place mainly inside organisations. Corporate volunteering programs were in their infancy, with few companies offering any form of employee volunteering.

And this was before volunteering shifted online in the digital age. Twenty years ago, the idea of being able to sit at a computer in your own home and choose from among thousands of volunteering options would have seemed preposterous.

This is now

Today, volunteering has an estimated annual economic and social value of $290 billion in Australia. And research shows that volunteering efforts yield a 450 per cent return for every dollar invested.

The most recent volunteering data we have from this year’s release of the Australian Charities Report 2018 showed volunteer numbers across charities had increased to 3.7 million people (compared with 3.3 million the previous year). 

The Giving Australia 2016 report also found that in 2016, 43.7 per cent of adult Australians had volunteered a total of 932 million hours in the previous 12 months.   

The way Australians are volunteering has also shifted. 

Back in the early 2000s, employee volunteering programs ­– where employers give paid staff time and/or payments to volunteer for agreed charities – were relatively scarce. In 2006, only 3.7 per cent of employees took part in any kind of corporate volunteering, according to a report by London Benchmarking Group (LBG).  

By 2018, this had grown to 15 per cent, with LBG finding that nearly eight in 10 companies reported having an employee volunteering program in place.

The internet has also played an important role in attracting new volunteers and expanding the ways in which they can offer their time. 

In 2016, nearly 30 per cent of volunteers under 24 years old used an online source such as GoVolunteer or Seek Volunteer to look for volunteering opportunities – although word of mouth remains the most common way to attract volunteers.

The internet has also created a whole new category of volunteer work. The Giving Australia report shows that 44 per cent of volunteers have also engaged in virtual volunteering – which is to say, provided online volunteer services such as managing social media accounts or using Skype to mentor vulnerable people.


One of the most important changes for the sector has been updating the formal definition of volunteering to recognise the profound social, technological and organisational shifts of recent decades. 

Advocates started campaigning for a new and broader way of thinking about, and describing, volunteering in late 2013, arguing that the existing 1996 definition was far too restrictive. That definition only recognised formal volunteering undertaken for not-for-profit organisations. It excluded online volunteers, those donating their time to  private groups, and informal volunteering in the community. In other words, if you weren’t providing services as a designated volunteer in a defined position or project, your activities weren’t counted.

The new definition adopted by Volunteering Australia in 2015, states simply that: “Volunteering is time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain”.

See also our timeline showing the key events of the volunteering sector from 2000 to now

Advocates believe this definition recognises the myriad, and often informal, ways in which people volunteer, beyond simply helping out a not for profit. 

“Volunteers make a huge contribution,” said former Volunteering Australia CEO Brett Williamson in 2015, “so we need to make sure it’s measured accurately and valued”.

By creating a common understanding of what volunteering is, the new definition ultimately makes it easier to accurately measure the scope of volunteering in Australia.

This in turn helps the sector to identify and connect with many more of the nation’s volunteers.


One of the biggest challenges for the sector over the past 20 years has been attracting and maintaining the volunteer workforce and supporting volunteers so that they stay happy and engaged.

As volunteering has become more accessible and less narrowly defined over the past 20 years, the task of managing volunteers has actually become more complex. This is not just because there are more people volunteering in more ways, but also because the growth in the sector has spawned new laws and accreditation standards covering workers including volunteers. 

In 2015, Volunteering Australia revised the National Standards for Volunteer Involvement, to help organisations attract, manage and retain volunteers in a modern environment. These reforms gave volunteers more of a say in designing their roles, and acknowledged their importance to the organisation. They also set out guidelines for sector staff: people managing volunteers were now expected to provide clear guidance as to what was expected of volunteers, and also to understand and mitigate any risks related to volunteers, including through detailed screening checks of volunteers.

But sector advocates acknowledge there is further to go – particularly when it comes to legal protections from sexual harassment. Sector advocates have recently pointed out that while employees are given explicit protection from sexual harassment under equal opportunity laws in all states and territories and the Commonwealth, this is not yet the case for volunteers.

Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone says there also needs to be a recognition that volunteering doesn’t just happen. It requires a coordinated, skilled and properly resourced organisation. And this means directing money not only towards individual volunteers, but also to the organisation themselves.

Funding, meanwhile, has proved an ongoing challenge for the sector. Government Volunteer Grants – given to organisations to help with equipment, training and fundraising needs – have been slashed this decade, from $21 million in 2010 to $10 million in 2016.

And despite a plethora of employee volunteering programs, growth in corporate volunteering has been steady, rather than spectacular. An LBG report (see above) found that the proportion of an average company’s time devoted to corporate volunteering had not altered significantly in more than 10 years. 

In other words, while most companies assign at least a day a year per employee for corporate volunteering, workers are not taking up the opportunity. LBG calculated that these unused hours were the equivalent to 500 full-time jobs over a year – hours effectively lost to the sector.

What’s next   

While Australia’s volunteering culture is strong, the sector will have to adjust if it is to thrive.

A 2010 Productivity Commission report into the NFP sector says the ageing of Australia’s population is likely to have major ramifications for the sector. The commission estimates that by around 2042, seniors (aged 65-plus) will replace 35 to 44 year olds as the biggest volunteering cohort in Australia. 

This may have some advantages – older volunteers usually contribute more hours, so rates are expected to actually increase in the short to medium term. But it also signals some challenges ahead. 

Organisations will need to cater for a volunteering cohort that has spent years in a professional work environment. While young people tend to volunteer primarily to gain experience, research shows older people are more likely to seek fulfilling roles related to their skills or interests, as well as flexibility and more project-based volunteering.

The take-out is that NFPs will need to adapt to ensure older Australians are engaged.  

Luckily, the report also found the proportion of young Australians (aged 18 to 24) engaged in volunteering had doubled over 10 years – suggesting that there may be enough new young recruits to replace an aging volunteer workforce. 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a roadmap for one way forward. The UN General Assembly has formally adopted a resolution on volunteering, for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which reiterates that volunteers are critical to achieving the SDGs, and spells out the value of volunteering for individuals and communities.    

“Through volunteering, citizens build their resilience, enhance their knowledge base and gain a sense of responsibility for their own community,” the UN says

The sector too will need resilience in coming years. The COVID-19 pandemic has  gouged an enormous hole in the workforces of many volunteer-reliant charities. This creates major headaches but also offers opportunities for growth and renewal. The constraints imposed by social distancing have provided a powerful lesson in the value of virtual volunteering – which has surged during the pandemic.

This crisis will eventually end. But the changes it has wrought, including the shift to online volunteering, may well remain. Its lingering impact is likely to reshape the sector in the years to come.  

Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone looks back at the sector

In your view, what has been the biggest achievement for the sector over the past 20 years?

I think that as a sector, we are valuing volunteer contributions more and more. Possibly 20 years ago when we spoke about volunteering we just thought about very formal volunteering, that happened in the NFP sector. Whereas now I think we’re expanding our view and recognising the many diverse ways that people contribute.

What keeps you awake at night?

The impacts of climate change and what that means for volunteers and the entire world moving forward. It’s all very sobering, and I know we need to stand up and take community action.

What gives you hope?

The inherent goodness of people. We saw it during the bushfire crisis, where the power of volunteering and community action was really amplified, fueled by people’s desire to make a difference.


This article is part of a series looking at how far the social sector has come since 2000.

Read our introduction to the series: Look how far we’ve come.

See the full series here: 20 years of social change

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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