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Now is the time to invest in the strategic adaptation of volunteering

2 December 2020 at 6:41 pm
Danielle Kutchel
Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce considers the structural issues facing volunteering in light of the challenges we’ve seen this year and longer-term trends, in this article adapted from a presentation given in a recent Pro Bono Australia webinar.

Danielle Kutchel | 2 December 2020 at 6:41 pm


Now is the time to invest in the strategic adaptation of volunteering
2 December 2020 at 6:41 pm

Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce considers the structural issues facing volunteering in light of the challenges we’ve seen this year and longer-term trends, in this article adapted from a presentation given in a recent Pro Bono Australia webinar.

Having recently celebrated NAIDOC Week, it’s worth noting that as I understand it there’s no word for volunteering in any of the surviving languages of Australian First Nations People. For me that’s important. In chatting with First Nations leaders, it’s evident that the concept of volunteering isn’t seen as something aside from, but rather an intrinsic part of, community life. It’s what makes communities whole, solves problems, builds and strengthens bonds and charts a course of resilience into the future. It’s worked for over 60,000 years on this continent and it continues to work today.

Volunteering is a powerful expression of who we are and how we want our communities and our society to look tomorrow and for the tomorrow’s to come. It’s about participation, community engagement, an identification of the needs of others and addressing those needs with skills, motivation, innovation and adaptability. It can be transactional, but more often its relational and built on higher ideals of a concept of self and connection to place.

I can confidently say that volunteering is vital to the nation and in a contemporary frame, its recovery. I am an unabashed believer in the transformative power of volunteering to positively change society at an aggregate level and improve the lives of people directly and indirectly at a component level. However, despite these lofty ideals and earnest beliefs, volunteering is facing many challenges.

Let me articulate some of these:

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on volunteering. Overall, two out of three volunteers stopped volunteering during COVID-19 – an estimated 12.2 million hours per week of lost contribution in community. Volunteers are returning but the sector has not “snapped back”. The capacity to recruit new volunteers, adapt volunteer programs and absorb higher operating costs (due to COVID-19 safe workplace requirements) is limiting recovery however this isn’t consistent. 

Whilst some volunteer involving organisations (VIOs) are struggling to recruit and maintain a ready volunteer workforce to help achieve their mission, others are struggling under the weight of willing volunteers eager to offer their time. This structural supply demand imbalance is a challenge and requires considerable scholarship and strategic thinking to develop solutions. Partnerships and collaboration will be key to achieving this and part of my goal at VA is to lead the way to developing engaged and productive partnerships to strengthen the volunteering ecosystem.

It’s important to note of course that volunteering was facing structural challenges prior to COVID-19, and volunteering participation has been declining over time. The volunteering rate declined from 36 per cent in 2010 to 29 per cent in 2019, with the decline most evident for women. Volunteers contributed nearly 600 million hours to the community in 2019, and whilst an impressive number in isolation, it represents a 20 per cent decrease since 2014. The trend in volunteer participation is not our friend.

And yet, this is despite a raft of research which states that volunteering is good for individuals and good for the community. Research evidence consistently demonstrates that volunteering supports mental health and wellbeing. Volunteering builds social cohesion and community resilience, both of which will be much needed in the coming years. 

Volunteering is essential to the social and economic recovery of the nation. Volunteers play vital roles in disability, health, welfare and aged care services, sports and the arts, environmental protection, and disaster resilience, response, and recovery. Prior to COVID-19, the economic value of the work of Australia’s approximately 6 million volunteers was estimated to be $46 billion per year. This number appeared alongside the Australian System of National Accounts published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. 

In publishing these data the ABS stated:

“The value of unpaid work falls outside of the current conventional measures of production, as captured by the Australian System of National Accounts (ASNA). However, measuring the value of unpaid work is a worthwhile pursuit, for when the results are combined with traditional measure of production, a more complete picture of the nation’s economic activities is attained.”

In referring to the $46 billion economic contribution of volunteering, and considering the ABS’s statement it’s worth noting that this was last published in 2014. And whilst Volunteering Australia and state and territory peaks have published various State of Volunteering reports in the interim, 2014 was the last official data on volunteering’s economic value. 

Despite volunteering’s critical role in assisting on the front lines of COVID-19 community support, volunteering wasn’t included in the ABS COVID Household Impact surveys.

The fact that there’s limited official data on volunteering is instructive as it speaks to a lack of consideration of volunteering’s importance in the labour-force planning process let alone in strategic planning for the nation’s future.

As such, a whole-of-government national strategy and action plan is needed.

Such a strategy and action plan must include volunteers, VIOs, volunteer support services, peak bodies, partner organisations and governments. Governments have a distinct and vital role to play in providing strategic leadership and investment, but they’re not alone in that responsibility. Corporate and philanthropic Australia must also be party to such a strategy and involved in its resourcing and articulation.

When we look at the recommendations from the recent royal commissions into the bushfires and the aged care sector, there are some commonalities.

Recommendations with specific reference to volunteering, state the need for greater coordination of response and recovery, better labour-force planning, a clearer definition of the roles and responsibilities of volunteers and their relationship to the paid workforce, and the need for additional training and resourcing of volunteers and volunteer managers.

Volunteering, as I mentioned earlier, is highly proactive, innovative and adaptive but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invest in supporting that innovation and adaptation within the sector. A whole-of-government national strategy for volunteering is needed, and this should include recognition of the role of volunteers in our communities and in delivering a breadth of government objectives. This requires a committed strategic approach to volunteering across all relevant issues, from aged and disability care to community resilience and recovery during emergencies and beyond. 

In considering our advocacy program at Volunteering Australia and developing an engagement plan I looked through the list of government portfolios and put a tick next to each and every one. The only one I wasn’t entirely sure of is defence.

I would at this point like to highlight a significant distinction. 

Whilst there is investment in not-for-profit organisations, charities, clubs, associations and other organisations which rely upon volunteers to better facilitate mission delivery, dedicated and strategic investment is needed in volunteering itself. 

It is often argued that funding allocated to organisations which rely upon volunteers is by extension investment in, or funding for volunteering, however this is only partly true. 

There is a need for investment directly into this most intimate, relatable, and effective part of Australia’s national infrastructure. 

Reimagining volunteering, creating incentives and new ways of giving of one’s time using technology, evolving structures and facilitating a new generation’s expectations of how they can contribute, solving that supply demand imbalance I referred to earlier – all of these things and more require investment in the national economic and social infrastructure which is volunteering.

Volunteers and VIOs have already shown great resilience and adaptability during recent crises. And a new generation of community volunteers has emerged to support those in need during COVID-19. Now is the time to build on this, invest in the strategic adaptation of volunteering and ensure volunteering is effective, inclusive, and sustainable into the future.


Want to know more about the future of volunteering? Listen to the panel discussion with Mark Pearce and social sector leaders Brianna Casey and Sharon Walsh as they chat about what’s next for volunteering, and how your organisation can move volunteering forward in a “COVID-normal” world. Get the post webinar pack here.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.

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