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Predictions for 2021: Volunteering

16 February 2021 at 8:00 am
Mark Pearce
While 2020 bore witness to a hastening of the effects of some key long-term structural trends in volunteering, 2021 affords us a chance to rebuild through greater collaboration, cooperation and innovation, writes Mark Pearce, in the latest in our series of social sector predictions for 2021. 

Mark Pearce | 16 February 2021 at 8:00 am


Predictions for 2021: Volunteering
16 February 2021 at 8:00 am

While 2020 bore witness to a hastening of the effects of some key long-term structural trends in volunteering, 2021 affords us a chance to rebuild through greater collaboration, cooperation and innovation, writes Mark Pearce, in the latest in our series of social sector predictions for 2021. 

“Change is the only constant.” 

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 BCE to 475 BCE) is credited with this maxim which reminds us that change is an inescapable product of the passage of time.

“Volatility creates uncertainty but also opportunity.”

This second maxim, while certainly not the originator of the phrase, I uttered frequently in my investment banking days. In the turbulent wake of the changes wrought and hastened by 2020, it continues to have a very particular salience. 

“Our most intractable problems are solved through innovation and adaptation.” 

The last of these maxims (author unknown), is by far my favourite because it articulates what is at the heart of the volunteering community. We will need to harness that spirit of problem solving as we reshape volunteering in particular and the nation more extensively.

2020 bore witness to a hastening and heightening of the effects of some key long-term structural trends in volunteering, not the least of which involves the lessening of formal volunteer engagement and participation. Organisational and sector funding pressures became more intense, albeit eased somewhat by the JobKeeper initiative which provided some temporary respite. Whilst the pressure has eased for some, these overarching themes of volunteering participation and resourcing remain significant challenges for many organisations as we embark upon 2021. 

The on-again, off-again nature of regional quarantine and state border closures which so acutely impacted volunteer involving organisations (VIOs), and volunteers by extension, will in all probability remain a disruptive spectre in the year to come. If the science of economics and the history of financial markets are any guide, the impact of that “volatility” will manifest as a decline in confidence and hence a decline in participation. 

Indeed, Volunteering Australia’s recently released Re-engaging Volunteers and COVID-19 survey illustrates that confidence has already been dealt a considerable blow with 42 per cent of respondents unsure if their organisation will achieve pre-COVID levels of volunteering activity in the next six months. Volatility leads to uncertainty and we must understand and adapt to this new dissuasive factor as we bring volunteer programs back on-line and leverage the growth in virtual, episodic, and micro-volunteering.

Whilst this may sound like a gloomy way to commence the year, there exists an opportunity, one I believe we can’t ignore. All of us involved in the Australian volunteering ecosystem need to harness these manifold challenges to rebuild through greater collaboration, cooperation and innovation. 2021 affords us a chance to acknowledge our broadly similar motivations and work more closely together to solve problems large and small, operational and structural. Despite the extraordinarily diverse nature of our volunteering eco-system and the need to rationalise fragmentation and reduce service duplication, the vast majority of VIOs operate with significant functional and aspirational consistency. Greater collaboration should be possible.

COVID-19 highlighted, in sharp relief, the need for an overdue systemic update. A National Volunteering Strategy is an obvious place to embark upon such an update, and Volunteering Australia has in successive federal budget submissions called for funding to develop a National Volunteering Strategy. The opportunity for the volunteering eco-system to come together and collaborate is fundamental to forming a successful representative strategy. Further, it would  lead to productive conversation, renewed cooperation and transformative collaboration to renew Australian volunteering.  

That conversation, cooperation and collaboration must extend beyond the volunteering eco-system and include corporate and philanthropic Australia, and of course all levels of government. Volunteering’s benefits accrue to Australia as a whole. Accordingly, responsibility for volunteering’s ongoing wellbeing is the responsibility and concern of all parts of Australian society. 

Changes on the supply side of volunteering, well underway prior to 2020 were hastened by the restrictive consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. A combination of shifting cultural, social, and economic factors, including the increasing trend of casualisation of the paid workforce, combined with advances in technology. This manifested in a generational change in volunteer expectations, whilst also creating new opportunities for volunteers to give willingly of their time. 

A spike in online platforms catering to virtual and micro volunteering opportunities marks an exciting new development in the volunteering ecosystem. Innovation, in spite of the challenges, remains alive and well. Of course, that growing desire for virtual and micro volunteering opportunities by prospective volunteers will inevitably challenge the operational models of some VIOs which rely upon attracting “regular” volunteers to deliver services. This trend is evidenced in the aforementioned Volunteering Australia survey. Nearly a third (31 per cent) of respondents reported that volunteers are “less interested in regular, formal or longer-term volunteering commitments”. Finding solutions to potential service delivery gaps may require regional cooperation and collaboration, or a redesign of existing business models.  

Whilst the volunteering eco-system will adapt to changed circumstances, so must government policy and regulation. The strains exhibited on volunteer health care, aged care, and other frontline service personnel, together with the enforced absence of many volunteers, highlighted a lack of strategic planning and understanding of the crucial role volunteering plays. There is a significant cost involved in recruiting, training and managing volunteers to serve the community, let alone the financial and often emotional costs incurred by volunteers themselves. Again, a whole of government strategic plan for this extensive and invaluable workforce is required.

2021 must be the year in which volunteering is better understood and acknowledged for its leading role in building and maintaining a stronger, more connected and resilient Australian community. 


This article is part of a series of 2021 predictions from experts across the social sector.

See also:

Predictions for 2021: Charities

Predictions for 2021: Shared value

Predictions for 2021: Co-ops and mutuals

Predictions for 2021: Impact investing

Mark Pearce  |  @ProBonoNews

Mark Pearce is the CEO of Volunteering Australia.

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