It’s time to recognise, reconnect and reimagine volunteering
18 May 2021 at 8:38 am
National Volunteer Week 2021 challenges us to think imaginatively about a tomorrow in which volunteering can thrive, as we celebrate the contributions of the volunteers of today, writes Mark Pearce, CEO of Volunteering Australia.
During National Volunteer Week 2021, we’re asking all Australians to recognise, reconnect and reimagine volunteering.
Volunteering takes place all around us. But perhaps because of its ubiquity, we don’t always see it or think of what goes into making it happen. National Volunteer Week is Australia’s opportunity to recognise the volunteers who improve our lives and make our communities stronger.
Almost without exception, when I speak with volunteers, I’m uplifted by their passion and sense of commitment to their community. They speak to me about how grateful they are to participate in their communities, and about how playing a “small” part in making people’s lives a little better is the inspiration for their volunteering.
Volunteering is made up of resilient people – people who not only acknowledge problems in society but put up their hands to be part of the solution. But even some of this resilient bunch has struggled to continue to offer their time and commitment during the variety of ongoing COVID-19 challenges.
Recent data shows that whilst people are returning to volunteering, it’s not in the numbers we had hoped for. There are many reasons, ranging from the slower than expected rates of vaccination to volunteers no longer having time available after being sidelined for an extended period because of COVID restrictions. All of the reasons offered are valid, but the need for volunteering remains strong.
In fact, a recent survey found that 43 per cent of volunteer involving organisations are experiencing an increase in demand for their services.
COVID has forced everyone to think and act differently. And whilst volunteering is intrinsically innovative, we need to think more creatively about how to facilitate, promote, support and resource community participation into the future. We need to understand our changed environment and reimagine how we can move forward for the good of volunteers and the communities they sustain.
Many organisations are already engaging volunteers differently and re-thinking volunteer programs based on new client needs. If volunteering is to recover further, it will need to continue to change. COVID-19 can be the catalyst to reshaping volunteering so that it is fit for the future.
The greater use of technology presents an exciting vehicle for volunteers to engage with community in ways not previously possible. Despite its reputation for sometimes isolating us from each other, technology – especially community-centric platforms – is bringing communities closer together and facilitating micro-volunteering, and other forms of informal volunteering, to flourish.
One of the challenges Volunteering Australia, as the national peak body, together with our state and territory partners, face is how to encourage young people to engage in volunteering. Technology offers a tantalising avenue, but we also need to provide more tangible and recognisable benefits to the next generation of would-be or could-be volunteers.
We know volunteering is a great way to develop networks, skills and confidence – three attributes most employers are looking for in potential recruits. Participating in community, and benefiting from the important mental health benefits that come from volunteering, is a way younger people can build some of the competencies they will need for their future.
Volunteering needs to continue to evolve and that will require developing new ways of working and further adapting volunteer programs. We’re already seeing some programs developing blended forms of volunteering. This involves incorporating in-person and on-line participation and enabling volunteers to have greater flexibility in their volunteering time commitment. We need to focus on the needs of the volunteer as well as the community.
With an acknowledgement that volunteering takes place within community comes an appreciation of the opportunities that can come from place-based volunteering. We’ve only scratched the surface of engaging more local councils to co-design volunteering programs within the communities they serve.
Finally, we need to re-think volunteering strategically and the role volunteers play in key workforces such as in the aged care and disability care sectors. Volunteers contribute to these sectors, and so many others, in deeply personal and meaningful ways. But their contributions haven’t always been considered in a planned and structured fashion. A national volunteering strategy, led by the sector and developed with government, would more effectively align the contributions of volunteering with the development of national and regional policy.
National Volunteer Week 2021 challenges us to think imaginatively about a tomorrow in which volunteering can thrive, as we celebrate the contributions of the volunteers of today.
If you want to hear more about the future of volunteering, you can watch our 60-minute webinar. We talk to sector leaders, including Mark Pearce, about what’s next for volunteering, and how your organisation can move your volunteering forward in a “COVID-normal” world.