Ten things you should know about volunteering’s immeasurable value

Without the contributions of its army of volunteers – six million of them in all – Australia would be a profoundly different place. AAP/David Crosling

So, what is the most important event this coming week? No, not the federal budget. Rather, I believe it’s National Volunteer Week (11-17 May), which celebrates the contributions of one in four Australians. There are 10 core features of volunteering that should be considered to understand this integral, yet generally overlooked, part of our society.

For over 25 years, I have been writing on volunteering from both a historical and contemporary perspective. Since 2000, the volunteering field has undergone enormous shifts, not only in how volunteering is perceived and practised in Australia but also in the roles played by governments at local, state and federal levels.

This increasingly dynamic and diverse practice contributes around $14.6 billion per year to our economy and involves over six million Australians over the age of 18. Volunteering is no longer in the “shadowlands” as such, but it remains on the periphery of mainstream policy and decision-making.

I’ve created a countdown of my top ten issues concerning volunteering. I use the ABS definition of a volunteer as “someone who willingly gives unpaid help, in the form of time, service or skills, through an organisation or group”.

10 Volunteering has a history. Australia’s volunteering tradition is based on our British origins as a penal colony. This provided a unique relationship between the state, the voluntary sector and volunteering. Volunteering has also been influenced over time by our first peoples, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and their complex concepts of kinship, reciprocity and family obligations. Throw more recent waves of migration into the mix and we have a distinctive “Australian way of volunteering”.

9 Is there a ‘volunteer gene’? Why do some people volunteer and others do not? Why do some feel the need to donate their time – are they wired for it or is it learnt behaviour? Is there a genetic base for altruism and other pro-social behaviours like empathy and cooperativeness? The concept of a “volunteer gene” focuses our attention on the role, impact and influence of families and friendship groups in growing volunteering – learning by example.

8 Volunteering is cyclical. There is a life cycle of volunteering. Those in the 35-44 age group with dependent children undertake the most volunteer hours and volunteering is most common among parents in couple relationships with dependent children aged 5-17 years. With the ageing population, older volunteers will become increasingly important and valuable – not a burden, rather an asset.

7 Volunteering is evolving. As volunteering evolves, there are now two types of volunteer: the “professional” volunteer and the “traditional” volunteer. The traditional volunteer is often to be found in member-based organisations. Professional volunteers are, on the other hand, highly trained and indistinguishable from paid employees.

Joe Hockey’s budget won’t include volunteers’ contributions, but no government could afford to run the country without them. AAP/Alan Porritt

6 Government interest in volunteering is new. In the last 15 years, there have been significant changes in government involvement. Propelled by the Sydney Olympics (2000), where 45,000 volunteered, and the 2001 UN International Year of the Volunteer, there has been an increase in the range of government policies and practices concerning volunteers and volunteering in Australia.

The sector within which volunteering sits – the not-for-profit, voluntary or third sector – is increasingly subject to a raft of government regulation such as governance, risk management and workplace controls. It remains a contested and fluid space for volunteers and their organisations.

5 Volunteers are the bedrock of the not-for-profit sector. The not-for-profit sector relies on its volunteer workforce. In ABS statistics released in June 2014, not-for-profits contributed almost $55 billion to the Australian economy and employed more than a million people in 2012-13.

4 By any other name, would volunteering be so sweet? One of the problems with volunteering today is the language we use to describe the activity. Volunteering is culturally constructed and culturally specific.

Some of the words used to describe volunteering include “honorary” and “amateur”. Lawyers like to do pro bono work and political activists and environmentalists prefer to see themselves not as volunteers at all but rather as lobbyists, agitators or advocates. And where does informal volunteering sit?

3 Volunteers should have same rights as paid workers. Issues are arising concerning the role and responsibility of volunteers, and the adequate protection of volunteers in the workplace. Volunteers are not employees and there is no employment contract – yet in many workplaces today, volunteers and paid workers sit side by side, doing exactly the same job.

In 2015, there are legal jurisdictions where volunteers are treated the same as paid workers. The Work Health and Safety Act includes volunteers and has been adopted in all states with the exception of Victoria and Western Australia. As of January 1 2014, in a world first, Australia introduced substantial provisions to address workplace bullying and harassment. The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) was amended to allow any worker who reasonably believes he or she has been bullied at work to apply to the Fair Work Commission – this covers volunteers.

2 Volunteering should be properly measured and counted. Volunteering is “work” that is not paid (that is no financial remuneration) and thus falls outside the rubric of our current economic policies. This helps explain its invisibility as our social and economic structures focus almost exclusively on paid work.

Unpaid work, domestic work, child rearing or “informal volunteering” is excluded from standard statistical models operating in Australia and elsewhere. This invisibility undermines the importance of volunteering as contributing to the economic productivity and welfare of Australia, and the enormous social and civic contributions of volunteering.

1 Volunteers are not ‘free’. This is a critical point to make in budget week. Volunteers are increasingly being called on to plug the gaps and are often willing to do so, but their rights must be maintained. They must not be used simply as a cheap “human resource”.

There are costs associated with people volunteering their time. Out-of-pocket expenses, for example, include costs of petrol, transport, telephone calls, uniforms, training, working with children checks, police checks and medical checks.

Volunteers must be properly trained and managed. These costs must be factored into budgets and tender processes. We need policy initiatives that properly input volunteer labour as we do paid labour.


The author has written books on volunteering (Volunteering. Why we can’t survive without it, UNSW Press, 2008); edited volumes (with Jeni Warburton, Volunteering in Australia, The Federation Press, 2014); and presented radio programs (Vita Activa, ABC Radio National Life Matters).

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