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Where have all the volunteers gone?

Volunteering is a way to get involved in your community as this man, who has a refugee background, is doing in his work with older vision-impaired people. Volunteering Western Australia (VWA), Author provided

The 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) findings by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), released in June this year, reveal some challenges for volunteering in Australia.

On face value, the statistics are extremely positive. The figures suggest that 5.8 million Australians, or 31% of the population aged 18 and over, volunteered in 2014. They devoted an impressive 743 million hours to community organisations and causes.

In spite of this positive snapshot, trend data reveal a different, not-so-bright picture. With close to two-thirds of Australia’s population not volunteering in 2014, the volunteering rate has slipped five percentage points from a high of 36% in 2010 (when equivalent data was last collected). That decrease reversed a 20-year trend of increasing participation.

Examining hours devoted to volunteering reveals a parallel story of slowing growth and decline. As an indicator, total hours volunteered has shown incremental, slow growth. This has been mainly fuelled by Australia’s growing population.

Busy lifestyles could be a factor in the decline in volunteering rates. perfectlab/Shutterstock

Viewing the statistics at an individual level, however, the median annual hours contributed by volunteers has fallen from 74 hours in 1995, to 72 hours in 2000, and to 56 hours in 2006.

Unfortunately, the two subsequent GSS exercises have not reported on this important indicator of the health of Australian volunteering. Given the increasingly busy lifestyles of Australians, it is not difficult to imagine that this long-term trend has continued.

What could be causing a decline?

Collectively, this snapshot suggests that volunteering in Australia, if not already in long-term decline, may be in danger of being so. This raises a number of related questions for which the evidence base is poorly supported. These include:

  • Are increasingly busy Australians finding it harder to prioritise volunteering as part of their lives? Are we becoming more selfish as a nation and less inclined to help others?

  • Is volunteering “on the nose” with young people, the next generation of volunteers?

  • Do mum and dad recognise (and therefore account for) doing canteen duty for their kids’ footy club as volunteering?

  • Does the decline in volunteering reflect the long, slow decline of rural Australia, where volunteering rates have always outstripped those of their city cousins?

  • Has population decline and an ageing population in these areas reduced the supply of willing and able-bodied volunteers?

  • What can be done to convert non-volunteers into volunteering with all its immense benefits to the volunteers, the community and society?

Parents may not see their role in children’s sport as volunteering. Nieuwland/Shutterstock

Or is the ABS’s rather prescriptive definition of volunteering as “someone who, in the previous 12 months, willingly gave unpaid help, in the form of time, service or skills, through an organisation or group” failing to capture the full gamut of formal and informal volunteering efforts across Australia, as well as newer forms such as spontaneous and online volunteering?

In addition, examining the ABS glossary of volunteering reveals that these measures exclude online volunteering, corporate volunteering and international volunteering. It is possible that people are not volunteering less, but rather volunteer in different ways to their parents. The census may be yet to catch up with recent trends.

Finding ways to attract volunteers

These questions, and more, are being explored by researchers from Curtin, Flinders, Macquarie and Erasmus (Netherlands) Universities and William Angliss Institute in partnership with Volunteering Victoria, Volunteering SA&NT, Volunteering WA and the WA Department of Local Government and Communities. In a world first, the ARC-funded project is examining the conceptual, practical and policy levers that may be applied to convert non-volunteers to the benefits of volunteering.

The three-year project is in its early stages but already 12 exploratory focus groups have been conducted in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. The focus groups include current volunteers, lapsed volunteers (volunteered in the past five years but not in the past 12 months) and non-volunteers (not volunteered in the past five years).

The groups explore issues relating to people’s willingness, availability and capacity to volunteer now and in the future. These have revealed differential awareness of volunteering and access to volunteering opportunities across the groups.

Promisingly, most non-volunteers express some willingness to volunteer in given circumstances. Overall, all participants highlighted that they are extremely busy people. However, compared to their volunteer counterparts, the lapsed and non-volunteers were sceptical about finding time to volunteer.

These exploratory findings suggest that Australian volunteer-involving organisations wishing to bolster their numbers need to be clear about the benefits they can offer to potential volunteers. They also need to offer a variety of flexible volunteering opportunities. This will allow people the option of multi-tasking their volunteering together with other life commitments.

These and other proactive solutions aim to address the societal implications of declining volunteering rates across Australia. A broad range of community services and causes depend in part or in full on volunteers. With this in mind, it must be hoped the decline can be reversed.

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