The future of volunteering

23 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020, Volunteers,

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the volunteering landscape shifted in a way no-one thought possible. Here, LUKE MICHAEL, reflects on some of the key moments that have shaped volunteering over the years and looks at where the sector is headed next. 

By the start of the new millennium, it was clear volunteering in Australia was on the rise. Five years earlier, in 1995, around a quarter of adults donated their time. By 2000, this had risen to 32 percent of the population — or 4,395,600 Australians — with the value of that volunteer labour estimated at $8.9 billion.

Today, volunteering has an estimated annual economic and social value of $290 billion in Australia and research shows that volunteering efforts yield a 450 percent return for every dollar invested. The most recent volunteering data we have — from this year’s release of the Australian Charities Report 2018 — showed volunteer numbers across charities had increased to 3.7 million people (compared with 3.3 million the previous year). The Giving Australia report also found that, in 2016, 43.7 percent of adult Australians had volunteered a total of 932 million hours in the previous 12 months.

The way Australians are volunteering has also shifted. Back in the early 2000s, employee volunteering programs — where employers give paid staff time and/or payments to volunteer for agreed charities — were relatively scarce. In 2006, only 3.7 percent of employees took part in any kind of corporate volunteering, according to a report by London Benchmarking Group (LBG). By 2018, this had grown to 15 percent, with LBG finding that nearly eight in ten companies reported having an employee volunteering program in place.

The internet has also played an important role in attracting new volunteers and expanding the ways in which they can offer their time. In 2016, nearly 30 percent of volunteers under 24 years old used an online source such as GoVolunteer or Seek Volunteer to look for volunteering opportunities — although word of mouth remains the most common way to attract volunteers. The internet has also created a whole new category of volunteer work: virtual volunteering — which is to say, provided online volunteer services such as managing social media accounts or using Skype to mentor vulnerable people.

One of the most important changes for the sector has been updating the formal definition of volunteering to recognise the profound social, technological, and organisational shifts of recent decades. Advocates started campaigning for a new and broader way of thinking about, and describing, volunteering in late 2013, arguing that the existing 1996 definition was far too restrictive.

That definition only recognised formal volunteering undertaken for not-for-profit (NFP) organisations. It excluded online volunteers, those donating their time to private groups, and informal volunteering in the community. In other words, if you weren’t providing services as a designated volunteer in a defined position or project, your activities weren’t counted.

The new definition adopted by Volunteering Australia in 2015 states simply that: “Volunteering is time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain.” Advocates believe this definition recognises the myriad, and often informal, ways in which people volunteer, beyond simply helping out a not for profit. “Volunteers make a huge contribution,” said former Volunteering Australia CEO Brett Williamson in 2015, “so we need to make sure it’s measured accurately and valued.”

By creating a common understanding of what volunteering is, the new definition ultimately makes it easier to accurately measure the scope of volunteering in Australia. This in turn helps the sector to identify and connect with many more of the nation’s volunteers.

One of the biggest challenges for the sector over the past 20 years has been attracting and maintaining the volunteer workforce and supporting volunteers so that they stay happy and engaged. As volunteering has become
more accessible and less narrowly defined over the past 20 years, the task of managing volunteers has actually become more complex. This is not just because there are more people volunteering in more ways, but also because the growth in the sector has spawned new laws and accreditation standards covering workers including volunteers.

In 2015, Volunteering Australia revised the National Standards for Volunteer Involvement to help organisations attract, manage, and retain volunteers in a modern environment. These reforms gave volunteers more of a say in designing their roles and acknowledged their importance to the organisation. They also set out guidelines for sector staff: people managing volunteers were now expected to provide clear guidance as to what was expected of volunteers, and also to understand and mitigate any risks related to volunteers, including through detailed screening checks of volunteers.

But sector advocates acknowledge there is further to go — particularly when it comes to legal protections from sexual harassment. Sector advocates have recently pointed out that while employees are given explicit protection from sexual harassment under equal opportunity laws in all states and territories and the Commonwealth, this is not yet the case for volunteers.

Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone says there also needs to be a recognition that volunteering doesn’t just happen. It requires a coordinated, skilled, and properly resourced organisation. And this means directing money not only towards individual volunteers, but also to the organisation themselves. Funding, meanwhile, has proved an ongoing challenge for the sector. Government Volunteer Grants — given to organisations to help with equipment, training, and fundraising needs — have been slashed this decade from $21 million in 2010 to $10 million in 2016.

And despite a plethora of employee volunteering programs, growth in corporate volunteering has been steady rather than spectacular. An LBG report found that the proportion of an average company’s time devoted to corporate volunteering had not altered significantly in more than ten years. In other words, while most companies assign at least a day a year per employee for corporate volunteering, workers are not taking up the opportunity. LBG calculated that these unused hours were the equivalent to 500 full-time jobs over a year — hours effectively lost to the sector.

While Australia’s volunteering culture is strong, the sector will have to adjust if it is to thrive. A 2010 Productivity Commission report into the NFP sector says the ageing of Australia’s population is likely to have major ramifications for the sector. The commission estimates that by around 2042 seniors (aged 65-plus) will replace 35 to 44-year-olds as the biggest volunteering cohort in Australia. This may have some advantages — older volunteers usually contribute more hours, so rates are expected to actually increase in the short to medium term. But it also signals some challenges ahead.

Organisations will need to cater for a volunteering cohort that has spent years in a professional work environment. While young people tend to volunteer primarily to gain experience, research shows older people are more likely to seek fulfilling roles related to their skills or interests, as well as flexibility and more project-based volunteering. The take-out is that NFPs will need to adapt to ensure older Australians are engaged. Luckily, the report also found the proportion of young Australians (aged 18 to 24) volunteering had doubled over ten years, suggesting that there may be enough new young recruits to replace an ageing volunteer workforce.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a roadmap for one way forward. The UN General Assembly has formally adopted a resolution on volunteering, which reiterates that volunteers are critical to achieving the SDGs and spells out the value of volunteering for individuals and communities. “Through volunteering, citizens build their resilience, enhance their knowledge base and gain a sense of responsibility for their own community,” the UN says.

The sector, too, will need resilience in coming years. The COVID-19 pandemic has gouged an enormous hole in the workforces of many volunteer-reliant charities. This creates major headaches, but also offers opportunities for growth and renewal. The constraints imposed by social distancing have provided a powerful lesson in the value of virtual volunteering, which has surged during the pandemic. When the worst of the crisis is over, the changes it has wrought — including the shift to online volunteering — may well remain and its lingering impact is likely to reshape the sector in the years to come.