Volunteering: all about the bottom line?

31 October 2012 | Posted In: #117 Spring 2012, Civil Society Issues, Community Sector, Volunteers, | Author: Chantel Cotterell

By Chantel Cotterell

What does a community legal centre, a community transport provider and an organisation dedicated to working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities have in common? Besides being recognised at the Redfern and Waterloo Neighbourhood Advisory Boards’ annual Volunteer Community Participation Awards, all three organisations rely on a combination of paid staff and volunteers to deliver vital services to vulnerable clients with complex needs.

Held during National Volunteer Week, this year’s Awards coincided with the release of the NSW Government’s first-ever Volunteering Strategy. Aptly, valuing volunteers and celebrating their contributions was identified as a key strategic direction. Other key strategic directions identified were making it easier to volunteer, positioning volunteering as a pathway to paid employment, improving incentives for corporate volunteering and finding ways to expand the demographic profile to include, for example, a greater number of younger people.

As a serial volunteer who has benefited professionally from volunteering, I find myself agreeing with most of the initiatives, particularly those focussed on supporting organisations to train volunteers. Imagine how many people have started volunteering without any induction or training. Sometimes, volunteers are lucky if they are shown the nearest bathroom; let alone given the chance to learn about policies and procedures that ultimately make them more confident and competent.

Praising the Strategy, Lynne Dalton, Chief Executive Officer of The Centre for Volunteering, reflected on the growing need to better support volunteers, “The issue of volunteers’ rights and their expectation to be treated with fairness, equity and respect is an issue that is growing daily, as volunteers these days are now expecting appropriate management and supervision of their work in their roles as volunteers”.

Clearly, the Strategy is good for volunteers and will build the capacity of community organisations and groups that rely on unpaid contributions. But, should the community sector also be concerned about the NSW Government’s trumpeting of volunteerism? Is this really an altruistic gesture or is there an underlying agenda motivated by dollar signs?

When launching the Strategy, the NSW Minister for Citizenship, Communities and Aboriginal Affairs, Victor Dominello, hinted at an economic impetus: “Volunteering is certainly about doing good,” he acknowledged, “but it also really adds to our community’s triple bottom line with clear benefits for the economy, society and the environment”.

With economy at the top of the list, I cannot help but question whether the primary motivator is the triple bottom line or the bottom line – that is, the economic contribution of volunteers. As noted by the Minister, this contribution is estimated to be worth $5 billion to the NSW economy per year.

Shortly after the Strategy was released, the State budget came out, and Treasurer Mike Baird took medical metaphors to new heights when he advised us that, “We must take our medicine today, if we’re to be healthy tomorrow”.

The medicine prescribed was a concerning lack of increase in funding to the community sector, with the possibility of cuts throughout the financial year. This, despite community organisations who completed the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) Community Sector Survey 2012 reporting that they could not meet the existing demand for their services, particularly from vulnerable people at risk of or experiencing homelessness and/or mental illness.

The question is: how are community organisations expected to meet this unabating need if funding levels stay the same or worse still, are cut? Is more volunteering the NSW Government’s answer? From the politicians’ perspective, why fund community organisations to employ additional paid staff, when volunteers can do the work for free? It is a reductionist viewpoint, but one that appears to be gaining traction.

Let’s take the comments from the NSW Minister for Family, Community Services and Women, Pru Goward, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s weekly hotbed of hot-headed panellists and tweeters, Q&A, in August 2012. When talking about how to deal with the big issues facing Australian society such as meeting the needs of the ageing population, Minister Goward said we need to promote volunteerism in our communities, as if this was the cure-all.

With the Chief Executive Officer of ACOSS, Cassandra Goldie, sitting a few metres away, it was an opportune time for the Minister to acknowledge that a more holistic and nuanced approach to addressing these needs was required; an approach that acknowledges the valuable contributions made by volunteers, while recognising the concomitant need to adequately fund the very community organisations that assist vulnerable people. Even though the head of ACOSS was quick to flag the risks of promoting volunteering as “the glue of society” if it results in a withdrawal of funding from the community sector, this point seemed to be lost on the other panellists.

Again, similar rhetoric were espoused at one of the NSW Government’s Community Cabinet meetings attended by a colleague in the sector. For those who are unfamiliar, these meetings provide an opportunity for community organisations and groups to request a 15 minute meeting with at least one Minister. When my colleague’s organisation spoke about having to turn clients away and how more funding would help employ more staff to meet this need, the senior Minister they met with responded: “But, don’t you have volunteers?” Like most community organisations, the answer was “yes”.

Yet, volunteers alone are not the answer. When Ministers promote increased volunteerism as the panacea to the funding shortfall in the NSW community sector, they need to look back to their own Strategy and remember that volunteers require training, supervision and recognition to be committed and effective. Who is going to provide this if paid staff are stretched to capacity attempting to meet the needs of clients?

If the NSW Government wants to increase the benefits volunteers provide to the bottom line – the economy – they will need to invest more funding into the community sector. Think about it from a cost benefit analysis – more funding will allow for more paid staff who can supervise more volunteers.

After all, sometimes you have got to give a little to get a little. Even a serial volunteer will tell you that.