Sustained effort needed to reinvigorate volunteering

By: Sue Regan   |   Policy Director, Volunteering Australia   |

Celebrations and award ceremonies are occurring across the country as we thank the nation’s volunteers during this year’s National Volunteer Week. As the week draws to a close, it is a good time to reflect on the health of volunteering in Australia and how well it has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have witnessed the resilience of volunteers in stepping up to help those in need during lock-downs and in adapting and innovating to keep volunteering whilst still adhering to COVID-19 guidelines. But recent data paints a bleak picture of how badly volunteering has been affected over the last year.

Early in 2020, Volunteering Australia developed a partnership with the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods (CSRM) to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on volunteering. The ANU CSRM analysis draws primarily on the ANUpoll which involves a regular survey of around 3000 Australians.

During last year’s National Volunteer Week, research was published into volunteering behaviour in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The headline finding was that two out of three volunteers stopped volunteering between February and April 2020. The researchers’ new analysis considers volunteering over the last year, up to April 2021.

This research finds that the proportion of adult Australians undertaking volunteering has fallen substantially over the last year. Many of those who had previously volunteered but had stopped doing so due to COVID-19, had not returned to volunteering. Only slightly more than half (56.4 percent) of those who in April 2020 said that they stopped volunteering because of COVID-19 had volunteered in the 12 months leading up to April 2021. Overall, an estimated 2.3 million less Australians volunteered in the 12 months prior to April 2021, compared to late 2019.

This decline in volunteering compares unfavourably to the decline in paid work in the last year. The data suggests that voluntary work has been impacted even harder by the COVID-19 recession than paid work, at least in terms of relative decline - that is, voluntary work has declined at a higher rate than paid work.

So, what does this all mean for the ongoing health of volunteering and for the future social and economic wellbeing of Australia? There are clear grounds for concern.

We know that before COVID-19 hit, recorded volunteering rates were already declining. For people aged 18 years and over, the rate of volunteering had declined from 36.2 percent in 2010 to 28.8 percent in 2019. Both men and women are volunteering less. However, the decline is most evident for women, whose volunteering rate decreased from 38.1 percent in 2010 to 28.1 percent in 2019.

We now know that the impact of COVID-19 on volunteering has been severe and volunteering rates remain well below pre-COVID levels. This has had an impact on the wellbeing of volunteers, with the ANU research showing lower life satisfaction and greater loneliness for those who stopped volunteering. It also has wider ramifications - for those in the community that volunteers serve, and for the overall economic wellbeing of the nation. The researchers estimate that the total number of hours of volunteering lost is around 293 million hours over a 12-month period since COVID. The loss in economic output due to the pandemic would be 16.1 percent higher if volunteering was included, compared to considering paid work only.

Clearly, sustained effort and investment will be needed to reinvigorate volunteering. It will require the actions of many – volunteer involving organisations, peaks and support services, governments, corporates and the philanthropic sector.

Volunteering Australia has been calling for a multi-faceted approach to encourage more people to put their hand up to volunteer and to provide support for organisations to engage more volunteers. It is a common myth that volunteering is ‘free’. However, volunteers need training, induction, ongoing managing and the costs of volunteering (e.g. travel) reimbursed. None of this comes for free. In facing the challenge of reinvigorating volunteering, we need to think creatively about how these costs are shared.  

Read more here about the Volunteering Australia and CSRM research. 

May. 20, 2021

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