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Volunteering confronts post-COVID challenges

May 20th, 2021

The pandemic has had a significant impact on volunteering across the country, with new data revealing that there were 2.3 million fewer Australians volunteering last month than there were in late 2019.

The research, from Professor Nicholas Biddle and Professor Matthew Gray, at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods (CSRM), reveals the impact of COVID-19 on the overall volunteering numbers in Australia and the personal effect the absence of volunteering has on the general health and well-being among those who used to volunteer.

The research also shows that total number of hours of volunteering is estimated to have fallen by around 293 million hours over a 12-month period since the COVID pandemic, making a notable contribution to the pandemic-driven loss of national economic output.

In April 2021, 24.2 percent of Australians had done voluntary work in the previous 12-months, a decrease from 36.0 percent in late 2019, according to the research, which is funded by Volunteering Australia. It is clear from the data that many Australians who had stopped volunteering during the pandemic did not return when lockdowns and other restrictions eased in the later part of 2020 and the first quarter of this year.

Just as important is the revelation about how powerful volunteering is to those who do it. According to the data, Australians who stopped volunteering since 2019 had a greater loss of life satisfaction than those who kept volunteering during the pandemic: the loss appears to have been recorded at the height of the pandemic, between April and October last year. Loneliness was another marker for those who stopped volunteering, with that cohort far more likely to say they felt lonely at least some of the time compared to those who continued to volunteer.

Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce said the research reinforced the importance of volunteering to the economic and social wellbeing of Australia and had several implications for policy and practice. “Given the weak recovery in volunteering to date, there remains an important challenge ahead in reinvigorating volunteering. This will require further and sustained action by the volunteering sector and by governments,” he said.

Although the pandemic is the main culprit behind the decline in volunteering, other data has previously revealed that Australian volunteering numbers were trending down before 2020. The recent Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) Charities Report documented a small decrease of 200,000 volunteers nationally in 2019 from the previous year. But there is no way of knowing if volunteer numbers would have bounced back in a normal year.

The demographic picture of who stopped volunteering is mixed: there were slightly higher numbers among women than men, a larger representation of the 45-54 age group who had discontinued their volunteering, but a fairly even spread in the decline across the six states and two territories.

The overall picture emphasises the value of volunteering in a community and personal level and poses some challenges for policymakers in the national recovery.

Professor Biddle said volunteers had a higher level of satisfaction before COVID-19 than non-volunteers and those who continued to volunteer during the pandemic seemed to benefit from the experience.

 “Many volunteers told us about the challenges of volunteering over the period. But many also told us about the extra meaning and social interaction that volunteering was able to bring during this most difficult of times.” Professor Biddle said

The broader policy imperatives arising from the research will be exploring ways reinvigorate volunteering.

“Voluntary work is vital to Australian society. There is a risk that many of those who have stopped volunteering during the COVID-19 period will not return to voluntary work and at least some will be volunteering less,’’ the report says. “The COVID-19 related loss of volunteering hours is potentially impacting on many vulnerable Australians who rely on volunteering. A strong argument can be made that unpaid activities also need specific consideration, and potentially additional government support.’’

Mark Pearce said this new analysis showed the well-being benefits of volunteering. “If we are concerned about improving the well-being of Australians and improving overall mental health, we need to be concerned about reinvigorating volunteering,” he said.

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