MONDAY, 15 AUGUST 2022
Subjects: falling volunteer numbers; Labor’s plans to rebuild the charity sector
ANNA VIDOT: Some new data indicates that Australians are volunteering less than they were two years ago. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission estimates that the number of volunteers in Australia has dropped from 3.3 million to 2.9 million over the course of the pandemic. Now this is not necessarily surprising, I guess. But is it all about COVID? Given that we know volunteering numbers were kind of on this slide beforehand too. Is there more at play here about how connected we are and how connected we feel with the communities that we're living in? And I guess most importantly for the organisations missing out on volunteers, can we change that? Dr Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury. He’s also the local Member for Fenner here in the ACT. Andrew Leigh, thanks very much for your time this afternoon.
ANDREW LEIGH: Pleasure, Anna. Great to be with you.
VIDOT: Does this data from the Charities and Not-for-profits Commission align with what you're hearing about the impact on the sector of COVID?
LEIGH: Yes, it certainly does. We saw a significant drop in volunteering numbers during COVID, and the figures haven't come back to the pre-COVID levels. In fact, one figure I saw was about a drop from about 30 per cent down to 25 per cent at its worst last year, and then back up to about 26 per cent this year. And it's part of a broader trend we've seen right across society. Australians are less likely to be joining community organisations, less likely to be playing team sport, less likely to be attending or religious services, less likely to be members of the trade union. We've got fewer friends than we had in the mid-1980s, and we're less likely to know our neighbours. So we've become increasingly disconnected, and one of the things I'm really keen to do, Anna, with this charities portfolio is to use this as a community building portfolio - to talk to charities and non‑profits across the country about what we can do together to build a reconnected Australia.
VIDOT: I mean, it would help I suppose to know what's been driving that disconnectedness? If it's more than the pandemic, what is it that's been making people feel less connected to their communities, they don't know their neighbours and not volunteering?
LEIGH: I think it's hard because some of the factors driving it are social changes. It used to be that more women stayed at home due to rampant gender pay discrimination, and obviously we don't want to bring back gender pay discrimination as a way of building community. And technology has made it more difficult for us to connect. First the TV and then of course online devices in more recent years, and none of us are going to throw away our smartphones. So this is about building a connected community in a more diverse, open, multicultural, tolerant and technological era. I think that's hard, but I don't think it's impossible. I think the prize is a great one, because a connected community is not only a happier place to live, but also a healthier one because our connections really help us sustain through mental and physical health problems. And it's a richer one too, because markets work best in high trust environments.
VIDOT: I mean, speaking of markets, I wonder if the sort of economic situation we find ourselves in is contributing here. We know that cost of living issues are a real concern for a lot of Australians. We also know the unemployment rate in Australia is very low. But we do hear a lot about underemployment or people working many jobs. People having a side hustle, about young people having to work a couple of jobs with any hope of being able to afford a house, which also feels increasingly out of reach. Do you think that the broader economic conditions at the moment in Australia could be contributing to a lot of Australians, particularly younger Australians, in finding themselves too time poor, tired, whatever to volunteer?
LEIGH: People are certainly time pressed, and this is one of the issues that came up in the Reconnected forum that I held in Sydney today. One of the ways of dealing with that, I think, is for organisations to envisage ways of providing an opportunity for someone to tick two boxes. So one of the great examples of this is Greening Australia in the ACT having a singles tree planting events, where you can contribute to replanting trees in the local neighbourhood and maybe also meeting the love of your life in the process. For time poor people, these kinds of double benefits are really important. There's also ways of using technology to connect us up rather than to disconnect us. It doesn't have to be the case that our smartphones pull us away from one another. Many organisations during the pandemic were very intentional in how they used Facebook pages or apps in order to build connections in person, rather than to take away from them.
VIDOT: On the text line, Ruth says I used to do a lot of volunteering, and I envisaged doing more when I retired. However, the red tape required and the hoops to jump through essentially required by insurance companies placed a huge burden on volunteers, and it's simply too hard now. For example, Ruth says, the requirement for working with vulnerable people card is $70, various compulsory OH&S induction courses, restrictions on what you can and can't do. Forget it, it isn't fun anymore, says Ruth. Now, of course, we want vulnerable people to be safe. So you know, there are clearly balances to be made here. But are you, is your government, Andrew Leigh, interested looking at some of the regulatory burden on allowing people to volunteer?
LEIGH: We need to make sure that we don't have any unnecessary burdens in place. For working with vulnerable people in the ACT, if you're a volunteer that's free. I just got mine renewed the other day, and it was a pretty quick process there with the ACT Connect officers. But there's other organisational challenges that sometimes get in the way of charities. One of those is the hodgepodge of fundraising laws at the moments, that require charities that raise money online to register in seven different jurisdictions. I'm working with state and territory governments to try and standardise that, because I think it makes no sense for charities to waste a week of staff member time complying with these rules across the country. And we're committed to doubling philanthropy across Australia. So I'm engaging with the philanthropic sector about what they need in order to boost giving in Australia, not just among billionaires, but also making a culture of philanthropy a normal part of society, from kids through to the elderly.
VIDOT: Given the long-term declining trend here, Andrew Leigh, how quickly do you think, do you hope with some of these measures to be able to turn this around?
LEIGH: Anna, I'm confident that we can get this done, but I'm under no illusions as to the scale of the task. But the charities that I've been meeting across the country are inspired, and they're inspiring people. I'm really keen to work with them. I'll be holding these building community forums in every state capital, state and territory capital around Australia, and then moving on to regional centres. I want to make sure we're all on the same page about the trends - we've had a big decline over the last generation - but also about benefits that can come to Australia from a reconnected community. I think it starts with our charities, but I'm encouraging everyone to reach out there to an organisation and consider volunteering your time. Consider giving a bit of your money. We know that the bit of the brain that lights up when we give money to others is the same pleasure centre that's activated when you think about food or sex. It is a joy to be able to give to others, and I think we need a society in which that notion of giving back is much more common than it is today.
VIDOT: Just one final thought from Ruth, because I think she makes an interesting point too, particularly in her own case. Her expectation that when she retired, because she'd have a bit more time, she would do some more volunteering. Ruth adds, it's not actually just the cost of things. It's the complexity factor. Us older people are not as adept at technology, and I'm sick of hearing ‘it’s online’, says Ruth. Could there be more done to support, particularly maybe people who are retired, who maybe feel like they don't have the sort of online skills to navigate all of this - is it just a case of support, rather than even just financial kind of incentives might make it easier?
LEIGH: Yeah, it's a really good point, Anna, I know talking to charities they’re working to try and make a whole lot of different opportunities available to people. So if you're home bound, then you can volunteer through the National Library's Trove program, updating the old news stories and making them more accessible to people. Or for the National Museum’s DigiVol program, one of the biggest online volunteering programs in the world. But there's also opportunities to volunteer in person. Volunteering ACT has a great set of opportunities available. I'd encourage anyone who's thinking about volunteering just to pick up the phone to Volunteering ACT, and if you don't want to do anything to do with technology, they'll find you a spot all the same. And for organisations that want to build in volunteering, we're moving away now from the idea that it'll just be everyone going down to the local organisation to paint a fence on a Friday afternoon to the idea of finding a match between the skills of the professionals who want to volunteer and the needs of the charity. So if you're an electrician, find a charity that needs electrical work. If you're an accountant, we can find a charity that needs your skills as well.
VIDOT: Andrew Leigh, interesting to talk with you this afternoon. It'll be interesting to see whether that long trend of declining volunteerism can be turned around. Thank you.
LEIGH: Real pleasure, Anna. Thanks for the conversation.