Volunteering is in a slump, it's time for some caremongering - Op Ed, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age


The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, 4 December 2020

When masks became mandatory in Melbourne, Sewing for Charity Australia got to work. Across Australia, it mobilised over 3000 volunteers to sew colourful masks and send them to Victoria. ‘In a time of pandemic we have to come together’, said founder Cass Gell. ‘I have my kids threading elastics.’

As sporting events were cancelled, former Socceroo Craig Foster encouraged teams to replace playing for points with playing for lives. ‘Play for Lives’ mobilised athletes to pack food hampers, transport essential medications and deliver Meals on Wheels.

The initiative was especially timely because coronavirus had caused two-thirds of volunteers to cut back on their efforts. Some charities had to reshape how they delivered services, while in other cases older volunteers simply had to self-isolate.

This Saturday is International Volunteer Day, a moment to thank and celebrate the millions of Australians who selflessly give time to help build a stronger community. But it’s also a moment to take sober stock of the state of volunteering in Australia. 

According to the General Social Survey, Australia’s best metric of volunteer engagement, 2010 saw 36 percent of adults performing some unpaid volunteer work in the previous 12 months. By 2014, this was down to 31 percent. In 2019, it fell to 29 per cent.

This worrying trend sits alongside other measures of declining community engagement. We are less likely to join social groups, community support groups, or political groups. Australians are less likely to attend a religious service or join a union. We have fewer close friendships, and know fewer of our neighbours. We are less likely to play a team sport. As a community, Australia has become more disconnected.

Reversing this trend will require a full court press. Strengthening the culture of volunteering in schools, universities and workplaces. Ensuring that jobseekers can meet their participation requirements by volunteering at a local charity. Removing duplicate regulation on non-profits so they can spend more time focusing on volunteers.

If you’re keen to volunteer, you should employ the economic principle of comparative advantage: what’s your special skill, and how can you best help a local charity? If you’re an accountant, this might mean finding ways to help local organisations do their books. If you’re a vet, it could involve providing free clinics to check the dogs of rough sleepers. And if you’re a builder, then just about every community group would love to get your help in fixing up their premises.

Thankfully, there are plenty of volunteer matching databases to link up helpers with charities. GoVolunteer, SEEK Volunteer, Vollie and DoSomethingNearYou are just a few of the sites that help connect generous souls with the organisations that need them most. Or if you’d like to speak with a person who can help you help others, just phone Volunteering Australia.

Like most acts of altruism, volunteering brings its warm inner glow. You’ll sleep soundly at night if you’ve put in a shift at the local food bank, helped a refugee child learn to read, or helped coach the local soccer team. And for many people, volunteering provides meaningful connections. Volunteering Queensland once had two women come in separately – one who was partially sighted, and the other who was partially deaf. They were matched up on a volunteer task that involved transcription, so one could read the script for the other to type out. The two women became fast friends.

So if you’re among the 29 percent of Australians who volunteer, take a moment on International Volunteer Day to feel a sense of pride at the fact that your volunteering helps strengthen our community fabric. Alternatively, if you’re among the 71 percent who aren’t currently volunteering, please consider stepping up. Thousands of organisations would love to have the benefit of your talents, and the whole community will be strengthened by your efforts. Let’s finish a rough year by engendering an outbreak of caremongering, and a pandemic of kindness.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities, and the author (with Nick Terrell) of the newly published Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.