Volunteer numbers have plummeted in Australia since COVID, as work begins on the first national strategy in a decade, a new survey reveals.

Organizations or groups that involve volunteers are invited to share their thoughts in a survey aimed at shaping the future of volunteering in Australia.

Led by Volunteering Australia, the survey is the third step in a process that will eventually see the creation of Australia’s next national volunteering strategy.

This would be the first National Volunteerism Strategy in over 10 years.

The Volunteering in Australia research project has already engaged with volunteers to hear their thoughts on why they give their time and energy, and from this has produced a first insights report.

The report finds that the number of Australians volunteering is lower than it was before COVID, when 36% of adults were reported to have volunteered. But in the 12 months before the survey was taken in April 2022, 26.7% of Australian adults had volunteered – a slight increase from 24.2% in April 2021.

According to the report, the majority of those who have stopped volunteering have yet to return to the field – but have noticed the impact on their well-being, reporting lower levels of life satisfaction than those who continue to volunteer. volunteering.

The report also found a difference between informal and formal volunteering, with almost half (46.5%) of Australian adults saying they had been involved in informal volunteering in the previous four weeks.

People born in a non-English speaking country were more likely to have done informal volunteering than those born in Australia.

The place of volunteering in our recovery

The Early Information report noted that some volunteers had yet to resume their face-to-face roles.

Mark Pearce, CEO of Volunteering Australia, said there was still some reluctance to return to public roles as the pandemic continued to rage.

In other cases, volunteer programs may not have fully reopened yet or at all. In other cases, people who have not been able to fulfill their usual volunteer role for the past two years may have found something else to occupy their time.

“One of the resounding responses we’ve seen, both anecdotally and factually – and this both nationally and globally – is that volunteers are looking for more flexibility and choice,” Pearce explained.

“Nearly half of Australians [said they had] is volunteering informally, which is a fantastic number. But then you compare that to people volunteering through organizations and we still lag behind on that basis. 26.7 per cent of Australians volunteer through organizations, through organizations and in the community.

“So it speaks to a lot of different things, not the least of which is that people appreciate the ability to have choice and flexibility in how they participate within their community. It’s not the only takeout, but it’s a takeout.

He said that many informal volunteers did not consider the work they were doing to be volunteering; rather, they saw it as simply “helping”.

“So even some volunteers… have a different perspective, a different understanding of what volunteering is,” he said. “So, yes, it’s a matter of flexibility. Yes, it’s a matter of choice. Yes, it’s about making sure there are opportunities for people… to connect to the wider community through formal volunteering.

Without predicting the results of the survey, Pearce said he believes some volunteering programs should be redesigned with this flexibility and connection in mind – particularly because volunteering can help people connect with the world. world around them, fostering resilience and inclusion.

“Overall, volunteering…can provide a deep and lasting connection to the community, creating more resilient communities. And that’s resilience in terms of disaster preparedness, in terms of response, recovery, and then moving forward in a way that doesn’t take years and years and it doesn’t cost an extraordinary amount of money to bring in external resources,” Pearce explained.

Opportunity to shape the future

Pearce said a “strong evidence base” was needed to launch the national volunteerism strategy.

He said the survey would help researchers understand from an organizational perspective “how we can effectively move forward” on a national strategy.

When asked why there had been such a big gap between strategies, Pearce said it spoke to a “wider lack of awareness of the importance of volunteerism”.

“To put it in the context of the wider workforce, Australia’s paid workforce is around 13.4 million people. The voluntary workforce, to use this nomenclature, is around 5 million Australians who give their time through organizations and in the community, and each year around 6.5 million Australians volunteer informally,” he explained.

“So when you start looking at these numbers…it shows there’s not really an understanding or awareness of the importance of volunteering in terms of social community and economic outcomes. »

Pearce added that following the federal election, volunteerism was again in the spotlight, as a number of candidates – including independents and high-profile teal Greens – benefited from ‘armies’ of volunteers. .

“Volunteering is not just about helping the community with the things that matter to us. Volunteering is also the expression of our aspiration around our democracy, around our political system. It serves a lot of things,” he said.

While the Department of Social Services provided funding for the development of the national strategy, Pearce said a number of other types of organizations were involved in the volunteering ecosystem, from businesses to philanthropists, and with a strong commitment and a diversified financing structure in this ecosystem. , there wouldn’t be such a big gap between this strategy and the next one.

“It’s important to understand that this particular strategy will provide a model for volunteerism for the next 10 years, but it will be an ongoing conversation,” he said.

“He’s not going to answer all the questions, under any circumstances, and he can’t either. But it has to be something, a document that is implementable, but also opens up and supports lots of conversations to improve…in the future.

To complete the survey, visit the Volunteer Strategy website.