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Is Australia in the middle of a volunteering crisis?

Australian organisations are suffering from a labour shortage due to the volunteering crisis.
Volunteers smiling.

At 36, Sarah was juggling her work in the music industry with volunteering at Wildlife Victoria and a land regeneration group in Melbourne. At the start of 2023, the juggle became too much. While working 80-90 hours and struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, Sarah found herself short on time, energy and money. She was forced to give up her roles saving and transporting injured wildlife and growing native seedlings. It was a hard choice, but it was the only one she could make.

“I work too many hours and have just been too exhausted,” she explains, “so I had to give up volunteering. My hand was forced when my car broke down, so I couldn’t transport animals anymore. I was burning the candle at both ends, and my car just happened to pack it in before I did.”

For Sarah – and the organisations she volunteered for – the loss has been immense. Sarah first started volunteering in 2020 in the thick of the Melbourne lockdowns when she spent six months at an animal sanctuary in regional Victoria.

“The sanctuary specialises in rehabilitating kangaroos who’ve been paralysed after getting caught in fences. We put them in rehab, bottle fed them four times a day, and taught them to walk again,” says Sarah, who has a tattoo of a wallaby named Rocket on her right bicep. “Rocket was one of the wallabies I looked after, and I got a tattoo of her flying a rocketship on my arm.”

The tattoo is a permanent reminder of her time at the sanctuary, which she describes as life-changing – and lifesaving. “I wasn’t in a great space in my life when I went to the sanctuary, and being out there reminded me who I was and what I was capable of. I learned so much and felt like I did so much. It changed my life. It saved my life,” says Sarah, who kept volunteering when she returned to Melbourne. Until she had to stop.

Sarah Jaye is someone who has – reluctantly – had to give up her volunteering roles.

People volunteering.
The volunteer crisis is being felt across the country.

Sarah is not alone in her predicament. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of formal volunteers declined by 1.86 million, according to research published by Volunteering Australia. Rates of volunteering have been gradually declining since 2002, when around one-third of adults volunteered. Today, only a quarter of us volunteer.

“There’s been a long-term decline in volunteering,” says Mark Pearce, the CEO at Volunteering Australia. “Of course, during COVID that number fell precipitously, and while numbers have recovered somewhat, they’re still not back to the pre-pandemic levels and that’s problematic.”

In a time of increasing natural disasters, hardship and homelessness, the crisis in volunteering hits particularly hard. “Communities who benefit from volunteering are suffering,” says Mark.

It seems we’re no longer the land of lending a hand. How did we get here?

Wildlife charities rely of volunteers.
Many wildlife charities rely on volunteers.

Why have people stopped volunteering?

There are a variety of reasons people have stopped volunteering. The 2022 ANU poll research found the most common reasons for not volunteering was work and family commitments, given by 40.8 per cent of respondents. Other reasons include health issues, financial issues, a lack of suitable opportunities and no transport or childcare support.

Sarah can relate. “The cost of living is part of why I’ve been working so much, and it’s also why I can’t keep transporting injured wildlife because petrol is $2 a litre and I simply can’t afford to,” she says. “I desperately want to go back to volunteering, but it’s just not feasible or sustainable at this point.”

In the Northern Rivers, Simone Clark volunteers five days a week with the community laundry service, Orange Sky, and two or three days a week at Mary’s Place, providing breakfast for people experiencing homelessness in Ballina. The volunteers at Orange Sky provide more than a fresh load of laundry, says Simone: “We offer a safe space, a warm chat and some basic dignity. Some friends [the people we help] have said that coming to an Orange Sky shift is the highlight of their week.”

Simone volunteers because – as a self-funded retiree – she’s in the fortunate position to be able to do so. She does it because she has a deep desire to help people in need, and because there’s no one else to do it. Australia-wide, demand for volunteers is high, with 83 per cent of organisations in the ANU poll reporting that they need more volunteers immediately or in the near future. Like many charities, Orange Sky lost around 30 per cent of its volunteer base during the pandemic – just when they were needed most.

Simone has seen the downturn firsthand. Following the devasting 2022 floods that hit the Northern Rivers, a number of Simone’s fellow volunteers have fallen away.

“We’re losing volunteers because people have had to go back to work and some have had to move out of the area because of the rental crisis,” says Simone, who volunteered every day in the months after the floods. “I felt helpless – I heard so many stories of people escaping and not knowing how they survived – so being able to be there for them through Orange Sky’s services was a way for me to help.”

While thousands of people pitched in with the recovery effort following the flooding emergency, too many of them were left burnt out. The floods exposed an over-reliance on volunteers.

“In a situation like this, it’s very hard when the lead agency, the SES, is a volunteer organisation which has so few volunteers … [and isn’t] properly resourced to do the job,” the deputy mayor of Byron Shire Council, Sarah Ndiyae, told 7:30 at the time.

A volunteer at a laundromat.
Self-funded retiree Simone Clark volunteers with the community laundry service, Orange Sky.

Giving back is in Aqua Robins’ DNA. She’s worked in human services all her life – first as a social worker then in management – and upon her retirement a year ago, she wanted to keep helping people in a volunteer capacity. “For the last 25 years of my career, I was attempting to change the system from within, which became very frustrating,” admits Aqua, 67. “When I retired, I wanted to get back to interacting with people one-on-one so I could see the difference I was making.”

While Aqua knew she wanted to volunteer, she didn’t realise just how in-demand she would be. After initially not hearing back from the first place she applied to, Aqua reached out to another organisation. And another. Then they all got back to her at once!

“That’s how I found myself taking my dog, Hugo, to visit patients at my local nursing home. It’s also how I started taking asylum seekers to healthcare appointments, and how I began styling disadvantaged women who’ve been out of the workforce to help improve their employability,” she explains.

Aqua’s busy volunteering schedule (with Delta Dogs, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and Dress for Success) is a sign of the labour shortage affecting volunteer organisations.

66-year-old Betty, who uses the Orange Sky services in Brisbane, agrees that there needs to be more government support.

“It shouldn’t just be up to volunteers to help out of the kindness of their hearts.”

“The government should also be helping people like me who need it. An old person like me shouldn’t be on the streets. The government needs to look at the situation,” says Betty, who came across Orange Sky last year when she was living out of her car and using public toilets and showers.

“When I was living in my car, I felt very unsafe. I was lost, and [the Orange Sky volunteers] came to my rescue. Coming to Orange Sky was – and is – very inviting. I feel very grateful that there are so many charities that have been there to help me.”

And the benefits go both ways, says Simone: “Volunteering gives me purpose.”

What’s needed to manage the volunteering crisis?

The decline in volunteering is not a sign of growing selfishness. It’s a sign that we’re struggling to balance the demands of life, that charities need to be better funded and resourced, that volunteers need more support, and that the government needs to understand the importance of the volunteer workforce. And let’s be clear, it is a workforce. Around 1.3 million Australians work in the charity sector – 10 per cent of the national workforce – and they are supported by 3.6 million volunteers. Without the volunteers, the industry would cease to exist.

As well as indicating a need for added support, the decline in volunteering also points to a shift in the way people are volunteering. While fewer people are taking up traditional forms of volunteering through formal programs, they may well be doing so informally.

“Informal volunteering isn’t as easily tracked as formal volunteering,” Mark says, “but we have seen people helping out in their community in a more sporadic and spontaneous way.” It could be that we’re not volunteering less, we’re just volunteering differently. Times are a-changing, and the volunteering space needs to change with them.

Enter: The National Strategy for Volunteering, launched in February by Volunteering Australia.

“Our research found that improving volunteer experiences was critical to the future,” says Mark, explaining how that means making things easier, being more flexible and ensuring volunteers can see their meaningful impact. “Volunteers are the heart and soul of a community; we need to put them at the start of the conversations, rather than at the end.”

An elderly woman and volunteers.
Isabelle, Aqua, holding Hugo, Lois, standing, and Ann. Lois wanted to continue helping others after retirement.

Speaking from the frontline, Simone sees team building as the answer to the volunteering crisis. “If people feel like they’re part of a team, they look forward to doing the work. At Orange Sky, our volunteers are a little family,” she says. To make it easy to join the family – even for those with busy lives – Orange Sky allows volunteers to sign up for a shift online at a time that suits their schedule.

For Sarah, the thing that would make the most difference – apart from significantly cheaper petrol – is allowing volunteers to claim their direct expenses as tax deductions. “Everyone’s in the same bucket – we’re all struggling with the cost of living and working big hours – so any support we can give volunteers will help,” she says, with hope in her voice.

Sarah’s mind often takes her back to the animal shelter in regional Victoria. She proudly remembers how she nursed Rocket the wallaby back to health and released her into the wild.

“Two days after we released Rocket, she showed up at the gate [of the sanctuary]. I saw her little silhouette through the fence and let her in,” Sarah recalls. “With every other animal we released, we never saw them again. But Rocket was special; she would come and go as she pleased; I’d give her cuddles and she’d lick me. She kept coming back.”

Just like Rocket, Sarah hopes to one day return to volunteering.

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