The value of volunteers

Whether it’s offering support and clean-up assistance after the impact of a natural disaster, helping serve meals at your neighbourhood soup kitchen, or doing a weekly shift to help sort clothes at your local op shop, volunteers are a pivotal part of everyday life for a range of organisations and businesses.

And what better time to acknowledge – and celebrate – the important work these change-makers do than in National Volunteer Week (15–21 May)?

An invisible workforce of change-makers

A new report – Australia’s Invisible Workforce: The Crucial Role of Volunteers in Supporting our Nation – reveals key insights into the motivations and types of volunteering undertaken in Australia. The most encouraging is that, after a decline in the ‘invisible workforce’ post-pandemic, easing restrictions has meant more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of volunteers are back making important change, in person, at the organisation where they volunteer. 

It is estimated that more than five million people volunteer through an organisation annually, while an additional 6.5 million provide informal volunteering support within their community.

Carol Farman, 76, is one of them.

In her volunteer role, Mrs Farman donates weekly time to Golden Days Radio (95.7FM).

It’s a community radio station in Melbourne’s Glen Eira municipality, with a strong local listenership and a growing international audience that accesses the programs via its digital live stream.

Golden Days Radio

The radio station’s story began almost 30 years ago, when founder Dom Iacono registered an expression of interest with the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal for a ‘special interest licence’ that would cater to a 50-plus audience.

Today, with a music format that features music of all genres, from the 1930s to the 1990s, as well as Australian and American radio serials from yesteryear, such as Dick Tracy and Dad and Dave, Golden Days Radio (GDR), is 100 per cent volunteer run.

There are 82 volunteers at the moment, Mrs Farman says, with skills and interests that cover roles as on-air presenters, IT support, receptionists, engineers, administration, and event coordinators who arrange the regular lunches that help those behind the scenes to connect with listeners.

“I was volunteering for Vision Australia Radio for 17 years and was ‘poached’ by a GDR presenter who was also at Vision Australia,” Mrs Farman says. “I’ve been with GDR now for nearly 13 years.”

Twelve of those years have been on-air, running her own weekly program, but Mrs Farman’s other key roles at the station include vice-president, member of the committee of management, roster clerk for the on-air presenters, COVID officer, as well as overseeing various other tasks that keep the station ticking away.

“We generally have a small trickle of newcomers but most volunteers are long-term stayers,” Mrs Farman says. “No-one receives a salary. We can claim we are an equal pay radio station.”

The vibe, says Mrs Farman, is one of a large supportive family. “Our volunteers also give support to lonely listeners by way of phone calls and sometimes home visits.”

Doing something worthwhile matters

CEO of Volunteering Australia Mark Pearce says that data from the report reveals that, for almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of volunteers, personal satisfaction and the desire to do something worthwhile are primary motivations. Helping others, and the broader community, are also significant motivators, with 61 per cent of volunteers surveyed naming this desire to give back as a driving factor. 

At Victoria’s Lort Smith Animal Hospital, volunteer engagement manager Penelope di Sario says volunteers are absolutely vital to the work of Lort Smith. “And they have been helping us improve the health and happiness of animals and the people who care for them since the 1930s,” she says.

“We have a range of roles and know that people nearing retirement have a wealth of experience and skills to bring to volunteering, and are often looking for meaningful roles to invest some of their free time in,” says Ms di Sario. “Our roles include volunteering as a meet-and-greet concierge or as a laundry/animal care volunteer at our North Melbourne animal hospital; as a cattery or kennels volunteer at our Campbellfield adoption centre; as a foster carer to help rehabilitate animals waiting to be adopted, and with their canine companion as a pet therapy volunteer at a large range of hospitals, nursing homes and other organisations across the community.” 

A small number of dedicated volunteers also help the organisation with fundraising, administration and even writing bereavement cards for people who have recently experienced the death of a pet.

“That’s a really valuable role and we’ve had someone tell us that years later, their card, sitting on the mantlepiece, still brings them comfort,” says Ms di Sario. “We find that mature-aged volunteers, in particular, can also be wonderful mentors for younger volunteers, and we involve, rely on and refer to our experienced volunteers in a number of ways, which makes a huge difference to the Lort Smith family and the animals and people we support.”

At the adoption centre a volunteer shift might include washing trays, feeding the animals, helping staff clean enclosures, putting on a load of towels to wash, walking dogs or spending time on enrichment activities for cats. 

“We currently have around 400 volunteers across our animal hospital, adoption centre, community outreach and foster care programs,” she says.

But with many volunteer reliant organisations still struggling to maintain their volunteer numbers because of factors that include cost-of-living pressures, the lingering effects of the pandemic and changing demographics, Ms di Sario says they are always looking for more help.

“We know that interacting with animals can have multiple benefits for physical and mental health and can reduce loneliness,” she says, adding that working with animals also offers opportunities for people to enrich their lives, connect with other people who share a common interest, use their skills and enjoy ‘giving back’.

 “Volunteering extends across society, including in the arts, education, emergency services, sports, environment, health, aged care and disability, community welfare and other vital community programs,” Mr Pearce says. “Our new analysis of the latest volunteering data demonstrates that not all motivations and modes of volunteering are the same across sectors.”

The lockdown experience taught us the necessity of connection to others, Mr Pearce says, and points to the report’s findings that reveal the desire to seek social contact was the most influential motivation to volunteer in emergency services (53 per cent), arts and heritage (49 per cent), and aged care (45 per cent) organisations. 

Looking ahead, says Mr Pearce, the new National Strategy for Volunteering (2023-2033) presents Volunteering Australia’s collective vision for a future where volunteering is at the heart of Australian communities. 

And with the release of this new data in time for National Volunteer Week, the findings suggest this vision will be realised “through celebrating all the different reasons why people volunteer and what motivates them to be change makers in their communities”.

Have you ever been a volunteer? Do you still volunteer, or are you considering it? What motivates you to get involved?

Read more: Virus’s huge hit on volunteers

Claire Halliday
Claire Hallidayhttps://www.yourlifechoices.com.au
Claire is an accomplished journalist who has written for leading magazines and newspapers, such as The Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Women's Weekly, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone, Australian House & Garden, GQ, The Australian, Herald Sun, The Weekly Review, Kidspot.com.au and The Independent on Sunday (UK).
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