Virus’s huge hit on volunteers

COVID-19 deprives critically important sector of 12 million hours per week: study.

volunteers in a food kitchen

Volunteers are the lifeblood of so many parts of our society – from school tuckshops to footy clubs to Meals on Wheels. And COVID-19 is having a dramatic effect on their participation in normal activities, just as it is in almost every aspect of our lives.

Just how big an impact has been highlighted by an Australian National University (ANU) survey. It found that 66 per cent of volunteers had stopped volunteering since February 2020, costing organisations 12.2 million volunteer hours per week.

Commissioned by Volunteering Australia, the study’s findings have been announced in National Volunteer Week.  

About seven million Australians are regular volunteers and while that figure has been steadily climbing in recent years, the coronavirus, understandably, has caused it to plummet.

Professor Nicholas Biddle, from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, said the estimated value of volunteering to the Australian economy work was billions of dollars each year.

“The decline in volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic will potentially reduce the amount and quality of services that many Australians rely on,” he said.

“And if the level of volunteering in Australia continues to decline substantially and does not pick up as physical distancing restrictions are eased, then there are likely to be large flow-on effects for Australians who rely on volunteers, and for the volunteers themselves.”

Prof. Biddle said the survey clearly highlighted volunteers’ higher level of life satisfaction compared with non-volunteers and showed that satisfaction had dropped as a result of COVID-19.

“We found that life satisfaction has dipped for all Australians, regardless of whether they were volunteers or not, and whether they stopped or continued to volunteer,” he said.

“What is important to note, however, is that the drop in life satisfaction was far less for those who were able to continue to volunteer compared to those who weren’t.”

Volunteering Australia chief executive Adrienne Picone said she was confident volunteers would flood back once restrictions were eased.

“It’s important for people to remember that once COVID-19 restrictions lift, most volunteering programs will resume as normal and will be actively re-engaging with their volunteers and possibly seeking new volunteers,” Ms Picone said.

volunteer delivering food to an older couple during covid-19 lockdown

Volunteering Australian policy manager and ANU lecturer Sue Regan says volunteering needs to come out of the policy shadows.

She says volunteering is largely absent from critical policy debates.

“We need to be talking now – during National Volunteers Week, and beyond – about how we ensure that volunteering is part of substantive debates around community, environmental, and economic wellbeing,” she says.

“There seems to be an assumption that volunteers will just step up during crises and, for example, fill the gaps of poorly funded community services. But volunteering does not just happen and is not free.

“To be safe and effective, volunteers need induction, training and ongoing management and support, as Volunteering Australia has consistently argued over the years. This requires investment and leadership, and it requires we think strategically about the role that volunteers can and should play in the future.”

Ms Regan says it’s past time to take volunteering into current policy debates flowing from recent crises.

“How do we best harness the volunteer workforce during the current pandemic? As the next bushfire season approaches, to what extent can and should we rely on volunteer firefighters as bushfires get more severe?

“What role has the volunteering sector in helping provide meaningful activity to unemployed people in the coming recession? How do we reinvigorate volunteering as part of returning Australia to social and economic health, post COVID-19?”

Ms Regan wants policymakers from across government to engage in these questions to ensure the enormous value of volunteering is not left to chance.

But this week, which is themed ‘Changing communities. Changing lives’, make sure you acknowledge volunteers with a wave and a smile. And if you’re interested in volunteering, go to

Are you a volunteer? Or do you rely on volunteers? Has it enriched your life?

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    21st May 2020
    My Dad has volunteered for a suicide helpline for over 10 years and I know he has missed it greatly during this time. It's a reason to get out and about, interact socially, and feel as though you are helping the community.
    21st May 2020
    Don't understand why your dad was stood down. Phone counselling does not require social contact. And advertising round me is for more people not fewer.
    Horace Cope
    21st May 2020
    "Are you a volunteer? Or do you rely on volunteers? Has it enriched your life?"

    We are volunteers but have been stood down due to COVID-19 as we volunteer in the health sector. It has enriched our lives in many ways, the most important being meeting with like-minded people who are also volunteers. It also gives us a reason to be somewhere at an appointed time where people are relying on us to turn up for work. The most important thing about retiring is to compensate for the lack of responsibility that was a big part of our work life. For 50+ years workmates have been relying on us to turn up and be a part of a team and this is the thing most people miss most; a feeling of being wanted. Volunteering gives us that feeling to a great extent.
    21st May 2020
    I am a Vinnies volunteer, however, our shop in predominately manned by a workforce that are over 70. I am 75 and my husband is 80 with major health problems. So to protect him I won't be returning to my volunteering job post virus. I think that this age group of volunteers are over represented across the board, so I can't see normality returning in a hurry
    21st May 2020
    Many Meals on Wheels volunteers are in their 70s, even 80s. They usually work in teams of two, who are often not a household couple. So at least in Queensland, the organization stood stand down these otherwise enthusiastic volunteers because they are in the high mortality risk groups, and incapable of social distancing while seated together in a vehicle. The great majority will be keen to return to their work, and the clients to go back to hot meal options.
    21st May 2020
    And yet there are so many people volunteering now that didn't before the lockdown.
    Another doom and gloom piece!
    Ted Wards
    22nd May 2020
    I guess they were not aware of the Federal Governments directive to all Commonwealth Home Support Programs so that we did not lose our jobs we have deployed as volunteers to organisations like Meals on Wheels and are volunteering our services and resources to support such vital services. Organisations like St Johns Patient Transport are also volunteering.

    Maybe one of the reasons is that their view of what constitutes volunteering is too narrow and they are not looking at the full picture. There are plenty of people who have signed up to volunteer that have not been contact yet. The Queensland Care Army has said there are too many people signed up for the roles they have available.

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