Virus’s huge hit on volunteers

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 govolunteer.com.au.

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

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Written by Janelle Ward

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