Spate of disasters highlights Aussies willing to step forward and step up

Posted on 20 Feb 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Volunteers SS

Volunteer numbers may be in decline, but civic minded Australians continue to punch above their weight responding to everything from natural disaster to requests to transcribe the war time love letters and diaries of ex-servicemen and women.

Much has been said about the declining number of volunteers in Australia and what can be done to reverse the worrying trend.

The number of Australians stepping up to help in the community slumped by 200,000 in 2021-2022, part of a long-term trend that has prompted the launch of the National Strategy for Volunteering to address the problem.

While the fall in volunteering is of concern, the stellar efforts of people willing to step-up in a range of scenarios in recent weeks show civic mindedness is far from dead for many Australians, as this list of media coverage compiled by the Community Council for Australia shows:

Volunteers have also been on the frontline of natural disaster, from last week’s devastating storms in Victoria which caused havoc across the state to events such as tropical cyclone Jasper in Queensland.

Despite these heroic efforts, the plight of the Queensland branch of Meals on Wheels illustrated the enormity of the task when it comes to boosting volunteer numbers.

The charity has seen an almost 50% decline in volunteers in the sunshine state since the start of the covid pandemic according to its latest annual report.

Meals on Wheels Queensland chief executive Evan Hill told the impact of the pandemic, compounded by the rising cost of living, had contributed to dwindling volunteer numbers.

"COVID has impacted the numbers of volunteers over the past three to four years and the cost-of-living crisis does see more people in the community needing to work two or more jobs which has an impact on their availability to volunteer," he said.

The decline in volunteers comes as the charity, which delivers more than 2.6 million meals annually 19,000 elderly and disabled Queenslanders, sees demand for its services surge by 35%.

“Volunteering has always been a part of the Australian way of life, but it cannot be taken for granted and the future of volunteering in Australia is not assured.”
Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce.

A new approach

Disaster management experts have called for a reassessment of Australia’s approach to mobilising and managing volunteers.

In its submission to the Alternative Commonwealth Capabilities for Crisis Response Discussion Paper, Disaster Relief Australia CEO Geoff Evans said Australia needed to plan ahead rather than rely on the mobilisation of well-meaning but often untrained “spontaneous” volunteers when disaster strikes.

He said developing a “surge capacity” composed of trained volunteers who possessed the right skills such as military veterans and first responders, meant they could be promptly mobilised when needed.

“By formalising the inclusion of private, public or not-for-profit organisations in emergency management plans, we can facilitate greater surge capacity during disaster recovery and allow for public service leave arrangements to extend volunteering with these organisations.”

Mr Evans said rigid models of volunteering that required regular attendance and training on-site were a contributing factor in the decline in volunteer numbers.

“DRA provides a flexible model of volunteering, recognising existing skills and experience and allowing members to participate when and where they can.”

Volunteer fire CFA
Volunteers have stepped up to help in response to natural disasters ranging from cyclones in Queensland to wild storms and bushfires in Victoria.

The 9th edition of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) Charities Report revealed volunteers continue to underpin charity work, with half of all charities operating with no paid staff.

In a recent comment piece published in the Community Advocate to mark the first anniversary of the National Strategy for Volunteering, Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce said achieving the blueprints 10 year vision to make volunteering the heart of Australian communities would require a concerted effort.

“Volunteering has always been a part of the Australian way of life, but it cannot be taken for granted and the future of volunteering in Australia is not assured.”

Mr Pearce said the National Strategy for Volunteering was anchored in the realities of today with a vision for 2033.

“At a time of extreme global unrest and in the face of a looming climate disaster, volunteering remains one of the most effective and accessible ways we can create a future we can be proud of.”

Charities Minister Andrew Leigh paid tribute to the tireless efforts of volunteers across the country.

“In recent weeks, we’ve seen the best from emergency services personnel, including our heroic volunteers,” he said.

Charities Minister Andrew Leigh.

“Faced with terrifying natural disasters, the natural instinct is to run away, but it’s volunteers who we often see running towards the threat – battling to extinguish fires and save lives. 

“Volunteers keep the country running and it’s during the dark times, when disasters strike that we’re reminded of just how essential they are.”

Mr Leigh acknowledged that Australians were now less likely to join, volunteer and participate than they once were.

He said as part of Canberra’s efforts to reverse these trends, the federal government wants to ensure that Australians can volunteer in their local communities.

“Volunteers help to connect communities, but they also provide a valuable experience to those who give their time,” said Mr Leigh.

“For many young people, volunteering can be life-affirming. For some, it can be life changing.”

Mr Leigh said in addition to offering support through the National Strategy for Volunteering, the government was developing long term strategies to encourage more people to volunteer.

“To the thousands of volunteers who’ve been helping their communities when it matters the most – thank you for the work you do. You make this country better.” 

More information

Australia’s National Strategy for Volunteering turns one

Studying what makes student volunteers tick

Boost to volunteers helping elderly age with dignity

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