Studying what makes student volunteers tick

Posted on 14 Aug 2023

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Student volunteers

A lack of flexibility around study and a negative bias against young people willing to help are key reasons preventing more students from volunteering.

The insights came straight from the horse’s mouth during an online discussion panel for National Student Volunteer Week.

Hosted by Volunteering Australia and moderated by national strategy director Zac Reimers, the panel comprised three student leaders from different backgrounds who shared their views on how volunteering empowers students to contribute to causes close to their heart.

Each panellist also agreed however that more needs to be done to motivate young Australians to volunteer and make them feel welcome when they do.

Total volunteer numbers across Australia plummeted by more than 200,000 in 2021-2022, part of a significant long term decline. Arresting the fall is a top priority currently being addressed by the National Strategy for Volunteering.

Research released by Volunteering Australia to coincide with National Student Volunteer Week revealed:

  • One in four young Australians aged 18-24 – more than 572,000 - volunteered formerly through an organisation or group in 2022.
  • Young volunteers are most likely to help areas such as animal welfare and health, and least likely to step forward in Aged Care and the arts/heritage sector.

Younger Australians are more likely to engage in virtual volunteering, contributing their skills and talent online rather than in person.

Jamien Frankcombe works as a diesel mechanic and joined the State Emergency Service in Tasmania as a volunteer four years ago.

He told the Student Volunteer Experience panel discussion devoting some of his free time to the SES gave him the chance to learn new skills, meet interesting people and get out on the road.

Jamien Frankcombe.

"It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

Sydney based fellow panellist Janice Rodrigues recently completed university studies in politics, international relations, and socio-legal studies.

“I work with young people at a Migrant Resource Centre and Plan International and volunteer in more political advocacy related roles at Raise our Voice Australia and Democracy in Colour,” she said.

The volunteering bug bit at an early age, when she and a friend put their hands up as high school students to help at their local Vinnies.

“I didn't like the fact that all my brain energy was going into studying, so it almost made me feel like there was meaning in my life outside of school.”

The seed planted in high school continued to grow while attending university and beyond.

“Studying social policy and looking at different groups that are affected by it, I wanted to learn more so I began volunteering with First Nations high schoolers around educational equity and also a Domestic Violence shelter,” said Janice.

“It felt a lot more practical and meaningful, because I was not only contributing my time, but I was learning so much from the young people who were actually involved.”

Janice Rodrigues.

Janice said engaging young volunteers in this way is critical if they are to keep coming back.

“I guess even though there was obviously a certain time commitment involved, just because I was learning so much and it felt really meaningful, I would constantly see myself going back and it just kind of fell into habit for me.”

Amber Tsai is in her final year of a PhD in volunteer leadership studies at the University of Tasmania and has previously been a volunteer with not-for-profit travel agency Travel with a Cause.

She has seen the volunteering equation from all sides.

“I was an international student when I first started volunteering,” she said.

“Then, afterwards, recruiting volunteers became part of my job, and now that I'm studying again, I serve as a volunteer board member for my previous organisation, so I'm a volunteer who studies volunteering!”

“Volunteers are not like paid employees. Their passion is the currency.”
Student volunteer Amber Tsai.

Embracing young volunteers is key

Jamien said in his experience, volunteering is a two-way street.

He remembers turning up to his first training session with the SES and being pleasantly surprised that he was embraced rather than treated as a know nothing newbie.

“They don’t treat you like an outsider who doesn’t know anything, but rather ‘what can I learn from this person that I might not know?’”

Amber said this mutual respect is a crucial piece in the puzzle to engage young volunteers.

“Volunteers are not like paid employees. Their passion is the currency.”

Amber Tsai.

There was recognition from the panellists that if volunteering is to thrive, it was up to young people to make it happen.

Jamien said he is the youngest person in his SES unit where ages range from 40 to 70.

“There is going to come a time where they're going to have to pull the pin and just say, well, that's enough. So, we do need more people to fill their shoes,” he said.

Acknowledging the challenges

Amber said it is important to acknowledge the challenges that may be preventing young students from devoting their time to volunteering, no matter how worthy the cause.

“A lot of young people who do come in as volunteers can be shaping the future,” she said.

“As someone who's also a young person, I totally understand things like fluctuating schedules and how hard it can be to commit time.

“(But) then at the same time, it is frustrating when you're on the other end as well.”

National Strategy for Volunteering logo

Janice said embracing social media through posting about volunteer opportunities and events and networking is a crucial way to engage with potential student volunteers.

“That’s their world,” she said.

While young people are invested in making a difference, for many, there can also be more practical motivations to volunteering.

They include opportunities for mentorship, the chance to learn new skills, bolster their resume and benefit from expanded social connections.

A step by step guide to engaging volunteers

Amber said her research and own experience had shown her it was important to follow the right steps to effectively engage with young volunteers.

One tried and true method is called the EAST framework.


When recruiting volunteers, make the process as easy as possible. The less clicking or typing they have to do, the better.


Talk as much as you can about the benefits people can get from volunteering with your organisation. What’s special about you?


“Include pictures of people in social media posts aimed at recruiting volunteers that your target audience are more likely to identify with and can imagine themselves volunteering with.


When planning to recruit student volunteers, check when their exam period is. It’s a priority for them, so you don’t want to interfere with their academic commitment.

Amber said it’s important younger people first feel satisfied with the contribution they are making before developing a sense that volunteering is intrinsic to who they are.

“Commitment comes later. You need to make them feel emotionally bonded to the goal of the organisation.”

More news

Become a member of ICDA – it's free!