Help sheet: It’s time to act to save our volunteers

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Our Community’s study of the impact of COVID-19 on not-for-profits shows that volunteering has been hard hit by the pandemic.

The COVID-19 Community Sector Impact Survey by Our Community, building on previous findings from April 2020, surveyed 907 NFP representatives and 1,027 members of the public to examine the impact of the pandemic on the sector and what's needed to recover.

We all know that volunteers are our most precious resource and we’ve got to cultivate them and keep them happy for the good of our organisations and our nation. The not-for-profit sector represents 7% of the whole economy and without volunteers the country stops.

Australia’s always been a place where you can count on people to pitch in in an emergency. From fires and floods at one end of the scale to passing round the plate in church at the other, we’ve volunteered for good causes at an impressive rate and supported an enormous infrastructure of not-for-profit organisations. 51% of Australian’s 56,000 charities are wholly volunteer.

We can’t afford to wait until the pandemic ends. If your organisation is one of the 58% that have seen a slump in volunteering, schedule a meeting now and start to turn the tide.

Here are some practical steps you can take.

  • Read the rest of this article, and then hold a strategic planning meeting for your board focused on recruitment and deployment of volunteers
  • Act on the report's findings that 69% of Australians say there are challenges with trying to engage or help not-for-profits, while 45% say its hard to find information on how to volunteer or what opportunities are available.
  • Update your website with a call for new volunteers, with more than half the survey respondents believed an online presence and engagement would encourage them.
  • Schedule an orientation and information session for new volunteers at your next event
  • Download our volunteer management policy template and check it against your current one
  • Check in with your existing volunteers, especially anyone who has recently left your organisation, and ask them what might be holding them back. Consider asking them to take a volunteer satisfaction survey – you’ll find a sample survey at the end of our volunteer management policy template.
  • Thank your volunteers for all the work they do – it might just keep them coming back. See our fourteen ways to thank your volunteers.
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Understanding the problem: How we got to this point

At the peak of volunteering in Australia in 2010, the Bureau of Statistics’ General Social Survey showed 36% of us – rather more than a third – had joined up as volunteers. That’s still a minority pursuit, to be sure, but the comparable figures for the US and the UK were 22% and 25%.

2010 is about where the good news ends, though. There’s been a continuous plunge since then. By 2014, the Australian volunteering rate had fallen to 31%. By 2019, to 29%. More specifically, involvement in purely social groups has dropped by 20%, in community support groups by 25%, and political and civic groups by a blistering 50%, leaving a lot of time clear for playing computer games. Fewer of us donate, too.

Rates also dropped in the US and the UK, although not by quite as much. People have been looking for reasons for this widespread and consistent fall.

Suggestions include:

A decline in organised religion

A fairly high proportion of volunteers used to be devoted to church-related enterprises – church fetes, Sunday schools, general fundraising, and the like – and the number of churchgoers has been falling away even faster than the general volunteering rate.

Generational change

A recent YouGov Consumer Sentiment Survey found that 23% of Baby Boomers (those aged 57 to 75) volunteer several times a week, compared with 14% of Gen Xers (those aged 40 to 56), 16% of the Silent Generation (those aged 76 to 103), 11% of Millennials (those aged 25 to 40) and 9% of Gen Z (those aged 12 to 24).

A decline in institutional measures of community

There was a time when younger couples tended to take on the responsibilities of adulthood when they got married and bought a house. Young people in all the advanced economies are getting married and having children older, and are having increasing difficulty buying land. Does this result in a lesser investment in the local community?

All that is pretty speculative, and none of it really fits the timelines. However, there’s also ...

The smartphone

The timing is suggestive; patterns of disruption that follow the smartphone do run deeply through many aspects of modern relationships, and they probably run into this one too. Traditional modes of social engagement – shops, the office, clubs – are blinking out.

And that, of course, was before COVID. Suddenly there were no more fetes, no more wine bottlings, no more in-person board meetings. A large chunk of traditional volunteering evaporated overnight. What did that do to people’s underlying commitments?

Kicked it in the guts, basically. In Our Community’s April 2020 COVID-19 Community Sector Impact Survey, 58% of NFPs that rely on volunteer labour said they’d experienced a drop in volunteer numbers in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, with 43% reporting a significant drop in numbers.

This year, the difficulties have become even more pronounced, with 64% of respondents reporting a drop in volunteers. The only glimpse of good news is that in the latest survey only 34% said they’d experienced a significant decrease, so 9% had won some of their supporters back.

Overall, though, a large majority (81%) of 2021 respondents said the pandemic had affected their ability to manage and recruit volunteers.

Our Community’s figures are backed up by other surveys. The ABS, for example, has also been investigating post-covid, and it’s even more pessimistic.

“In 2020, two out of every three volunteers stopped volunteering… In 2021, volunteering has yet to fully recover. Only one in five people are now volunteering.”

The general picture, then, is anything but cheerful. As with many other aspects of living, COVID has just provided a final push to social habits and lifestyles and institutions that have been increasingly rickety for a decade.

That’s where we have to start from, but where we can go from here?


Volunteering in the 21st century: Finding a way out

In the first half of this piece we looked at the evidence that Australian volunteering numbers have been dropping steeply for a decade and have taken a further battering during the pandemic. If things are going to stay the same – if Australian community groups are going to be able to cope with the chores that Australia shoves on their shoulders – things are going to have to change. In this half we’ll look at what that means.

One thing we can and should do, of course, is to try harder – put more effort into recruitment, improve our induction to reduce burnout, pay more attention to volunteers’ needs. We can try and make it all easier. The Bureau of Statistics, in its recent report, asked people why they’d dropped out. For about 25% it was pure COVID; those people may come back. 30% said they couldn’t fit volunteering in around work, and 22% said they couldn’t fit it in around family. Some 3% couldn’t afford it. Those are practical problems that can be worked on.

It’s also clear, though, that a lot of those answers are putting a more socially acceptable face on “I don’t want to.” Which is a real problem.

It’s easy to say “Move your volunteering online, where the people are,” so we’ll do that, too. Volunteers now do want to have an online option.

We have to understand that, increasingly, it doesn’t matter how our organisations have been doing things. It doesn’t matter what we want our volunteers to do. It doesn’t even matter what we need. What counts – what we’ll have to come to terms with – is what volunteers want. We have to find out what Australians want in their involvement with their good causes, and give it to them.

Australians haven’t become selfish bastards overnight. Young people come out in tens of thousands to fight for a meaningful response to climate change. We all joined together to bring in gay marriage. Their understanding of their interactions with society, though, has changed.

They won’t stay in one job for years, or one charity. They’re time-poor (except in lockdowns, when they have other restrictions). They want their involvement in short discrete packages where they can sign out at any time. They want to see all stages of the process, and don’t want to be given the jobs nobody else wants. They value flexibility.

They want to have their contribution designed around their own needs. They’re interested and engaged – informal person-to-person volunteering may have gone up over the lockdown – but they’re not necessarily interested in the things that have in the past made NFPs workable. Many want short, personalised, personal, unmediated access to fixing social ills; they’re smartphone social justice warriors.

You have to be able to say what’s in it for them – not in terms of money, but in personal, spiritual or career opportunities. They want to be able to use their brains as well as their brawn. They want to make a difference to the world – and they want the organisation they are volunteering for to make it clear how their help is achieving that.

If we are to open up new possibilities, we have to be prepared to jettison a lot of the things we do now. It’s the Kodak problem; does moving to the new ways mean we lose our old support without being guaranteed a place in the new world?

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Consider what motivates your volunteers to get involved. Picture: Penny Stephens.

How much does your organisation depend on volunteer labour?

  • How many volunteers do you have on your books?
  • What’s their dollar value, at roughly $25 an hour?
  • What areas of the organisation use them?
  • What do they do?

How would you cope with a drop in numbers?

  • How would a 20/40/60% drop in volunteer time affect you?
  • Are you able to move any part of your work into a less volunteer-oriented model?
  • If so, how long would it take to make the change?

What are your choke points?

  • What key areas are volunteer-dependant?
  • What risks does that pose to your operations?

What do you think prospective volunteers want of you?

Your board has to turn its attention to all the questions above while there’s still time. When you’ve done this, return to the bullet list of actions at the start of this article. The model of volunteering that’s got us to where we are today is outmoded. Australia is going to have to work out a whole new approach based on what volunteers want, and that starts with your board or committee. It’s time to start that conversation.

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