This week marks National Volunteer Week, an annual initiative that sees the work of volunteers across Australia recognised and celebrated - and it has been heartening to see the extensive media coverage the week has already received.
While the contribution of volunteer workforces should be recognised and celebrated every day, there is definitely a place for a dedicated week that brings attention to the hundreds of millions of hours donated by millions of people each year.
In fact the 2016 Census showed that 3.6 million people had volunteered in their community in the last 12 months. We know anecdotally that this would be much higher due to informal volunteering, such as helping family and friends, which is often not counted. In fact the count is much closer to 6 million now.
While we often hail (and rightly so) volunteers who are front and centre and therefore visible, such as health or event volunteers, there is a huge workforce that go on quietly and without fanfare.
There are endless amounts of board directors, committee members, Ambassadors, service volunteers, support staff, officials, administrative volunteers, family and friends who tirelessly donate their time and input, not to mention those who don’t even consider their contribution volunteering – because 'it is just what they do'. The reality is that volunteers change communities and change lives.
Research by the University of South Australia back in 2012 found that volunteers contributed $200 billion to the Australian economy, more than the mining industry at the time. MORE THAN THE MINING INDUSTRY.
So why doesn’t the sector get the recognition and funding it requires?
The volunteering sector is fortunate to have some leading practitioners forging the way and advocating, yet in many organisations, it is still an uphill battle.
Why aren’t volunteer departments given the training and resources they need? Why doesn't management value volunteer departments? Why does volunteer management often get assigned to someone with no prior experience? Why is a stakeholder group, that is often relied on so heavily, taken for granted? Why do the skills and experience of volunteers become invisible once they are in a generic role?
We know the qualitative research demonstrates the view that volunteers are ‘free’ help for (sometimes) ‘unskilled’ roles with no emphasis on the importance of them. If they are free, then why do they need money dedicated to them? (This continues to be evident when managers of volunteers are usually assumed to be volunteers themselves). This is not only an inaccurate but a dangerous view when you consider the size of the sector and the risks with loosely managed programs.
Are we our own worst enemy by underplaying the huge impact of volunteer contributions? Should we re-frame how we talk about volunteer contribution?
The future of volunteering needs to see the sector treated with the respect and resources it deserves. And that comes from within and outside the sector itself. The Health sector currently leads the way in volunteer engagement advocacy and continues to challenge the status quo for a positive impact.
I have always thought that the word ‘volunteer’ does a disservice to the sector. It is not that there is anything wrong with the actual word but it immediately generalises a workforce that comes from incredibly varied backgrounds of experience, skills, passion and outlooks.
The general term ‘volunteer’ reduces this workforce to a catch phrase of ‘the volunteers’ without giving credit to the immense value, service and skill that each and every person brings to their role, not to mention their individual stories.
Too many times I have heard "can't the volunteers just do that?", "don't you have any spare volunteers?", "we don't need the volunteers anymore for tomorrow's shift" or "can't a volunteer just do a different job instead?" - this reflects the attitude of those outside of volunteer management departments that volunteer workforces are expendable.
Sponsors and other key supporters wouldn't be treated like this yet why does it continue with our largest stakeholder?
This National Volunteer Week is an opportunity to not only thank and recognise everyone who donates their time but to call all of us to action on how we can influence attitudes and strengthen this major contributor to the Australian economy.
Georgie Stayches is Founder and Managing Director of Fetching Events & Communications, a boutique agency specialising in event management, communications and volunteer management.