VOLUNTEERISM – THE HIGHS, THE LOWS, THE CHALLENGES & THE OPPORTUNITIES
Gympie and District Landcare Group started as a volunteer group 35 years ago in 1988, by some of our local graziers, aiming to promote responsible land management in our region. Over that time span and thanks to those and many more amazing and committed volunteers we’ve grown a lot. We are now a business, employing approximately 15 people, with a range of services and products ranging from our well-known tubestock plants to our own potting mix range, worms, vermi-liquid and habitat boxes. We sell biological control insects for the highly invasive Cat’s Claw and Madeira Vine. And our hard-working bush regeneration team are out there doing weed management, replanting and giving advice to people aiming to restore their own properties.
While we’ve grown a lot, we are fortunate to have the continuing support from a very dedicated group of volunteers, including a fully volunteer-based management committee. Last year, our volunteers collectively contributed an amazing 8,716 hours to the organisation, our environment and our community. We simply could not exist without them and certainly would not have survived the enduring impacts of COVID and floods without their continuing support and dedication.
Gympie Landcare is not alone in our reliance on the contribution of volunteers. Across Australia, the importance of volunteering would be hard to overestimate. In 2019, it’s estimated volunteers contributed nearly 600 million hours to the community. To put this at the government recommended economic contribution rate of $36/hour, volunteerism contributed a whopping 21.6 billion dollars to our nation.
But volunteerism has been in decline for many years, with the Australian Bureau of statistics showing that between 2014 and 2019, there was a 20% decrease in volunteering hours. And then COVID came along. Research conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) revealed that two out of three volunteers stopped volunteering in 2020 during the early stages of COVID-19. This was the equivalent of 12.2 million volunteer hours per week. While there has been a slight rise in volunteers since then we know that as of early 2022, Australia continues to have 1.86 million fewer volunteers compared to pre-COVID.
This dramatic decline in volunteering has significant consequences for organisations such as ours. Post-COVID, a third of organisations who rely on volunteers, including ours, continue to have fewer volunteers than pre-COVID, placing both financial stress on the organisations and emotional stress on staff and remaining volunteers as they try to continue supporting communities in their own way. Additionally and ironically, while there are fewer volunteers, the demand for them is increasing as climate change impacts in the form of natural disasters, and social stressors such as houselessness and the rising cost of living, place ever-increasing pressure on our communities and our environment.
Many of the problems that impede the volunteering sector today are long-standing issues that volunteer-based organisations continue to find challenging to address: inadequate resourcing of volunteer management, poor recognition of volunteers, and an overall lack of strategic development and investment. However, these problems are now further compounded with higher living costs forcing people to work longer hours, and unemployment rates at the lowest rate in decades, decreasing both the capacity of volunteers to contribute, and the pool of volunteers that organisations and communities can tap into.
Opportunities for organisations such as ours also exist. For example, being creative in ways that bring in new cohorts of volunteers and redesigning volunteering programs to be more diverse, inclusive, efficient, and responsive to volunteer interests and availability. Volunteers and organisations have already shown great resilience and adaptability during recent crises. During COVID-19, many informal community volunteers emerged to support those in need, showing that the great spirit of community contribution is still well and truly alive in Australia.
Volunteering is essential to the nation’s recovery and its ongoing wellbeing. Volunteers are part of the nation’s workforce and every local community, playing vital roles in many sectors including environmental protection. Research consistently demonstrates that volunteering can contribute to good mental health and wellbeing. Volunteering also builds social cohesion and community resilience which will be much needed in the coming years.
Volunteer organisations and national bodies such as Volunteering Australia, supported by local, regional and national government have an opportunity to do things differently. And this is Gympie Landcare’s challenge and opportunity. How do we change the way we support and manage our volunteers? How do we become a more inclusive and flexible volunteering organisation? We feel we have so much to offer those looking to contribute to the environment and to the community. Our organisation offers an extremely wide range of activities people could take part in. Of course, there are the plants and planting, but there is so much more. We could use help in general maintenance, building habitat boxes, marketing our products, attending community events, community education and more.
Gympie Landcare is currently going through the process of reassessing our volunteer program and how we can offer people wanting to volunteer in this space a safe, inclusive and positive experience. Stand by as we work through this and become better and stronger for our volunteers, our community and our stunningly beautiful environment. This blog explores volunteerism for both Australia and Gympie Landcare in more detail: the highs, the lows, the challenges and the opportunities.
Volunteering in Australia is in crisis, having lost a staggering 1.86 million volunteers throughout COVID. While COVID drove it to an extreme, volunteerism had prior to that been in decline for many years.
The challenges that the decline in volunteerism has for organisations such as Gympie Landcare are large. They include financial stress on the organisation and emotional stress and fatigue on remaining staff and volunteers as they strive to continue to deliver the same service to community and environment.
Yet there are also opportunities out there. As ongoing natural disasters have shown, people continue to want to help, to support those in need whether they are humans, animals, or natural environments. So how do we as an environment- and community-based organisation change the way we do things in order to provide a positive volunteering experience for all? That’s the question we are currently trying to find answers to.
Alex Van Beek