Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

The 2019-20 bushfires and the current COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated again the critical role of volunteers to our nation’s resilience and wellbeing.

Volunteer firefighters were on the frontline of the bushfire response, and many more volunteers continue to support bushfire-affected communities recover and rebuild. Community volunteers have organised in their neighbourhoods to help those in need throughout COVID-19 and volunteers have been essential workers in ensuring many services, such as food relief, have been provided throughout the crisis.

But what has any of this got to do with the Federal Budget?

Volunteering is not free

A common misunderstanding is that volunteering is ‘free’.

However, like the paid workforce, the unpaid volunteer workforce requires investment – for example, in training, induction, and management. Further, volunteers typically face costs associated with volunteering, from travel costs to equipment.

An infrastructure of volunteer support services and peak bodies provides guidance to, and advocates for, the nation’s nearly 6 million volunteers.  None of this comes for free.

To some extent, the Federal Government recognises this.

The Department of Social Services funds Volunteer Grants and the Volunteer Management Activity. Volunteer Grants are aimed at supporting Australia’s volunteers, with grants of between $1,000 and $5,000 provided to organisations and community groups to assist their volunteers, for example to purchase equipment, for training or fundraising. The Volunteer Management Activity provides funds to volunteer support services to foster and enable volunteering.

What is in the Budget?

The Budget included continued funding for both these programs – of $10 million and around $6 million per annum, respectively.

No new funding was allocated to volunteering in the Budget.

This is despite volunteering taking a big hit during COVID, and research demonstrating the impact volunteering can have on individual and community wellbeing.

Volunteering has not ‘snapped back’

Analysis by ANU researchers, Nick Biddle and Matthew Gray, showed the decline in volunteering during COVID-19 has been substantial, with two in three volunteers (66 per cent) estimated to have stopped volunteering between February and April 2020 – a reduction in volunteering of 12.2 million hours per week. Women were more likely to have stopped volunteering than men, as were volunteers over the age of 65 compared to other age groups. Emerging evidence suggests that volunteering has not ‘snapped back’ as restrictions are being lifted.

This comes on top of an ongoing decline in volunteering. The 2019 General Social Survey data released last month, showed the volunteering rate has declined from 36.2% in 2010, to 30.9% in 2014 and to 28.8% in 2019. The decline has been most evident for women, whose rate decreased from 33.0% in 2014 to 28.1% in 2019.

The benefits of volunteering on individuals and communities, particularly at this time of crisis

The ANU poll research also considered the impact of volunteering on mental health. Life satisfaction and psychological distress varied by volunteering behaviour, with those who managed to continue volunteering during COVID-19 faring much better. These findings complement a wide-ranging literature that links volunteering with preventative mental and physical health outcomes.

In addition to these individual benefits, volunteers of course contribute to sustaining the health and wellbeing of others – the communities they serve. Volunteers play vital roles in disability, health, palliative, aged care, and community services, as well as sports clubs, the arts, environmental protection, and in response to emergencies as evidenced in last summer’s bushfires and during COVID-19.

Volunteering can help build social cohesion and community resilience which will be much needed in the coming years. At a time when paid jobs might be scarce, volunteering can also mitigate against poor mental health outcomes and support pathways to paid employment. Volunteering can play a vital role in helping the nation through to recovery, if supported to do so.

The Government could have done more

The Budget could have invested in the infrastructure and supports that would make volunteering safe, inclusive, effective, and sustainable into the future. Additional funds to support the reactivation of volunteers and volunteer programs is much needed. And volunteering initiatives targeted at certain groups, for example young unemployed people, resonates with and could have been funded through the ‘jobs and growth’ imperative. But volunteering was sidelined in the Budget.

This is all the more concerning given the Budget’s relative neglect of the social sector and those ‘doing it tough’ and its failure to address key social policy concerns such as social housing, child and aged care, and unemployment payments.

Volunteering is an act of civil society. But this does not negate an important role for government. Reinvigorating volunteering will require all parts of the volunteering ecosystem to play their part – volunteers, volunteer involving organisations, support services, and peak bodies. The Federal Government has a distinct and vital role to play in providing strategic leadership and investing funds to enable volunteering to thrive.


Other Budget Forum 2020 articles

Blink and You’ll Miss It: What the Budget Did for Working Mums, by Miranda Stewart.

Economic Stimulus through a Gender Lens: Why the Budget Did Not Deliver, by Helen Hodgson.

Progressivity and the Personal Income Tax Plan, by Sonali Walpola and Yuan Ping.

Training Subsidies and Market Failures, by John Freebairn.

Getting Coherence into the Equity Debate – Part 3, by Andrew Podger.

Getting Coherence into the Equity Debate – Part 2, by Andrew Podger.

Getting Coherence into the Equity Debate – Part 1, by Andrew Podger.

Talk of Aspiration Is Not Borne Out in Federal Budget Papers, by John Hewson.

Asymmetric Taxation of Business Income and Losses, by John Freebairn.

Economic Security for Older Partnered Women and Widows: Fixing Gaps in Australia’s Superannuation System, by Monica Costa, Helen Hodgson, Siobhan Austen and Rhonda Sharp.

Heroic Assumptions in Budget Omit One Major Threat: A Global Debt Crunch, by John Hewson.

Dream Budget or Not? by Shumi Akhtar.

Will Instant Asset Write-Offs Boost Jobs? by Michael Coelli.

It’s Not the Size of the Budget Deficit That Counts; It’s How You Use It, by Steven Hamilton.

Looking for Bold Reform? Get Rid of Payroll Taxes, by Robert Breunig.

It’s Time to Meet Key Social Policy Challenges in COVID Recovery, by John Hewson.

Meet the Liveable Income Guarantee, a Budget-Ready Proposal That Would Prevent Unemployment Benefits Falling off a Cliff, by John Quiggin, Elise Klein and Troy Henderson.

COVID-19 Strengthens Australians’ Belief in the Fair Go, Government Should Support the Vulnerable, by Emma Dawson.

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