The perfect storm is hitting the community sector as calls for support are met with a declining number of volunteers.
While millions of hours of volunteer work were lost every week during the pandemic, the dramatic decline in volunteering is also driving further community disconnection. Australia now needs these volunteers back supporting their communities.
The economic contribution of Australia's volunteer workforce is estimated to be worth billions of dollars each year.
Research from Volunteering Australia indicated that 83% of respondents needed more volunteers immediately or in the near future.
The biggest opportunity to shift the tide back towards volunteering is to look at corporate Australia. Corporate volunteers, in particular, have the ability to make a significant contribution to the economic and social wellbeing of Australia.
To do this effectively however we need to look more closely at “volunteering” – volunteering for its own sake versus volunteering for impact.
For too long, non-profit organisations have had to design tailored one-day-a-year “feel-good” volunteering experiences to capture the attention of corporates seeking options for their employees to give back to the community.
While these one-off volunteers undoubtably provide a valuable community service and the arrangement works well for some services, the range of activities that fall into this space is limited, as is the scope for employees to provide support beyond routine tasks.
How many employers would bring in a resource for one day per year? It doesn’t make sense. It’s time to move beyond this tick-the-box approach, and commit to a broader scope of meaningful volunteering opportunities that can have real impact in the community, with employees having the satisfaction of knowing that they have genuinely made a difference.
With all the difficulties brought by the pandemic, the shift in focus back to purpose and values, is something that needs to be harnessed by corporates and their CSR and volunteering programs.
Volunteering programs need to have purpose, they need to have meaning, and participants need to understand the positive impact they are creating in the community.
Origin Energy offers employees unlimited volunteer leave to participate in activities organised by its philanthropic Foundation, or by regional community teams. While volunteering in the general population has dropped to 24.8%, Origin’s participation rate of 42% is almost back to pre-pandemic levels – with approximately a fifth in regional areas, where the need for volunteers is most dire.
Where possible, Origin’s volunteering program is aligned to our Foundation’s focus on breaking the cycle of disadvantage through education. Of the 7,000 hours volunteered in last financial year, approximately 40% were directly related to education, reaching more than 5000 students, many at Australia’s most remote and disadvantaged schools.
Unlimited volunteer leave allows employees to participate in longer term programs such as RAISE Foundation mentoring with at-risk young people, requiring an in-person commitment of two hours per week over 22 weeks. Or to spend a week running school outreach programs in far-north Queensland. Or to provide ongoing skilled volunteering support over weeks, months and in some cases years – in technology, project support, process mapping, communications, data visualisation and translation, to name just a few.
Our partners consistently tell us, anonymously and through independent survey, that our volunteering program delivers value to them. But this deeper connection with community through volunteering provides benefits for the employees as well, with 84% of our volunteers telling us the experience increased their pride in working at Origin, and 81% gaining a greater awareness of wider social issues.
It could be argued that any kind of volunteering is better than none – one-off volunteering certainly provides a “feel-good” factor, as well as delivering much-needed services. So, let’s keep doing that, but let’s do more. As corporates, we have the combined capability to reduce the serious short-fall in volunteering that is threatening the fabric of our community. We need to go beyond the transactional, fee-for-service, tick-in the-box contribution.
Let’s throw out the “one-day-a-year” policy, work alongside our community partners to better understand their needs, and find the most meaningful ways for our employees to make a difference.
Volunteering Australia is currently leading the development of a National Strategy for Volunteering, which will provide a blueprint for a reimagined future for volunteering in Australia. The Origin Energy Foundation is part of the Corporate Volunteering Working Group, which is considering how workplace volunteering should be featured in the National Strategy. The project is a seminal opportunity for us to work together to advance volunteering, amplify its impact, and collaboratively design a future for volunteering in Australia that enables it to thrive.