Volunteering takes new shape in a changing world
This International Volunteering Day, the call is out for Australia to boost its ranks of volunteers, with the sector seeking new ways to re-engage with people who dropped their charitable work during the pandemic.
A recent survey by Volunteering Australia found that around 1.86 million fewer people gave their time this year compared to 2019, after two out of every three volunteers stepped away during the pandemic amid lockdowns and public health concerns.
At the same time, demand for volunteers from community organisations has escalated: more than 83 per cent of surveyed organisations said they would benefit from the support of more volunteers.
“Volunteers make a huge contribution to Australia’s social and economic wellbeing and are now needed more than ever to ensure stability and recovery in the wake of COVID-19,” says Mark Pearce, chief executive of Volunteering Australia.
Pearce says the cause of the slow bounce back is an overwhelming feeling among volunteers of being time-poor. About 40 per cent of people say they feel rushed or pressed for time, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data. This has led many people to be less interested in regular, formal or longer-term volunteering commitments, he says.
In response, many charities have had to rethink how they engage volunteers, including finding ways to continue offering online opportunities, a working style that was adopted by many for the first time during the pandemic, like other workplaces across the world.
“Volunteering has naturally adapted to this new world of working from home,” says Cristina Carter, a Westpac employee who chairs the bank’s internal Skilled Volunteer Network, recognising the role corporations need to play in reinvigorating the sector.
“While in-person activities – like a weekly hour at a soup kitchen or planting trees – are absolutely still important, volunteering is certainly not limited to that,” she says.
“That’s why we’ve focused the strategy of the bank’s Skilled Volunteer Network on ensuring employees can volunteer their personal and professional skills like website development, strategy and business planning, social media, and graphic design, from a place – and at a time – that suits them, which we know these days is often at home.
“We’ve found that when people realise they can do this remotely, they’re more likely to volunteer again, and connect more deeply with the organisations they support,” says Carter.
This was the case for Lavinia Rarinca, who works in Westpac’s Risk Chief Transformation Office. Lavinia offered her professional skills remotely to support not-for-profit organisation, UsherKids, a parent-led support group to enhance the lives of children diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, a rare genetic condition causing vision and hearing impairment.
“I supported UsherKids as a business mentor, helping the founders in defining their strategy, exploring financial opportunities, particularly around funding, corporate sponsorships, and other commercial activities, and developed a three-year business plan to ensure the financial viability and sustainability of the organisation.
“Volunteering might feel different in this new world, but the silver lining is that virtual collaboration has opened more options for small not-for-profit organisations like UsherKids to be supported by professionally skilled volunteers. I was inspired by the resilience and determination of the founders, as well as their passion for the cause, and by spending just a few hours of my time working remotely, I could make a big contribution,” Rarinca says.
Similarly, Sachin Patil, a solution designer at Westpac, drew on his coding expertise to help Mettle Women, an organisation that employs women who have experienced homelessness as a result of domestic and family violence.
“The team was looking for help with inserting API integration code on their website using a program that I was familiar with. I did this entirely over Zoom and screenshare, explaining the steps and upskilling the Mettle team on the process for the future as well,” Patil says.
“It’s amazing to know that I was able to make a difference to an organisation all from the comfort of my home.”
The number of people volunteering virtually is on the rise. In 2022, 39 per cent of volunteers chose to give back over the internet, data from Volunteering Australia shows.
Co-founder of Mettle Women and Westpac Social Change Fellow, Bronwyn Bate, said the charity had seen an increase in people willing to offer their business expertise on an ad-hoc basis for tasks they had previously struggled with.
“Because of the nature of our work with vulnerable beneficiaries, we are selective in revealing the physical location of our warehouse. That’s why the pivot towards digital volunteering has been helpful for us – it forced us to think about a pool of talent that we hadn’t before.”
However, Pearce says the sector cannot exist on virtual volunteering alone.
“Volunteering online has been crucial in refreshing the sector, but it ran the risk of increasing ‘technostress’, feelings of anxiety and mental fatigue during the pandemic,” he says.
“The sector needs a combination of both online and in-person volunteering when possible.”
Carter, who broke new ground when she became the first virtual secondee to volunteer in the Jawun Indigenous secondment program, says regardless of whether its virtual or physical volunteering, corporations have a role to play in connecting willing volunteers with community organisations requiring volunteers.
She says like other volunteer matching initiatives, such as Freddy Match created by Westpac Scholar Roxane Foulser-Piggott, Westpac’s Skilled Volunteer Network exists to bridge that gap, connecting community organisations with a network of employees ready to donate their time.
“We have thousands of employees with specialised business skills mobilised to help. It’s just the start of our goal to support the volunteering sector and make as big a difference as we can.”
For community organisations across Australia looking to tap into Westpac’s network of volunteers, contact Westpac’s Skilled Volunteer Network.