The Changing Nature of Volunteering in Australia

Words: 1950
Topic: Politics & Government


Volunteering has a long history in Australia and it has played a critical role in the development of many communities in the nation. This activity has been credited with contributing to the survival of many rural and remote communities in the country. Volunteering Australia (2012) documents that Australians have a well established culture of giving. Research shows that up to 36% of the adult population engages in some form of volunteering. The role of volunteering in Australian society can be expected to increase over the coming years even as the government places some of its welfare traditional responsibilities on nonprofit organizations.

The nature of volunteering in Australia has witnessed some significant changes over the last decade. While it was based almost primarily on philanthropy in the past, there has been a shift towards increasing the amount of “compulsory volunteers” in the country. This trend has been supported by the perception by the government that the mutual obligation system is beneficial to the society. This paper will discuss volunteering in Australia with special focus on its changing nature over the decade. It will highlight that while the mutual obligation regime has become common in Australia, it will not replace philanthropy.

Defining Volunteering

Volunteering is the engagement of activities that are beneficial to other individuals or the society out of one’s own free will. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) defines a volunteer as “someone who willingly gives unpaid help in the form of time, service or skills, through an organization or group at least once in a 12 month period” (p.1). Volunteer activities must not be undertaken for financial reward and the actions should contribute to the common good of the society.

Young et al. (2012) declare that “volunteering is at the heart of health communities” (p.6). Individuals are motivated to volunteer by a number of complex factors. At its most simplistic form, volunteering is explained as people wanting to help others out of altruistic motivations. However, research suggests that there are many other factors that motivate individuals to volunteer. Dolnicar and Randle (2007) document that in addition to altruism, volunteers are motivated by their own interests including egotistic factors and the benefits they receive from being involved.

Significance of Volunteering

There are a number of significant benefits attached to volunteering. To begin with, it facilitates the delivery of essential services to people in need (Musick 2007). It also results in a significant reduction in the costs of service delivery incurred by the government and organizations that deliver particular services to those in need. In addition to this, volunteering leads to the creation of stronger and more resilient communities.

Volunteering is a major element of Australian society and it has contributed to the cultural and economic well-being of many communities. Volunteering has a significant impact on the economy of the country and in 2006-07, the volunteer workforce provided over $14.6 billion in unpaid labour (Volunteering Australia 2012). Volunteering benefits the government by placing some of the welfare provision burden on the community. Pick, et al. (2011) reveals that when volunteering is vibrant in a community, the government is able to effectively divest itself of its responsibility for welfare in the community, since the citizens are providing these services through their volunteer work.

Trends in Volunteering

The demand for volunteers in Australia today is higher than at any other time in history. This greater need for volunteers has been fostered by a number of factors. To begin with, there has been a marked reduction in the amount of time each volunteer contributes over the years. While volunteers contributed an average of 74 hours annually in 1995, the number had reduced to 56 hours in 2006. This decline in volunteer hours has been caused by increasing time demands placed on Australian citizens, making it hard for them to obtain enough free time to engage in volunteer work. In addition to this, there has been a marked reduction in the level of commitment demonstrated by Australians to volunteer work. Pick et al (2011) notes that over the last decade, there has been a trend towards limited commitment by volunteers. People are reluctant to make long-term commitments to not-for-profit organizations. Instead, they prefer to give limited amount of time and at their convenience.

The need for volunteers has also been increased by a decline in government funding for community services over the years. Traditionally, it has been the government’s responsibility to allocate resources for some community services including welfare services. Some of these services have been provided through government funding to nonprofit organizations. However, the government has over the years been reducing the level of funding to non profit organizations that provide essential services to the community. Without adequate government funding, most organizations have been unable to employ staff to carry out essential activities, since the cost of maintaining a paid workforce is prohibitive to most non-profit organizations. This has led to the demand for unpaid workers in the form of volunteers (Dolnicar & Randle 2007).

Volunteering Australia (2012) notes that volunteering is experiencing a challenge due to the rapidly ageing Australian population. This elderly population is creating a demand for volunteers to support the aged as well as reducing the number of volunteers as the elderly lack the ability to engage in work. The demand for aged care is on the rise as the baby boomer generation age progressively. The number of clients receiving home and community care services is growing at the rate of 6% per annum.

The Mutual Obligation Regime

A significant change in the nature of “volunteering” in Australia is the increase in government involvement. While volunteering was traditionally undertaken with little government input, recently it has become a major focus of the government. In the Australian context, the government has framed citizenship in terms of responsibilities and duties such as service to one’s local community. Pick, Holmes & Brueckner (2011) note that in contemporary Australian policy, volunteering is framed as a key aspect of the solution to the country’s social problems. Policy makers see it as an essential tool in the building of sustainable communities.

The past decade has witnessed some profound changes in the nature of volunteering in Australia. There has been a move towards obliging some members of the society to engage in volunteer works. This has led to a rise in a mutual obligation regime that had undermined the role of philanthropy in volunteering. Mandatory volunteering is a misnomer, since it is not volunteering in the real sense of the word. This form of volunteering is not a truly free activity as the volunteer is obligated to provide his/her services to the community. Mutual obligation fails to fit the classic definition of volunteering since as Patterson and Matsomoto (2012) assert that a volunteer must have some altruistic motive.

Volunteering in Australia has also changed due to a shift in the government’s view of welfare provision. Traditionally, welfare was provided to community members who needed it without any obligation on the part of the recipient. Warburton and Smith (2003) reveal that as the Australian federal government adopts increasingly neo-liberal ideology, the welfare system is being transformed into one where the welfare recipients are required to offer something in return for the governmental support. Welfare is no longer viewed solely as a social right to the disadvantaged, but rather as something that the recipients should “pay” for.

There is a notable disdain of passive welfare by the general population and the government. In response to this, the government is increasingly requiring those in need of assistance to play an active role in society (Warburton & Smith 2003). The Australia government views the active citizen as one who takes responsibility for him/herself and by doing so reducing he/her reliance on government. Owing to these ideologies, the Australian government has over the past decade introduced policies that support mutual obligation. Individuals who receive welfare benefits from the community are expected to offer something in return.

The young people who depend on government welfare are required to engage in “volunteer” activities in return for the welfare benefits. Under the “Work for the Dole” program, which was first enacted in 1998, jobless Australians who rely on government support are required to engage in some form of voluntary labor in return for the government aid. The government argues that such programs act as effective tools to teach young people to be self-governing and lessen their dependency on welfare. The Australian government announced in early 2014 that is it set to revive and expand this scheme as a means for increasing the volunteer workforce and ensuring that jobless Australians are encouraged to join the labor market and make a positive contribution to society. The mutual obligation policy does not only target young people, but also older people, who depend on pensions or government social security schemes. The older people are of significant concern to the government, since their number is on a rapid increase.

Why the Mutual Obligation Regime has not Replaced Philanthropy

In spite of the prevalence of the Mutual Obligation Regime over the past year, this scheme has not replaced the traditional philanthropy oriented volunteerism in Australia. The volunteer group in Australia is still dominated by employed individuals who dedicate some of their free time to community service. This group does not require any government coercion to provide their services, since they are not reliant on government aid. Instead, this group engages in volunteering out of a personal sense of obligation to the community and to achieve some sense of personal satisfaction. Overall, most volunteers report achieving a high level of personal satisfaction from their involvement in various volunteer programs.

The mutual obligation regime cannot surpass the labor hours provided by philanthropic volunteers in the country. At the present, Australia enjoys a relatively low level of unemployment with the unemployment rate being 5.9%. This represents about 713,000 persons in the employable age. Even if all these individuals were to be recruited as volunteers under the mutual obligation regime, they would still not surpass the labor provided by the 6.1 million free volunteers in the country. Considering the increased demand for volunteers in Australia, it is likely that more volunteers will be recruited from the working population.

The role and importance of volunteers in society continues to be even more important today than it was decades ago. There is agreement that more volunteers are needed in Australia. The demand for more volunteers is increasing due to the reducing number of hours provided by current volunteers and the ageing Australian population. It is unlikely that the deficit in volunteers will be filled though the mutual obligation regime. Volunteering Australia (2012) states that increasing awareness about the importance of volunteering will help recruit more volunteers. Programs such as active citizenships in schools will assist in the creation of citizens who are motivated to volunteer.


This paper set out to discuss the changing nature of volunteering in Australia so as to highlight that while the mutual obligation regime has experienced growth over the decade, it will not replace the philanthropic regime that has characterized volunteering in Australia for decades. The paper began by noting the deep-rooted volunteerism tradition in Australia. It then defined volunteering and noted the positive impacts that this activity has on the society. The paper has then discussed the trend towards mutual obligation where individuals are expected to engage in volunteerism in exchange for government aid. The paper has stated that, while this regime is becoming prevalent, it will not overtake the altruism based volunteerism culture in Australia. It can therefore be stated that the philanthropy oriented volunteerism is in no danger of being replaced by the compulsory volunteerism in the country.


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Musick, M 2007, Volunteers: A Social Profile Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies, Indiana University Press, Indiana. Web.

Pick, D Holmes, K & Brueckner, M 2011, Governmentalities of Volunteering: A Study of Regional Western Australia, Voluntas (2011) 22:390–408. Web.

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