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Once the celebrations of National Volunteer Week have died down, what then? Sue Regan argues that volunteering needs to come out of the policy shadows and enter the debate on the future of our society and economy post COVID-19.
Recent crises have seen volunteers play critical roles. In Australia, the bushfire emergency response relied upon thousands of volunteer firefighters and myriad community volunteers running evacuation centres, securing food and water, and supporting those affected. Now, millions of volunteers around the world have stepped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to support neighbours and healthcare workers and to ensure essential community services continue.
Much evidence exists of the value of volunteering to our society and economy. Our schools, hospitals, and a range of welfare services all depend on volunteers, and volunteers enable sports and the arts to flourish.
New analysis from The Australian National University reveals the benefits to individuals of volunteering during the COVID-19 crisis, with the impact on ‘life satisfaction’ and ‘psychological distress’ being less severe for those who have been volunteering. Other research has found a multitude of individual and community-wide benefits of volunteering – enhancing mental health, offering a pathway to employment, and increasing social cohesion.
But the crises affecting society have led to a crisis in volunteering. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated volunteering, with around two-thirds of Australians who were contributing prior to the crisis stopping volunteering. That’s an estimated 12.2 million volunteering hours lost per week.
As Australia learns to live with the pandemic – and all the social distancing measures that might come along with that – it’s an open question how the organisations that depend on volunteers to provide essential services to their communities will be able to get those volunteers back on board.
Yet despite these stark figures, volunteering is largely absent from critical policy debates. We need to be talking now – during National Volunteers Week, and beyond – about how we ensure that volunteering is part of substantive debates around community, environmental, and economic well-being.
There seems to be an assumption that volunteers will just step up during crises and, for example, fill the gaps of poorly funded community services. But volunteering does not just happen and is not free.
To be safe and effective, volunteers need induction, training, and ongoing management and support, as Volunteering Australia has consistently argued over the years. This requires investment and leadership, and it requires we think strategically about the role that volunteers can and should play in the future.
National Volunteer Week (18-25 May) is a time to celebrate our volunteers. Given recent challenging times, it is perhaps more important than ever to recognise and acknowledge the contribution of volunteers. Of course, this year the week looks quite different as most social distancing restrictions remain in place. That means there will be no big public events, but organisations are embracing technology and hosting online activities and events to recognise their volunteers. During the week, we can expect to hear great stories of volunteers and many will pay tribute to their service. But then what?
Volunteering needs to come out of the policy shadows. We need to start by asking some hard policy questions and bring volunteering into the light of current policy debates flowing from recent crises.
How do we best harness the volunteer workforce during the current pandemic? As the next bushfire season approaches, to what extent can and should we rely on volunteer firefighters as bushfires get more severe? What role has the volunteering sector in helping provide meaningful activity to unemployed people in the coming recession? How do we reinvigorate volunteering as part of returning Australia to social and economic health, post COVID-19?
We need policymakers from across government to critically engage in these questions. Volunteers and voluntary action have much to offer in the coming months and years, but this must not be left to chance.