Australia’s National Volunteering Strategy – views from afar about where we may be going right …and wrong

Andy Fryar June 1, 2011 2
Australia’s National Volunteering Strategy – views from afar about where we may be going right  …and wrong


This month we are thrilled to welcome back our good friend and international volunteerism commentator Rob Jackson, from the UK, as a guest Hot Topic writer. In this month’s column, Rob shares his thoughts about Australia’s National Volunteer Strategy Consultation, and where he believes we are heading in the right direction, and where we are not. Thanks Rob!


Earlier this year OzVPM owner Andy Fryar  shared with me a copy of the report on the Australian  National Volunteer Strategy consultation.    I found the report an interesting read and filed it away as something to  blog on in the coming months.  So, when  Andy and I spoke about me writing a guest hot topic for OzVPM I dusted down my  copy and revisited it in order to share my views on the report’s findings.

Two key themes struck me right away from  the executive summary and it these that I want to focus this hot topic on.  I’m going to refer to them as the good news  and the bad news.

The good news – volunteer management

I have had the pleasure and privilege to  work in the volunteering movement since the summer of 1994.  In that time there have been too few   occasions when I have read any kind of strategic report or position paper on  volunteering that has mentioned let alone focused on the importance of  volunteer management.  So I found it  heartening to read these two bullet points from the executive summary of the  consultation report:

  • “Effective volunteer  management helps improve the efficiency of organisations and increases their  capacity to comply with and implement risk management strategies.”
  • “Volunteer managers and  coordinators are important but often unrecognised and inadequately supported. “

We all know that the role of volunteer  management, as the report puts it, “often goes unrecognised and is inadequately  supported”.  That is sadly, a theme  across the globe.  The Valuing  Volunteer Management Skills report by the UK’s Institute for Volunteering  Research found support for volunteer management to be similarly weak in places.

So it is heartening to see the report on  your own volunteer strategy consultation call for more training of volunteer  managers and for much more investment in volunteer management posts in order to  overcome what was found to be the second biggest barrier to involving more  volunteers, a lack of skilled managers and supervisors of volunteers.

I do worry about where this funding will  come from though.  I’m cautious about  organisations always seeking external funding for their volunteer programme  because they can’t afford to fund it themselves.  Too often this is a get out – the  organisation could fund the volunteer programme, they just choose not to,  seeking external funds instead.  I’ve written  about this topic myself recently because I passionately believe that if organisations fail to invest (their  own funds) in volunteering then the future does not look good for them.

The Australian report also quite rightly  challenges the volunteer management community to up its game, calling on “managers of volunteers to share information  more frequently and collaborate on the development and implementation of  organisational standards in order to reduce duplication and related  administrative burden.”

Peter Drucker once wrote  that “So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for  people to work”.  This for me helps to  sum up why this call is a key issue for volunteer managers, especially in  countries where the so called workplace or HR model of volunteer management has  become in increasingly common.  For in  those countries, volunteer management has become more and more process  driven.  It has become about management,  not leadership.

We have to try and balance the process  driven side of our work with the essential leadership elements to what we  do.  We especially have to do this if the  increased investment we want to see in our field will bear the fruit people  like the authors of this report hope it will.

Because, as John Seeley Brown once  wisely commented, “Processes don’t work, people do”.


The bad news – volunteer opportunities

So, its great to see the consultation report  recognise the value of volunteer management and leadership.  But there is an even bigger challenge it  highlights, one that good volunteer management can help to solve but one that  many organisations are going to struggle with no matter how expert the person  who leads their volunteer programme.

That is the mismatch between what people want  from volunteering and what organisations have to offer.

The report states that:

“Increased promotional efforts should be matched by  the development of appropriate and diverse opportunities for volunteer  participation within volunteer-involving organisations.”

“Volunteer-involving organisations need to accommodate  and encourage these emerging trends through the development of suitably  flexible opportunities for involvement, while continuing to cater for traditional  forms of participation”.

Apparently 86.8% of those surveyed thought  that busy lives and competing priorities were the main reason people don’t  volunteer, with 35.7% of people feeling that the volunteer opportunities  available in Australia aren’t suitable or appealing.

Personally I don’t believe all the time  poverty people claim is real.  I’m a busy   person and I manage to fit a range of volunteering opportunities into my  life.  I think the bigger problem is the  one that links the two statistics together – people think they will be too busy  to volunteer because their understanding of what’s available doesn’t fit with  their lifestyles.  It is a problem of  perception.

People today are leading increasingly busy,  complex and time pressured lives.  As a  result they do not thrill to the kind of long term, open ended commitments many  organisations still offer potential volunteers, opportunities that are based  more on the needs of the organisation than on a balance between what needs  doing and what time people have to spare.

I often talk of my friend who volunteered  to help at a youth group for a couple of weeks whilst one of the leaders was  away yet found himself volunteering there fourteen years later (and that was 8  years ago – he’s still there!) because of the ‘guilt-trip’ retention strategy  employed by the organisation.  You know  the one, it tells the volunteer they couldn’t possibly leave because the whole  organisation or service would collapse without them.  What kind of sustainable way is that to run a  programme?

We have a big challenge ahead of us as  leaders of volunteer programmes.  As the  report states, there is a “need for  volunteer involving organisations to be responsive and open to change in order  to attract and retain news volunteers”.    It highlights the trend towards shorter term, episodic and project based  volunteering and the need for more flexibility to accommodate the pressures and  opportunities of the modern world.

That means we have to find ways to create  new and re-engineer existing opportunities to accommodate the needs, passions  and motivations of new generations of volunteers, from baby boomers right down  to our youngest volunteers.

But that doesn’t mean everything will be  done in five minutes via an iPhone app as the new trend towards  microvolunteering might suggest.  No,  some volunteering will remain long term.   But we do need to think seriously about how we adapt what we offer to  enable short term volunteering for the long term, maybe through a series of consecutive  short term opportunities undertaken over a number of years.

Unfortunately, few resources exist to  support such changes in volunteer management practice, despite this being an  issue that we’ve seen coming for a number of years.  So I hope that the consultation report leads  to further work in this area by peak bodies in Australia and that more support  becomes available for you to rise to this ‘bad news’ challenge.

For now, if you haven’t seen it already,  let me commend to you the new report from Volunteer Canada, “Bridging  the Gap” that clearly sets out the kinds of challenges we face and suggests  how we might overcome them.



As my previous boss, Justin Davis-Smith  (the Chief Executive of Volunteering England) is often quoted as saying,  “Volunteering has never had it so good”.    If that’s true then it brings great opportunities for volunteer managers  to secure the credibility and support many have long aspired to.  But it beings many challenges too, challenges  that might put us to the test like never before and at a time when the  spotlight is firmly upon us.

The early steps towards a national  volunteer strategy that are outlined in the report that inspired this hot topic  are a great start and one I hope you will build on in future and you rise to  the challenges you face.

Rob Jackson is Director of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd,  founder of the UKVPMs email  discussion group and an enthusiastic blogger on volunteerism.

  • What do you think to Rob’s hot topic?
  • Do you have examples of successfully adapting your volunteering  offer to the changing availability and interests of today’s volunteers?
  • How do you think the national volunteer strategy can help the  Australian volunteering movement to tackle these challenges?
  • Let us know what you think.


Please share  your thoughts


  1. andyf March 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Response posted by Wendy Moore, Volunteer Manager, Brisbane, Queensland on June 25, 2011

    To address every aspect of this very in-depth hot topic would require a very detailed and lengthy response. I will focus on one area – Volunteer Opportunities, and leave the other areas for others to address.

    I think that there is definitely a need for volunteer managers to have the flexibility in their programs to accommodate episodic volunteers. As you suggest Rob we lead very busy lives and the excuse of “not enough time” probably relates to the perception of the commitment required to volunteer. In the traditional model of volunteering some organisations actually specify a time period of commitment to volunteering; a regular weekly shift over a period of 12 months for example. What if that person is unable to fulfil that time commitment? While it would be great to have that commitment from people, it is not always possible for people to either make or keep that commitment. People are unpredictable and life is unpredictable. Any number of things can impact on a person’s life and their commitment to volunteering; a change in circumstance, loss of a job, gain of a job perhaps in another state or country, commencing study, travel, health issues, either their own or their loved ones, a life changing event such as a death or serious illness in the family prompting a reassessment of priorities. These are all very valid reasons for not being able to commit to a specific timeframe of volunteering.

    We, as volunteer managers, need to have the flexibility in our programs to accommodate this emerging trend in volunteering, for to remain rigid in our volunteer program structure may mean the demise of our volunteer programs because they no longer attract as many volunteers. This may be because emerging trends in the way people volunteer no longer match the traditional volunteering model. While altruism may be one aspect of volunteering, many people volunteer for different reasons; for experience for their tertiary study, to gain experience for a job, to practice conversational English skills and for many other reasons. Volunteering needs to fit into study, work, childcare and leisure activities. The structure of our volunteer programs needs to provide a variety of meaningful tasks with flexibility to accommodate changing schedules and volunteering commitments.

    A balance of traditional volunteering with episodic volunteering provides stability yet flexibility within its structure.

    I have posted a slightly modified version of this article on my blog and on I-Volunteer.

  2. andyf March 13, 2012 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Response posted by Fairlie Crozier, National Volunteer Development Manager, St John, Manuka, ACT on July 19, 2011

    Thank you Rob for your valued and highly insightful article. I apologise for being so late in responding! As Wendy rightly pointed out, we could discuss the issues you raised at length for months but I just wanted to comment on your points about the “time poverty people”. I agree with you, and tend to think that the reason for not volunteering is not about being time poor but that the volunteer roles on offer are no longer attractive enough for priority.

    Wendy made the point that there are many valid reasons for not volunteering including changes in circumstances, loss of job, gain of job, study, travel, family, loss of loved ones, etc. We often hear about the apparent claim that people are more and more busy. I would argue that none of these things are new. Fifty years ago people still had sudden changes in circumstances, loss of jobs, gain of jobs, study, travel, etc. I believe it is more about the priority that is placed on volunteering that has changed, not the level of “time poverty”.

    I wish I had the answers to how to ‘fix’ this issue! I don’t. However, I believe the government could assist in terms of education and promotion of volunteering. If volunteering becomes a ‘natural part of life’ for all of our young Australians, like brushing your teeth or doing your homework then we would have no problem. As Rob said, busy people can fit volunteering in!

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