The Cane Toad Effect

Andy Fryar November 15, 2014 4
The Cane Toad Effect

I was recently asked to speak on the topic of ‘Navigating the Brave New World’ of volunteerism.

In the room were a number of volunteer management professionals, Volunteer Centre personnel, volunteers and of course the obligatory elected members who enjoy being seen at such occasions.

I addressed these groups individually and suggested ways that each might learn from lessons of the past and focus on new strategies to ‘navigate’ the future.

When it came time to address the politicians in the room, I projected a photo of a big, fat and ugly cane toad – and explained that this offered the very best analogy I could think of to explain how governments, at all levels, too often tackle issues related to volunteering.

Yes – I did take my life into my own hands!!!

For those readers from overseas, let me give you a brief overview of the cane toad problem here in Australia.

In the 1930’s cane farmers throughout far north Queensland were faced with the problem of how to rid themselves of the cane beetle – a native bug that was destroying the cane crops so vital to that part of the country.

It was decided that the cane toad, a species native to both Central and South America, was the solution. With that, just over 100 toads were released in 1935 by the Queensland government of the day.

The cane toads bred prolifically and spread quickly across Queensland – and then New South Wales, the Northern Territory and now even Western Australia! In fact they breed so well that the it is estimated that they now number around 200 million!!!

While the introduction of the cane toad seemed like a good, quick and easy fix to the cane beetle problem, no one gave much thought to what the longer term effects may be. Today, Australia has a much larger environmental issue to deal with as we try everything to eradicate what was meant to be a quick and easy solution.

And there’s an even more disturbing point to this story.

Not only are there millions of cane toads across Australia, but these creatures excrete a toxic poison from glands located on the top of their head. This has proven fatal to so much of Australia’s wildlife with many snakes, lizards and other native and domestic fauna proving susceptible to this pest. In some instances, native species are simply being pushed to the point of extinction.

And finally – here’s the real kicker.

There is NO evidence that the cane toad had any effect on the cane beetle – the reason it was introduced in the first place!!!

OK, so how does this all fit in with the politicians that were in the room that day?

Quite simple.

I believe when it comes to making decisions about volunteering and the voluntary sector, we are all too often seen as a ‘soft target’. We appear to be a part of society that ministers, bureaucrats, CEO’s and other (often ill informed) decision makers make ‘quick fix’ decisions about, without ever giving adequate thought to the longer term and often unintended impacts of those decisions.

Here’s one quick example. Let’s look at the current Australian federal government push to again re-vamp the ‘work-for-the-dole’ (WFTD) scheme here in Australia.

While many of us (myself included), don’t consider WFTD recipients to be volunteers in the strict sense of the word, the government, in introducing this scheme, simply announce that work for welfare recipients will be able to find a role in not for profit charities.

It’s a quick solution. We are an easy target.

But what might be the longer-term problems with this?

  • Has anyone in the government asked the not for profit sector if they actually need a huge influx of these so called ‘volunteers’?
  • Even if the answer was ‘yes’, has anyone considered what extra resources volunteering agencies might need to deal with these many new applicants?
  • Are volunteer agencies being offered additional resources (physical or monetary)?
  • How might the introduction of WFTD recipients, working alongside existing long-term volunteers, affect workplace culture?
  • Does the introduction of this WFTD group, with their associated reporting requirements, draw volunteer managers away from focusing on the core mission of the agency?
  • As a result, do volunteer programs become pseudo placement agencies for government?

And I could go on.

It’s a short-term fix that may indeed have long-term ramifications for volunteering – and I hope you get the point

There’s another more obvious example

Twenty years ago there was not a hospital in this country that did not have a ladies auxiliary. But through the late 80’s and the 90’s, risk averse decision makers (most who have never volunteered a day in their lives) decided that the way auxiliaries had self-managed for so many years was no longer good enough and posed some sort of incredible risk.

There was suddenly a raft of requirements expected of these groups including policy development and police checks. They were not even allowed to make cakes for the trading table any longer unless they were operating in certified kitchens and maintaining labeling regimes akin to commercial enterprises.

And in the end it all got too hard.

What seemed a sensible, quick fix solution to ensure hospitals were not being put at risk – has had a long term consequence of me today being able to count on just one hand the number of hospitals in Australia that still have a healthy functioning auxiliary group.

And finally, there is another way that this ‘cane toad creep’ continues to move into space traditionally operated by volunteer groups. Its what could best be referred to as ‘corporate creep’ – the act where these very same government decision makers are giving away social enterprise opportunities that have traditionally been operated by volunteer groups to large corporate multi-national companies. Hospital and museum cafes and gift shops are good examples of this.

Believe it or not I first wrote about this topic a decade ago ( and sadly my thoughts from that time have proven to be prophetic. In fact I have recently fallen victim to this myself, and understand how painful an experience it can be.

So, that’s why I think politicians are a little like cane toads! This incessant need to find a quick solution before giving due thought to what the long-term impacts for volunteering may be. And like the cane toad, sometimes the effects are completely irretrievable.

As a final point, after I delivered my address at that AGM I continued to think about this topic, and I realised I was being a little unfair to simply target politicians with this amphibian analogy.

I realised that many of us who directly lead volunteer programs are also guilty of taking the cane toad route of problem solving. Moving problem volunteers sideways instead or dealing with the root cause is just one simple example.

So let’s all take some responsibility for making well-informed decisions that have the least amount of fall out possible. We won’t always get it right, but by thinking through all the possible ramifications in our decision making, hopefully we get it right more often than we get it wrong!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this hot topic.






  1. DJ Cronin December 3, 2014 at 1:23 am - Reply

    Hi Andy
    Great topic and I am sure plenty of people are reading! I agree 100% with Jaynes perspective and she simply got there before I did. I believe I can speak with some authority on this being a former Work For The Dole Coordinator. What happened then should be happening now. Back then WFTD participants at the organisation I worked for were placed under the Volunteer Managers banner. But part of the contact to do this included staffing, office and training costs for the organisation from Government I.E. 2 WFTD coordinators, office equipment etc. So I totally agree with you when you say that resources should come with WFTD programs and such programs should never be lumped on organisations that then place them with volunteers without any support. I am out of the WFTD area for a number of years so I am not sure how it works now. Nevertheless I never saw these participants as “Voluntolds” . Neither did the organisation. And the thought never crossed volunteers minds. The experience was life changing for many. They worked well with volunteers after volunteers were consulted and brought up top speed about what was happening. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of WFTD programs and when done correctly i.e. support for resources and extra staff then it works well.

  2. Sue Hine November 30, 2014 at 9:22 pm - Reply

    Bravo Andy, for making such a swinging comeback.
    Great image of the cane toad, and I’m sure the many connotations of ‘toad’ have not escaped you.
    We’ve got our own version of cane toads in New Zealand in the stoats, weasels and ferrets introduced to control rabbits. Now they are an endless threat (along with rats and feral cats) to native birds, their eggs and chicks. Mustelids are no prettier than toads, and there are still plenty of rabbits around.
    The quick fix based on the political creed of the day is always going to spell problems down the track. Our sector welcomed opportunities to secure funding contracts, and the potential to expand services. What we’ve got now in is a volunteering industry (organisations, volunteers and managers of volunteers – the theory and practice), and a bunch of fishhooks.
    Fishhooks like:
    • Are we working for the community or for government?
    • Lack of consultation, and largely ignoring submission arguments
    • Gagging clauses in contracts, organisations increasingly silenced
    (Thank goodness there are academics doing the speaking out, recording and publishing the woes of the community and voluntary sector. “It is time for outrage!” said one.)
    While all this is happening in ‘mainstream’ organisations, I am noting a renaissance in local initiatives, taking up causes that don’t fit with government policies (or not yet embraced by government). Maybe they were there all the time, but they are gathering more and more public attention through news media. That tells me the heart of volunteering is still beating strongly.

  3. Jayne Cravens November 19, 2014 at 10:40 am - Reply

    I completely agree that all of the government and corporate agencies that want organizations to involve greater numbers of volunteers, and a greater diversity of volunteers, need to (1) consult extensively with the organizations on the advantages of this happening for organizations and the communities they serve, (2) consult re: what additional resources will be needed to make this happen, and (3) pay up. To just say, “Here’s what you’re going to do now” is incredibly inappropriate and unfair, and I hope people will do more than blog – I hope they will write government offices DIRECTLY and ask for sit-down meetings.

    However, I have to also say that I’m getting the impression that many organizations feel they are “too good” to involve people who aren’t what they think of as “traditional” or “real” volunteers. Some of the things I’m reading make me wonder if organizations in Australia, England, and, of course, the USA, have been willing to reach out to a variety of people who might want to volunteer for a variety of reasons before they came under pressure to do so. Is the idea that someone might want to volunteer in order to build skills for paid employment so abhorrent to so many? Are we still stuck in this “I only want to work with ‘real’ volunteers – the people who are here only out of the goodness of their heart” mentality? Might involving vastly different types of volunteers be an opportunity for our organizations, communities and clients rather than ONLY an unwanted challenge?

    • Andy Fryar November 19, 2014 at 11:11 am - Reply

      Hi Jayne,

      Thanks for responding (…at least I know someone is reading!)

      I think the real issue here is twofold.

      Its not so much an issue of people having different motivations – in this particular case it is the old ‘voluntolds’ issue surfacing again.

      But that aside, there is a bigger issue for me and that is that the ‘space’ volunteer programs traditionally occupied is now changing / has changed / will continue to change. It now includes WFTD and interns and students and return to work placements etc.

      It doesn’t matter how we view these various groups of people – the fact is that we are responsible for them! And the question that grows from that is ‘Are our views of who we are and what we do outdated”?

Leave A Response »