Keeping the statisticians honest

Andy Fryar December 1, 2006 1
Keeping the statisticians honest


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

Mark Twain was once quoted as saying there are ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ , and this month I want to take the opportunity to explore some of the issues surrounding the way that we capture volunteering statistics, not only here in Australia, but globally.

I must confess this has been a topic sitting latently in wait for some time, and was stirred recently when I saw a press release issued by Jennifer Rankine, the Minister for Volunteers in South Australia . The document claimed that a recent survey, commissioned by the Office for Volunteers in SA in partnership with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed that volunteering rates in South Australia had risen from 38% in 2000 to 51% in 2006.

My first instinct was scepticism, especially considering that the SA Government’s ‘State Strategic Plan’ had established a target of, coincidentally, a 50% volunteering rate by 2010, so I was keen to take a look at the survey they used to determine the new measures. I have long maintained that the way we have traditionally gathered data was under-representative of the actual number of people volunteering, and when I looked over the survey questions that were asked I was actually pleasantly surprised!

For the first time that I can recall, questions were actually asked in such a way as to help prompt respondents to consider whether or not their activities counted as volunteering or not. In fact here’s the actual question that was asked about ‘formal’ volunteering (keep in mind this was a telephone survey) :

“The first section of the survey is about FORMAL volunteering and I just need to explain how we’re defining that. Formal volunteering means unpaid, voluntary help willingly given in the form of time, services or skills for an organisation, club or association. It excludes voluntary work done overseas and donations of money or goods don’t count as volunteering. Some examples include: sports and physical recreation; welfare or community groups; health; emergency services; schools, education and training; service groups; religious groups; environmental; animal welfare; business or professional; unions; law, justice or political groups; arts or heritage; parenting, child or youth groups; international aid or development. In the last 12 months, have you done any unpaid volunteering for any of these or similar types of organisations?”

This is a long way from the questions that have been asked in the past to determine similar statistics. Let’s take the question that was included in the 2006 census as a comparison:


“In the last 12 months did the person spend any time doing voluntary work through an organisation or group? * Exclude anything you do as part of your paid employment or to qualify for a government benefit * Exclude working in a family business”

Now bearing in mind that this was also the 51st question in the census, what do you think the chances are that it will give us a clear picture of volunteering rates in Australia ? For instance, do you think volunteer firefighters or pro-bono lawyers will resonate with this question? What about people working through their local church group or helping with their children’s school class?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the achievement of having a question included in the census is a major step forward, and I know Volunteering Australia lobbied
hard for that to happen. I also appreciate that there are many limitations about just how long a question can be.

However what I truly believe we need to start to do is fashion some clear and concise questions that are asked every time a survey on volunteering participation rates are conducted. Not only will this begin to give us a clearer picture of true volunteering rates, it will also mean that we are able to more accurately cross reference the growth or decline in volunteering trends across time. In fact, if we go so far as to adopt some international standards for questions (this maybe a great role for IAVE) , we could also more accurately cross reference national data across countries.

At the moment, Mark Twain’s verse, quoted at the beginning of this Hot Topic is ringing truer than ever before. For instance, in the press release I quoted earlier, Minister Rankine was quoted as saying:

“.the results were indicative of the excellent relationship that has developed between the government and the volunteer sector since the signing of the ‘Advancing the Community Together’ partnership in 2003”

More likely it is a case of comparing chalk to cheese, and while a pleasing result, I for one would argue that volunteering rates have not actually risen by the cited amount at all. In fact I believe they have always been at around that level, it’s just that in South Australia , they asked the questions in the right way for a change. A direct comparison between the two surveys is, in my opinion, just plain misleading.

The other important thing that the Office for Volunteers survey did was to ask other specific questions about informal volunteering levels. This is one of the only times I have seen these questions asked so succinctly and is a real pleasure to see. It has always seemed mysterious to me that we only want to try and measure volunteering done through organisations. This is especially relevant when the SA survey actually showed more people participate in informal volunteering than formal volunteering.

For those of you interested in the numbers, the survey showed the following breakdown:

. People who only undertake formal volunteering = 22%

. People who only undertake informal volunteering = 24%

. People who undertake both informal AND formal volunteering = 28%

. When both components are taken into account the survey showed that 75% of people in South Australia participate in some sort of volunteering

The solution I believe is that the established volunteering sector need to take a good look at the SA survey and make some sort of agreement to use this (or something similar) as an ongoing base measurement for volunteering in our country and abroad.

Further, I believe there are a whole range of questions that are just not being asked very much at all:

. How can we determine the numbers of volunteer program managers in the field?

. How many of these are paid vs volunteers themselves?

. Levels of pay and education of volunteer program managers?

. How do we capture volunteering rates in children? (even the SA survey started at 15 year olds)

. How do we begin to quantify the differences that volunteers make rather than just the number of hours that they contribute?

Of course, the final piece in the puzzle comes when we start to ask the question about just what is going to change as a result of these new statistics?

For instance, if in South Australia the rate of formal volunteering really has risen by 13%, does that mean the SA Government are going to start putting 13% more funding into supporting volunteerism structures such as creating volunteer management training packages and financial support for groups like our state volunteer centres? Let’s face it, the numbers need to be a catalyst for change or they amount to not much more than digits on a piece of paper.

We are heading in the right direction and beginning to ask some good questions, but let’s make 2007 a year to try and work collaboratively to determine what we are going to ask for the benefit of the sector into the future.

To download the SA survey visit

Let’s hear what you think?

One Comment »

  1. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 1:24 am - Reply

    Response posted by Anastasia Magriplis, Manager Volunteers and Special Employment Projects, Lifeline Community Care, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

    In response to Andy’s article I can’t help but think that at least South Australia continues to lead the way in terms of recognition of volunteers and recognition of Volunteer Managers through training (although it would appear it’s attempts do so seem to be less critically accurate and more vague and convenient!) They are still engaging in the discussion.

    It seems to me that the questions Andy poses are real and important and with AAVA, the Volunteer Centres and various sector associations around Australia and New Zealand, more professionals and volunteers are more interested and more committed to coming up with practical and proactive strategies to identify who’s volunteering, where they’re volunteering, why their volunteering and how are organisations managing their volunteers contribution. Most of the data I have seen has been based on anecdotal reports from other professionals and maybe an organisation like Volunteering Australia ( New Zealand ) or AAVA are in a position where they can conduct effective surveys nationally. I know this would be a huge undertaking for any organisation (particularly if we want to get reliable data) and I recognise the victory of at least having questions in the Census, but the possibility of an organisation gaining some significant funding from the Federal Government is the solution. The more professionals that lobby and ensure the government is engaged in the question of volunteers and their managers, the more likely we are to succeed.

    This data can then be used for effective National (and International) lobbying for resources to manage this sector. Only when we have true, hard data can we effectively manage the sector, have more continuity and be more effective.

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