Have we got it wrong?

Andy Fryar July 1, 2007 6
Have we got it wrong?


By OzVPM Director Andy Fryar and Peple First Total Solutions CEO, Martin J Cowling

After years of surveys showing a clear growth in the number of volunteers in Australia , the census results appear to bring all of that crashing down.

Or do they?

How do we reconcile the latest ABS census figures, which indicate that only 18 percent of Australians volunteer, with other recent data that has been released? If it is to be believed, volunteering rates have actually halved since 2001.

For instance, a survey conducted in South Australia during 2006 told us that a massive 51 % of people undertake ‘formal’ volunteering in that state – a 13% increase of volunteer participation in six years. Yet the latest census statistics show a fall in national volunteer participation of 17%.

Even more puzzling is the fact that both of these recent surveys were compiled by the same body – the Australian Bureau of Statistics who are the official Australian body responsible for the census collection and publication.

So which one is correct?

Why is there such a variation?

How can two surveys by the one organisation from the same period of time be so different?

The other interesting matter is that one in ten Australians appeared to have left the question blank. In the older age groups, those who have traditionally been the stalwarts of many organisations, almost one in five left the question unanswered.

There are some key questions that we must immediately consider:

  • Have we really lost half of our volunteer numbers in five years?
  • How can more than five million adult volunteers in the 2001 survey be reduced to less than three?
  • Did people misunderstand the census question?
  • Did those who participate in church activities not see themselves as volunteers and leave the question unanswered ?
  • Did those who simply ‘help out in the community’ respond with a ‘no’ to the census question?
  • Have we been double counting in the past?

For a country that prides itself on its volunteering ethos, the fact that our national census appears to say that more than four fifths do not help their communities in a formal manner is of grave concern.

Some answers

A solution to these questions, lies in examining the census question that was asked.

On census night, Australians were asked in 2006:

“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”

There are five major issues with this question.

Firstly, one of the most significant areas of volunteer participation and growth has been excluded! That is corporate volunteering which has emerged within the last decade as an area of significant growth. In this model, employees are “released” by their employers to attend volunteering activities. This can take on one of three forms:

  1. Attending an activity within a team from the same workplace usually for a full day of activity
  2. Individuals released to undertake volunteering activities for up to two days per year
  3. Individuals who use their existing volunteering activities as part of their corporate time

Asking Australians to say “no” if they spent any time doing voluntary work as part of their employment misses out on these groups or could have led to confusion where people said “no’ or left the question blank.

Secondly, Australians who are engaged in mandated volunteering are not included. There do not appear to be clear figures on how many Australian citizens have undertaken volunteer work through government participation programs such as the volunteer work initiative or mutual obligation type programs.

The third concern we have in asking the question in this way, is that we fear it will create confusion about true volunteer rates, as other surveys indicate much higher levels of volunteering. This will no doubt lead many to publish papers about the declining rates of volunteering in Australia .

Fourthly, this raises again the need for the sector to create and utilise standard questions that need to be asked whenever a survey about participation in volunteering is conducted ( see our December 2006 Hot Topic )

Finally, the census figures only capture those volunteers undertaking ‘formal’ volunteering. That is, volunteer work done through an established volunteer agency. It does not include any notion of “informal” volunteering – which includes acts such as helping an elderly neighbour mow their lawns of do their shopping.

So what are the ‘real’ numbers?

This exclusion of both corporate and mandated volunteers may have led to misreporting. The fact that so many people did not respond at all to the census question may well be because of confusion caused by these excluded parties. Previous volunteering surveys allowed for the inclusion of these groups – and showed much higher rates of volunteer participation.

To arrive at something like what we might consider a ‘true’ figure of volunteering in Australia we now need to take into account a number of factors that begins with those collected by the census.

In addition to the 18% identified via that route we need to add:

  • Corporate volunteers – those involved through employee volunteer programs
  • Captured volunteers – those who have been caught in the process of volunteering as a part of receiving government benefits
  • Confused volunteers – those people who didn’t respond to the question at all in the census

The inclusion of these groups may lead to a further ten to twenty per cent in the statistic for formal volunteering.

The positive news in all of this is that nearly one fifth of all Australians over 15 participate in formal volunteering purely because they want to . This helps us to understand the level of volunteering that occurs without undue interference from the numbers of people participating in employee volunteer programs and though govt participation initiatives. We believe that as this question is repeated in future census’ it will prove an important benchmark in gauging volunteer rates in Australia .

Unfortunately we also know that this one fifth is not the complete picture of volunteering in Australia.

So what do you think about the way the census data has been collected?

Good or bad?

Useful or not useful?

How can we start to collect better and more consistent data?

Have we missed an opportunity with the way the census question was asked or did the ABS get it right?

Share YOUR thoughts


  1. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 7:46 am - Reply

    Response posted on November 3rd 2007 by Jennie Holdom, Australia
    I think the Census was the wrong way to go about this issue of how many people volunteer. It would be better if the number of people formal volunteering was capture through the organisations they volunteer with. E.g once every say 12 months on a set date all organisations engaging volunteers submitted the number of volunteers they currently had registered, and the category they fall into. There would be issues of some sporting groups etc only running for part of the year, for them it would be the number of volunteers they had for the season. Volunteer organisations need to have insurance this may be a way of collecting this data, volunteer referral centres may be able to play a role in this collection of data I guess there would be a lot of issues with this method but it would also have a lot of benefits. Just putting a thought out there!

  2. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 7:46 am - Reply

    Response posted on July 9th 2007 by Margaret Guy, Australia

    Yes,I agree that the questions on the census are exclusive and confusing.
    Why cannot corporate volunteering and mandatory volunteering be included with the census figures?It is still contributing to VOLUNTEERING
    Also there are numerous examples of volunteers re school tuck shops,taking children for reading/sport etc,also volunteering to contribute in any way to a church/school community.I agree with you that there are numerous occasions of volunteering re neighborhood contributions of mowing lawns,doing shopping,bringing in mail,garbage and caring for elderly/disabled.

    I suggest a good test.

    Let all the volunteers in the country go on a holiday for 1 week and see how the country copes.

  3. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 7:46 am - Reply

    Response posted on July 5th 2007 by Jonathon Cushing, UK

    The primary concern about the topic appears to be the inconsistency between the survey results. The general attack has been on the actual survey question. What appears to be interesting is that the same survey question was asked in both surveys, however they received significantly different results. If we assume that both populations had equal understanding of the survey question, than we should seek to answer this difference.
    I suspect the culprit for these differences is the sampling strategies used in both surveys. These should be compared and can possible explain away the difference due to sampling of different populations, which introduced a sampling bias.

    If we have a valid survey question and the sampling strategies are representative of the population, then the generalization that overall there is a decline in volunteering in Australia, but South Australia is experiencing a rise in volunteering. Both surveys can show accurate results. These results are particularly interesting because a number of regions would have to loose an even greater percentage of volunteers to compensate for the increase in South Australia.

    If this is true, we really need to explain the difference using two mechanisms. The first mechanism to explain why there is a general decline in Australian volunteering. The second mechanism is to explain why there is an increase in South Australia or why South Australia is unaffected by the first mechanism.

    Is there any other evidence out there to support why other regions show a significant decline in volunteering, while South Australia increased its volunteering?

  4. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 7:45 am - Reply

    Response posted on July 3rd 2007 by Lynn Fisher, CEO, Volunteering WA, Perth

    Those who are so called ‘corporate volunteers’ and those fulfilling ‘mutual benefits’ for a Centrelink payment are not ‘volunteers’ in the sense of doing work without any financial payment.

    They are all being ‘paid’ directly or indirectly to do ‘community service’ so they are not volunteering. The ATO’s question does select ‘out’ these people, as it should do.

  5. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 7:45 am - Reply

    Response posted on July 3rd 2007 by Michelle Hodshon, Volunteer Services Coordinator, City of Salisbury, South Australia

    A very interesting article. My initial thoughts are that the person(s) who developed the question really did not understand the current nature of volunteering. I recognise that the data does identify a particular group, however overwhelmingly I feel that it has been a missed opportunity.

  6. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 7:45 am - Reply

    Response posted on July 3rd 2007 by Brian Dubois

    I would like to refer to the supposed increase in the South Australian statistics.
    It was interesting in that one week the volunteering rate was in the forties and it was estimated that it would take several years to reach the magical 50% figure. A couple of weeks later it reached the 51%. This was not an increase in the number of people volunteering but the number of people on record as volunteering. These can be two different things.
    Why can’t people treat statistics like a hand grenade with the safety pin removed. They can hurt of lot of people if not handled with extreme care.
    “There are lies, there are damned lies , there are statistics and then there are political statements”.

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