HOT TOPIC – JULY 2007
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.
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:
- Attending an activity within a team from the same workplace usually for a full day of activity
- Individuals released to undertake volunteering activities for up to two days per year
- 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