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Hands up: new research to rouse volunteers

R&D Now

In contrast with days gone by, almost two-thirds of Australians will go an entire year without volunteering any time to not-for-profit organisations and causes. Nationwide there is a growing need for benevolent assistance, so how to convince non-volunteers to lend a hand?

Young man happily raising his hand.

It stands to reason that, as Australia’s population ages and various sectors battle with budget cuts to community services, the demand for volunteer support will ever increase. Unfortunately, there has been a chronic decline in volunteer participation, and many not-for-profit organisations are concerned about their viability.

At Curtin Business School, Associate Professor Kirsten Holmes is leading the most comprehensive study of volunteering to date, prompted by the recognition that while scholarly research on the topic is scarce, Australian society depends on volunteers.

“Traditionally, people volunteered in a more sustained manner. Now, participation is more episodic – we pitch in at different stages of our lives, perhaps according to our need for work experience, our social activities and our children’s recreational activities,” Holmes explains.

“People’s lives are now more fluid and fragmented than they were a generation ago. Models of working have altered, and we change jobs and leisure pursuits more frequently.”

Despite doing everything in our lives differently, there has never been a greater demand for volunteers to help deliver an increasing range of services and build social capital.

Holmes’s project seeks to address the problem via three levels of analysis: the micro level of the individual volunteer or non-volunteer, the mezzo level of the organisation and the macro level of society.

The research included 12 focus groups and several case studies of ‘exemplary’ volunteering organisations in different sectors, including an arts festival, online volunteering for a museum and a hospital. This was followed by a nationwide survey of volunteers and non-volunteers.

Australians on average volunteer 32 hours of their time each year to community causes – about three per cent of time they spend watching television.

“At the mezzo level it’s clear that volunteer organisations must build relationships with non-volunteers,” Holmes says.

“To improve their ‘recruitability’ many now provide training, for example, or use online marketing strategies to attract new volunteers.

The research outcomes will include a tool to measure someone’s propensity to volunteer, as well as guidelines to help organisations build strategies and governments to develop policy to create a sustainable volunteer sector.

“It’s crticial to increase social participation by converting non-volunteers into volunteers – to encourage people to be more community-minded and introduce them to the benefits of volunteering,” Holmes explains.

The three-year project is supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant, and is a comprehensive collaboration involving Curtin, Macquarie and Flinders universities; William Angliss Institute; Erasmus University of Rotterdam; peak volunteering organisations in WA, Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory; and WA’s Department of Local Government and Communities.

To date, the findings have been presented at international conferences in the US and Sweden and at the National Volunteering conference in Canberra.

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