Volunteering sector under pressure

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As people’s work and family lives grow busier, putting ever increasing pressure on free time, volunteering is in crisis across New Zealand.

A “time-poor” population, ageing volunteer “workforce”, funding issues for organisations, and a need for recognition of the importance of volunteers are all pressure points for the voluntary sector.

Volunteering Otago acting manager Alan Shanks says the same issues are facing many organisations in Dunedin, and need to be faced to secure the future of volunteering in the city.

Nationally, volunteering contributes $3.5billion or 1.7% of New Zealand’s GDP, although volunteering activity dropped by 42% from 2004 to 2013.

And in a 2017 survey of about 7500 organisations, Volunteering NZ found that one-third were grappling with maintaining an effective volunteer force.

“People are flat-out trying to survive economically, so they don’t have time to volunteer,” Mr Shanks said.

“They are also retiring later in life, which reduces the length of time they can engage in volunteering.

“And people are not engaging as often in long-term volunteering commitments, especially the younger generation, who prefer one-off events,” he said.

In addition, there was little or no interest in volunteering from 30 to 50 year-olds, most likely due to the pressure of work and family life.

Volunteering Otago currently has 235 Dunedin organisations and 146 Central Otago organisations listed on its database, which provides a pathway for individuals to find volunteering opportunities.

In the year to March, 31, 932 people had used the Volunteering Otago database to connect to volunteer opportunities.

“That’s positive, but the feedback we are getting from organisations is that keeping people engaged is difficult, and turnover of volunteers is an issue.”

Dunedin Curtain Bank manager Sara Crow said, like much of the not-for-profit sector, the organisation could not function without its volunteer force of 10 to 15 volunteers a week – a saving of about $6000 each month on wages.

“We are currently reliant on 40 hours of skilled sewing volunteer hours,” Ms Crow said.

Dunedin Curtain Bank volunteers were mainly retirees and young people looking for employment experience, and it was a struggle to find both long-term and short-term volunteers.

Otago Community Hospice co-ordinator of volunteers Rebecca Shaw said the hospice had 383 volunteers – two-thirds in its hospice shops, and 150 based at the North Rd facility.

Volunteers contributed more than 37,000 hours to the hospice and their duties were wide-ranging – from weekend reception to gardening.

Ms Shaw said the hospice was very fortunate to have a strong and committed volunteer workforce doing mainly weekly or fortnightly shifts.

“We are very careful about matching people with a role that suits them, we hold training days, and we ask people to commit for a year,” she said.

“It’s important for people to feel satisfaction with their volunteer role – it is very much a reciprocal relationship.

“We also put a lot of effort into acknowledging the contribution of our volunteers, we simply couldn’t function without them.”

Over the next 20 to 30 years, the picture could be very different, Ms Shaw said.

“Millennials think quite differently in terms of volunteering – they are keen on one-off events, but much less on long-term volunteering.

“It’s going to mean big changes for the sector.”