A quick look at the 2021 Census data on volunteering is enough to make you lose hope in Australia. What happened to our civic-mindedness?
In 2016, more than 20 per cent of Australians took time out of their busy lives to volunteer for one good cause or another. By 2021, this number fell to 15 per cent – a record low.
Did the frustrations of COVID harden our hearts to the needs of others? No, we are as giving and neighbourly as ever.
If anything, the pandemic led to people engaging more with their neighbours and local communities. The reason we’ve seen such a sharp decline in volunteering numbers is that countless community organisations simply weren’t allowed to operate during lockdown.
In the next few paragraphs, I will show why the 2020s will be nothing less than the golden decade for volunteering in Australia.
Let’s start with who is volunteering, as there is a lifecycle element to it.
Volunteering first peaks in the teenage years at around 16. This is when schools encourage volunteering, when sporting clubs rely on the older kids to help coach the youngest cohorts of gymnasts, netballers and footballers.
After the peak at 16, volunteering rates tend to drop. At 28, we are least likely to lend a helping hand. That’s when we focus on work and finding a life partner. As soon as we start families, our passion for community engagement is rekindled. We volunteer at playgroups, toy libraries and kindergartens.
As our kids transition into school, we are increasingly encouraged by charismatic teachers to help assist at school events. At clubs, we get roped into teaching the next generation how to kick, bat or throw. Never are we more likely to volunteer than at 44.
The 50s are a time of our lives when we scale back our volunteering efforts. After all, that’s when both partners tend to work, and when top promotions are handed out. Better to donate to the soup kitchen than to give up your precious spare time.
The next peak in volunteering can be found in our late 60s and early 70s. We are still healthy enough to actively engage with our community and might even become involved in the sporting clubs of our grandchildren.
Towards our late 70s, we step back from volunteering; our health isn’t what it used to be and many volunteering activities are just too taxing at this stage. That said, I think there is massive untapped potential in our 75+ cohort in terms of imparting wisdom, knowledge and skills to younger people. The challenge here is to put the right systems into place and proactively invite individuals to partake in our programs.
Why did I claim earlier that we are moving into the golden decade of volunteering? Simple demographics are at play.
In the coming decade, we will be adding about 3.1 million people to our country. The population-growth profile by age almost perfectly mirrors the volunteering lifecycle. Have a look at the chart: it’s a sight to behold!
Let’s start with the centre of the chart. Our largest generation, the millennials, reaches the phase of the lifecycle where they are most likely to volunteer. On the left side of the chart, we see the kids of the millennials moving towards the teenage peak in volunteering.
The teenage growth is so big because the previous cohort occupying the teenage years was tiny. Gen Z, the kids of Gen X, are now vacating the teenage years and moving into their 20s (hence there is no growth in the 20s in this decade).
On the right side of the chart, we see two peaks. The first one, driven by the youngest Baby Boomers, maxes out at 70 – that was the third and final volunteering peak in the lifecycle.
The 75+ cohort grows by just under one million people throughout the 2020s. This group isn’t much represented in the volunteering cohort. But while many of the older cohort will be on the receiving end of the volunteering equation, it would be wrong of us not to at least try to engage them more in our communities.
This is as good an overlap of two datasets as you are ever likely to see. If you run an organisation that relies on volunteers, you will be excused for shedding a tear of joy while reading these charts. This truly is the golden decade for volunteering in Australia.
We could end the column here, or I could point you to a few challenges when attracting volunteers in the 2020s. You look like a red pill kind of reader, so let’s give it ago.
The diversity factor
Australia is increasingly becoming more culturally diverse. This means your messaging increasingly needs to be more targeted when advertising for more volunteers.
Some cultures might not share our concept of volunteering through official organisations. Many wonderful and well-meaning community organisations fail to attract a more diverse set of volunteers. You don’t need to be prescriptive about it, but as a rule of thumb your organisation should roughly reflect the community it is servicing.
As Baby Boomers retire and leave leadership positions in business, government and community organisations to younger generations, their values will also leave these organisations.
More than anything, this means hierarchical structures will need to be flattened to attract millennials who increasingly spend their 9-to-5 in flat organisations. It’s hard to imagine how a hierarchical community organisation could attract highly skilled millennial parents or their teenage children.
So, let me qualify my golden decade statement somewhat: The 2020s are the golden decade for any community organisation that flattens its hierarchy and manages to speak to a diverse Australia.
These are manageable challenges. This is going to be a great decade!