Volunteering has a brand problem

19 January 2018 By Richard Dent OAM, CEO, Leadership Victoria

Catherine Walsh’s well-intentioned article in The Age (5/1) asked Australians to volunteer less. She gave sausage-sizzle examples and trots out the old saw that volunteering undercuts paid work.

Tell that to the volunteers who lead ICAN, the Australian organisation which has just won a Nobel Peace Prize for nuclear disarmament. Tell that to Dr Bronwyn King – the oncologist who voluntarily leads Tobacco Free Investments and has shaped a $6B industry shift. Tell that to the thousands of highly skilled professionals who lead countless boards of NFP organisations of all sizes and focuses.

Tell it to the thousands of mentors who share their wisdom and lived experience with younger Australians, recently arrived Australians, and under-resourced Australians. Tell it to the CFA. In fact, tell it to political party members!

Volunteers are central to Australian life.

But in one aspect though, Walsh is largely right: volunteering is undervalued. That’s because volunteering has a brand problem: in fact the very brand problem that Walsh’s own argument embodies. Volunteering is seen as narrow, local, and largely unskilled. That was probably false even in the 20th or previous centuries, but unfortunately it’s still a broadly held misperception. It’s a misperception that leads us to watch more Netflix and to forego voluntary civic engagement.

The truth is that contributions of volunteers are absolutely essential to our national identity and our national progress. And in future, volunteering will become even more important: as global wealth and productivity rises, Australians will have more opportunity to voluntarily lead progress in their fields of passion and expertise. This increase in activity will lead to strengthened social capital, increased innovation, increased health and wellbeing, and a better nation and world.

What we need is a national discussion on 21st century volunteering: we need Governments who recognise the highly leveraged investment which volunteers can comprise, we need a national strategy to unlock the amazing potential hidden in our communities, we need businesses and nonprofits who are thinking strategically about their connection to corporate and community purpose.

I accept the notion that perhaps sausage sizzles are economically inefficient: so volunteer less at them if you wish. But think carefully about your own contribution: be a leader and use your skills to do something good for someone. No matter how good your sausage-sizzle skills are, remember that Winston Churchill was an excellent bricklayer. If he’d spent the 1940’s bricklaying, history could be very different.

Government, business and community members need to support community contribution more strategically: civic engagement through volunteering is essential and will make Australia and the world a better place.

We shouldn’t should be doing less volunteering, we should be doing more and better.



Richard Dent OAM is CEO of Leadership Victoria, which runs one of Australia's largest skilled volunteer programs and whose alumni and graduates contribute thousands of skilled leadership hours every week to important social, economic and environmental issues.