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Australian census will boost the cause of volunteering
03 August 2006
by Sha Cordingley

On August 8th, 2006 all Australian households will be asked to fill in the Census of Population and Housing.  This year, for the first time ever, the Census includes a section on unpaid work, with a specific question on voluntary work.

This is an important step for Australia, both in terms of recognising that volunteering is a central part of community life, one significant enough to measure, and in giving us comprehensive information on who volunteers and where they come from.

In 2001 the National Community Council of Advice IYV2001 undertook a nation-wide consultation to determine the major volunteering issues. An overwhelming majority of participants in the consultations nominated the low level of information about volunteering and lack of commitment by governments to regularly collect such data as a major problem for the community. Consequently, a call for a volunteering question in the Census and the regular collection of volunteer data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics was included in A National Agenda on Volunteering: Beyond the International Year of Volunteers.

Over the next two to three years we will see an enormous amount of statistical data on volunteers and the organizations for which they work. Starting with the Census on August 8th and including the third Voluntary Work Survey 2006, the Time Use surveys, as well as ABS plans for producing a Nonprofit Institution Satellite Account for 2006/07, a solid body of evidence on volunteer and not-for-profit activity in Australia will be gathered.

Why is this important? Australia, unlike some other developed nations, has enjoyed a recent upward trend in volunteer involvement. The picture has been somewhat different in Canada, the UK and the United States where respective governments have made significant investments in the revitalisation of volunteering. Not because volunteering is nice to have but because there is recognition at policy level that it is one indicator of a fully functioning civil society.

Plummeting volunteer numbers are the equivalent of a dead canary down a mine; a timely warning to do something about the circumstances that led to its death. Any data that will help build a true picture of volunteering in Australia and help us plan for a sustainable volunteering future is critical.

In Australia there is anything up to 700,000 third-sector organizations, the majority of which involve volunteers in some capacity. The ABS tells us that although most of these do not have paid staff, they are responsible for 3.3% of GDP, and if you include the financial value of volunteer activity, the figure rises to 4.7%.  This is serious business: not-for-profits make an economic contribution larger than the communications industry, about equal to that of the agriculture industry; or a contribution almost twice as large as the entire economic contribution of the state of Tasmania.

Without volunteering it is true to say that Australia will suffer, not because of the potential collapse of services - after all, these can be paid for. The real damage will be in not providing the outlet for people to work for the benefit of others, whether that is through visiting an elderly person or lobbying government for policy changes.  Volunteering is the sign of an engaged community and engaged communities prosper.

The Census question is an important development. It acknowledges community recognition of the significance of volunteer activity, it will give researchers, policy makers and advocates a rich source of data demonstrating that volunteering is an activity worthy of note and that it is in our community's interest to find ways to actively dismantle barriers to volunteer involvement.

(Sha Cordingley is CEO of Volunteering Australia.)