Opportunities and challenges in the changing landscape of volunteering

A culture of volunteering is a recognised indicator of a healthy and connected community.

In its broadest sense a society where people help one another, by their very nature, is more resilient and robust and can rapidly mobilise and respond in an emergency or crisis.6

Isolation can lead to mental health issues. Resilient and robust communities provide natural protection and prevention from this. Communities with a culture of volunteering stand a better chance of noticing and intervening in risk.

In formal settings, volunteers are on the frontline, delivering services for communities in a wide variety of ways – from providing directions in a hospital or running group activities in disability or aged care services, land and coastal care activities, to working in soup kitchens or animal shelters.

In the case of informal volunteering, it may be when neighbours or a local community come together to offer practical or material assistance to a person, family or group that is experiencing a particular hardship.

Through the State of volunteering in Victoria 2020 report, we have measured the high value of volunteering’s economic impact. In 2019 it was estimated that it would cost $19.4 billion to replace the labour that volunteers contribute to Victoria.1 The report also highlights the need for more research into informal volunteering. This often goes unnoticed, even by volunteers themselves.

As well as economic gains, volunteering offers environmental, social, cultural, health and wellbeing benefits to us all:

  • Volunteers get a sense of achievement and purpose from helping, giving back and making a difference to other people and/or to their local community.
  • Organisations can access a wider pool of skills and experience, including to important resources and support they would not have otherwise.
  • Volunteering strengthens and builds on resilience in communities. It creates a sense of belonging, develops skills, builds social connections and improves wellbeing. It creates pathways to jobs and forges robust communities.
  • Volunteers engaging in environmental and emergency management and preparedness activities building knowledge and understanding about the natural environment and ecosystems. In turn, communities benefit from the support provided to ecosystems, air quality, waterways, flora and fauna, leisure and recreation assets and spaces.


Our volunteering community has met great challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that it has also led to a huge wave of compassion,2 with people connecting and providing support to those most affected in new and different ways.

This has presented previously unharnessed opportunities but means we need to think differently about how we recognise, value and support volunteering.

Through consultations we have heard of a range of challenges experienced by the volunteering community including:

  • a lack of flexibility and accessibility to volunteering
  • barriers to finding information about volunteering opportunities that match with potential volunteers’ interests and experience
  • administrative burdens for VIOs to efficiently manage volunteer workforces
  • uncertainty over Commonwealth funding and implications for VSO service delivery
  • limited volunteering options that cater to different motivations and interests
  • low recognition of informal volunteering
  • the different perspectives of the meaning of volunteering.

COVID-19 has compounded many of these existing challenges. By early 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in a 50.2 per cent decline in Victoria’s reported volunteering participation rate compared with 2019. It fell from 2.3 million volunteers (42.1 per cent of the adult population) to 1.1 million volunteers (21 per cent) and has continued to decline since.1

Many organisations lost their volunteers over that period due to extended lockdowns and a hesitance to re-engage. The ongoing nature of the pandemic including high numbers of people contracting COVID-19 has exacerbated health concerns.

The decline in formal volunteering has had significant impacts on service delivery in government portfolios and a range of settings such as:

  • sport and recreation
  • children, families and communities
  • health care
  • aged care
  • disability
  • family and community services
  • emergency management
  • environmental management
  • arts and culture.

All these settings rely on volunteers.

Restoring and expanding volunteering numbers will be critical to ensuring a successful Commonwealth Games in 2026, with a strong community foundation. Over 15,000 volunteers played a crucial role in the delivery of the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

The legacy of COVID-19 on the volunteer community could present an ongoing barrier to future participation in volunteering. Many people’s feelings about safe and healthy environments for volunteering have changed. Noting these concerns and offering suitable supports will be key to welcoming back and attracting new volunteers as we learn to live with COVID-19. This will involve providing COVIDSafe settings for volunteers, as well as access to low- or non-contact volunteering roles.

Global research reflects the Victorian experience. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have connected with and assisted one another in new and different ways. Relying on online communication, volunteering platforms and service delivery methods, have been particularly helpful for high-risk groups.

Emerging opportunities

Volunteering creates and supports thriving local centres. The pandemic has highlighted the value and importance of this. It will play a central role in our state’s social and economic recovery.

Over-65s made up 78.9 per cent of our volunteers in 2019.1 As noted by the Commissioner for Senior Victorians, the proportion of Victorians aged over 60 is predicted to increase from one-fifth of the population in 2016 to one-quarter in 2056.7 This presents an enormous opportunity for volunteering and has enormous potential to increase social and economic capital.

This group is also particularly concerned about the health impacts of COVID-19, especially those who care for children. Making sure these concerns are addressed will be critical to engaging with this group. It is also essential that VIOs recognise the diversity of senior Victorians’ interests, identities, cultures, capacities and aspirations.

In 2021, the Commonwealth Government introduced a more targeted Volunteer Management Activity (VMA) program that will be administered by state/territory volunteering peak bodies.8 In consultation with the volunteering community, Volunteering Victoria has developed a new operating model, that will come into effect on 1 July 2022.

The new model will provide funding to a new partnership arrangement in each of Victoria’s eight emergency management regions, with funding primarily focused on breaking down barriers to volunteering faced by three identified priority groups: people with disabilities, First Nations peoples and newly arrived migrants.

In Victoria, many local Volunteer Support Organisations were previously funded to provide information about volunteering to the general public and match volunteers to suitable positions in VIOs. The new model will reshape the volunteering ecosystem.


[1] State of Volunteering 2020, State of volunteering in Victoria 2020. Retrieved from: https://stateofvolunteering.org.au/victoria/

[2] Trautwein S, Liberatore F, Lindenmeier J, von Schnurbein G 2020, ‘Satisfaction with informal volunteering during the COVID-19 crisis: an empirical study considering a Swiss online volunteering platform’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 49(6): 1142–1151

[6] Warburton J, McLaughlin D 2005, ‘“Lots of little kindnesses”: Valuing the role of older Australians as informal volunteers in the community’, Ageing and Society, 25(5): 715–730

[7] Commissioner for Senior Victorians 2020, Ageing well in a changing world. State of Victoria, Melbourne

[8] Department of Social Services 2021, Volunteer management activity summary. Retrieved from: https://www.dss.gov.au/communities-and-vulnerable-people-programs-servi…