Why don’t Aussies volunteer?

Flinders University History Professor Melanie Oppenheimer is leading a new study to find out why people don't volunteer.
Flinders University History Professor Melanie Oppenheimer is leading a new study to find out why people don’t volunteer.

The reasons why Aussies volunteer, and the benefits they bring to society, are well known.

Now – in a world first – Flinders University together with a team of Australian and international researchers will try to find out why people don’t volunteer.

Funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the new three-year project – Creating and sustaining a strong future for volunteering in Australia – aims to identify innovative ways to increase social participation by understanding the barriers that deter people from lending a hand.

One of the study’s chief investigators, Flinders University History Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, said the project will involve surveys, interviews and focus groups with hundreds of non-volunteers and volunteer organisations Australia-wide, as well as an analysis of the broader function of society.

An expert in volunteering and chair of a working party for the State Government’s Volunteering Strategy for South Australia, Professor Oppenheimer said the motivations for volunteering and the benefits it creates for individuals and societies are well-established, yet less is known about the factors that prevent and deter people from volunteering.

“There’s little doubt that without volunteers, Australian society would grind to a halt,” Professor Oppenheimer said.

“Vital things wouldn’t get done – for example the elderly in their homes wouldn’t get Meals on Wheels, the bushfires would still blaze and our beaches wouldn’t be patrolled,” she said.

“The fundamental contributions of volunteering to Australian society are well documented. There’s also plenty of research on the benefits for volunteers – in fact the most researched area is motivation, or why people do something for nothing, but we still don’t know why people don’t do it.

“About 36 per cent of adult Australians volunteer their time but what about the rest?

“They might have quite simple reasons, such as not knowing what’s available or where to go, or their reasons could be much more complex, for example feeling alienated from the community, but if we don’t ask, we won’t know.”

Reflecting societal changes, Professor Oppenheimer said volunteering now takes many different shapes and forms, with a particular surge in volunteer tourism, where holidaymakers actively pursue volunteer work as part of their holiday “experience”.

She said the overall aim of the project is to identify ways to increase participation in both traditional and non-traditional models of volunteering by understanding and addressing the barriers.

The research, which is Professor Oppenheimer’s second ARC-funded project into volunteering, will be undertaken in collaboration with Curtin, Victoria and Macquarie universities, as well as partners from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Volunteering Victoria, Volunteering SA/NT, Volunteering Western Australia and the WA Department of Local Government and Communities.

Professor Oppenheimer, who has co-edited the soon-to-be published book Volunteering In Australia (Federation Press) will reflect on her 25 years of research on Australia’s volunteer history at a public lecture on Tuesday, October 14, titled 10 Things You Should Know About Volunteering: Reflections on Volunteering in the 21st Century.

Held as part of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Science’s Professionals Lecture Series, the seminar will explore 10 core features of volunteering in the 21st century through a historical lens, and consider the role of these features in responding to new challenges.

10 Things You Should Know About Volunteering: Reflections on Volunteering in the 21st Century will be held at Flinders University Victoria Square, Level 1, 182 Victoria Square, on Tuesday, October 14, from 3.45pm for 4pm.

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