Community groups battle volunteer decline

Volunteer numbers in grassroots organisations are in dire need of future leaders, according to a new study.

Data collected as part of a Flinders doctoral thesis found that fewer people are stepping up to join local community groups and committees of sporting clubs, conservation groups, service clubs, community bands, art and craft groups, and local historical societies across the country.

Flinders University College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences PhD candidate Christel Mex collected data around the country and surveyed 1500 not-for-profit organisations in South Australia to find that the number of committee member nominations is also in free fall.

“61% percent of the survey respondents reported that they were having difficulty in finding new members, and 67% said that they were having difficulty recruiting new committee members,” says Ms Mex.

“What was most alarming was that a substantial majority reported little turnover in leadership ranks with many staying on only because there was a lack of people willing to step up.”

Ms Mex, who is also a councillor in the City of Norwood, Payneham and St Peters in Adelaide, says a number of reasons were given to explain this concerning trend.

“Although lack of time was commonly reported as a reason for not joining committees, poor behaviour by existing committee members ,and reluctance to change with the times, were the most reported barriers for not nominating to join volunteer-led associations.”

Difficulties with red tape imposed by government and insurance companies was also commonly reported.

“The volunteer leaders who participated in this study demonstrated that it isn’t easy being a committee member of community groups in this day and age.

“A big message to me was that local groups are crying out for support and that Australia is experiencing social change on a massive scale which is having a big impact on the leadership of community groups.”

The study shows that although 67% of all non-profit associations are small with no paid staff, most research in the sector concentrates on large organisations that employ staff, otherwise known as ‘Big Charity’.

“What makes things worse is that they are largely invisible to governments and society at large,” Ms Mex says.

“The big question to me, is that without them, where will our citizens go to interact with others, pursue their passions and help make local communities a better place to live?”

The study was part of an Australian Research Council funded project entitled ‘Creating and Sustaining a Strong Future for Volunteering in Australia’, exploring the neglected topic of why people don’t volunteer.

The project, led by Curtin University (WA), is a partnership between the peak bodies of volunteering in Australia, the William Angliss Institute (Victoria) and Flinders University , Macquarie University (NSW) and Erasmus (Netherlands) University.

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College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Research