I have recently returned from a five week business trip to Australia, running training on leading and managing volunteers for clients across the country.
During my time in Adelaide I met Mel White, a Brit who had moved to Australia and was continuing a career there that had finished in the UK with her managing a Volunteer Centre. Mel and I shared a number of observations about the differences and similarities between the UK and Australia and I asked Mel to write a guest blog looking at how volunteering varies yet stays the same.
What Mel has come up with is a fascinating and challenging insight into the growth in both countries of mandated volunteering, especially in regard to unemployment and welfare benefits. So, read on, reflect and please sure your thoughts and ideas in response by posting a comment.
In April 2013 my family and I embarked on the biggest adventure of our lives when we waved goodbye to the cold north east region of the UK to immigrate to a much sunnier Adelaide in South Australia. I was leaving behind a role I had been in since January 2000 as a Volunteer Centre Manager based in a larger infrastructure organisation. Twelve months before leaving I had utilised the wondrous internet to make contacts with the sector in Australia. I was going to type ‘voluntary sector’, but there starts the first of many learning curves for me, with it being more commonly known as the ‘not-for-profit’ sector in this particular part of the Southern hemisphere.
Within two weeks of arriving and having sorted out children’s schooling, medical cover and all the seemingly more urgent items I decided I would follow the advice I had given to many people in my years of delivering talks on the benefits of volunteering. In this case its usefulness in helping individuals to settle into a community and build up work experience on my CV (next language difference; known as a resume, down under). My husband dropped me off at the local Volunteer Centre for an appointment I had made and a rather bizarre encounter ensued. They had received my CV 6 months previously when I was flogging it round to anybody and everybody, they had been emailing me for 2 months about a job they had advertised, I hadn’t got the emails but to cut a long story short I went in for a volunteering brokerage service and within a fortnight I was employed with them in a paid position. Delighted doesn’t come close and I was so glad I was where I felt I belonged – back in a Volunteer Centre.
In my 16 months of employment at Southern Volunteering I have learnt so much about the sector and volunteering in Australia. There are lots of observations and interesting similarities and differences I could share but for now at least, I want to talk about one in particular. Imagine my horror coming from the UK to discover that people volunteer in order to maintain benefits from Centrelink (the Australian equivalent of JobCentre Plus). Not only that but the system is audited and volunteers have to commit to work/volunteer up to 15 hours per week. Now I know similar schemes have been trialled in the UK but this is different, it is not hidden or disguised in any way, it is discussed openly and frankly and volunteers happily come in to say they want an opportunity that fits the requirements of their 15 hour ‘obligation’. Furthermore until recently the scheme was mainly offered to the over 55 age group as the government somewhat acknowledges they will struggle to find paid employment. Not sure if that is a good thing or not and I’m pretty sure politicians wouldn’t be so open about it in the UK! However the approach fits with what I love most about Australia and the people who live here; without stereotyping too much, I generally find you know where you stand with Australians, they are direct and polite but without the awkwardness and concern for self image that I sometimes find is a British curse!
At our Centre a large percentage of the volunteers we see are coming in to find something to meet their volunteering hours ‘contract’. Receiving organisations have to be approved by Centrelink and there is follow up from Centrelink to check people are attending and volunteering for their allotted hours each week.
I was initially shocked and so many thoughts went tumbling through my mind; is this really volunteering? Do the participants have choice in whether they want to partake? How do organisations react and involve this unique group of individuals? etc etc.
I remember in my network of Volunteer Centres in the UK one of my colleagues brought in a letter a volunteer had produced when they attended for an appointment. Basically the letter said the individual had to attend the Volunteer Centre for an appointment or their Job Seekers Allowance would be temporarily withheld. There was utter outrage within our network. The JobCentre had not informed or consulted the Volunteer Centre about this, the volunteer was very distressed and quite simply we felt ‘mandating’ volunteering in this way went against the ethos and definition of volunteering. Also as independent voluntary organisations we did not want to be viewed as an arm of the JobCentre. The Volunteer Centre involved quite simply informed the individual that if they did not want to volunteer and were being pressured into it they did not have to see the appointment through. As a network we spoke to higher management within JobCentre Plus about how inappropriate this was.
Some three years later I find myself in Australia with strong feelings opposing voluntary work being aligned with benefit payments and I am faced with a system that embraces it! I had long discussions with my Australian colleagues who assured me they and the sector had felt the same way when the system was introduced some years ago but their feelings had changed. Over time I have observed the practice in place and now I sit firmly on the fence when it comes to my views on this market of volunteers.
1. The volunteers
Fifteen hours of volunteering (8 hours for those on some disability benefits) is one in a range of options the individual can engage with to satisfy the requirements of their Centrelink agreement. So, despite having no choice to do nothing, they do have a choice in what they would like to follow through; training, job seeking (but this has to be done through an approved job service provider) or volunteering. For many people, being given the option to volunteer long term takes the pressure off finding employment in a tough economic environment and gives structure and purpose to their week. Indeed once they commence I am sure it offers all the perks we regularly use to ‘sell’ volunteering; builds their self confidence, offers a routine and gives them a whole new skill set that they may not acquire otherwise, amongst many more. Some of course go onto to find paid employment within the not-for-profit organisation or a related field.
On occasion individuals have come into our Centre looking for a number of hours and when the interviewer meets them it may become apparent that they have too many restricting health issues for an organisation to safely engage them as a volunteer. Recently our worker was able to report back to the Job Service Provider that a gentleman could not meaningfully volunteer with the number of health issues he had and this was endorsed by his doctor’s letters. It seemed the Job Service Agency actually listened to us (where they had not listened to the individual previously) and the gentleman was incredibly grateful for our intervention.
2. The volunteer involving organisations.
Organisations complete a Centrelink form if they want to be registered as an “Approved Organisation”.
Having spoken to a number of organisations I found that many were hesitant of involving this group of volunteers when the program was first rolled out.
However those that have gone on to engage with the system have found the 15 hour volunteers tend to be very reliable and commit long term. This is probably because the volunteers know there will be follow-up and consequences will ensue. They also know that they can still continue to look for work but at their own pace rather than being pressured by a case worker.
Organisations also report that the older volunteer has better work ethics and is more conscious of fulfilling their Centrelink or JSA obligations than the younger jobseeker. Generally individuals complete a Centrelink form which the organisation signs to confirm they have agreed to take the individual on as a volunteer and what the commencement date is.
If the individuals are with a Job Services Australia provider, that provider should check occasionally with the organisation on how things are going or they give the individual an attendance form which the organisation is expected to sign each week for the individual for them to take back to the JSA. There is no obligation for the organisation to report back to Centrelink or the JSA if an individual is no longer attending. Southern Volunteering encourages the organisation to treat the individuals exactly the same as they would for any of their volunteers.
Some programs have 75% of their volunteer base made up of ‘Centrelink’ volunteers so I would imagine if those individuals were not available their programs would struggle to continue and ultimately the beneficiaries of the service would lose.
The final benefit I see is that the profile of the volunteer involving organisations and their opportunities is raised and a new community of potential volunteers is reached. Despite many individuals reluctance to engage they go on to report that they enjoy their time with the organisation.
More significantly like many other ‘incentivised’ volunteer schemes, the individual actually continues to volunteer after their obligation is finished. They continue to do it because they love it. As anyone who works with volunteers knows, the key to getting people involved long term is getting them to join up in the first place. If the gateway to doing this is a little unconventional but the outcome is the same should we put our morals to one side? Over to you.....
Community Visitor Scheme Coordinator
Southern Volunteering (SA) Inc.
From July 2014 the idea has been extended into the ‘Work for the Dole’ pilot program, being rolled out in areas of all states of Australia. All jobseekers aged 18-30 in selected areas will have to ‘work for the dole’ for 6 months and placements will be sourced in not-for-profit organisations, local councils and federal and state government agencies. Work for the Dole places will not be offered in private sector businesses. It will be interesting to watch how the program works with a different age demographic.
Southern Volunteering SA (Inc) provides information on volunteering opportunities and roles available in the southern suburbs of Adelaide including the Fleurieu Peninsula. We also offer training, information and support for not-for-profit organisations. Our Community Visitors Program provides volunteer visitors to resident in Aged Care Facilities, who are socially isolated. For more information please visit our website www.svsa.org.au