RACHEL BROWNE May 13, 2012
Doing their bit … Wollongong City Surf Club junior patrol members, from left, Shannon Fox, Mitchell Hennessy, Cooper Ainsworth, Kirralee Scrivener, Billy Fox and Remi Hickman, at Wollongong City beach. Photo: David Tease
Putting your hand up is the Australian way, and it is increasingly the corporate way, too.
It is enjoying growth to make the big end of town envious, doubling in size over the past 15 years.
Volunteering, in which about 40 per cent of Australians are involved, contributes an estimated billion hours of work each year and provides more than $15 billion of unpaid labour.
And while natural disasters have played a strong role in the development of the country's volunteering culture, the vast majority of participants are involved in the less high-profile areas of education, sport, community and welfare, and religion.
''Volunteering is definitely part of Australia's DNA,'' observes Peter Cocks of Volunteering Australia, a national body that promotes volunteering. ''In all the world indexes I have seen, Australia ranks up near the top in terms of participation.''
The State Emergency Service has 10,000 volunteer members in NSW, the NSW Rural Fire Service is the largest of its kind in the world with 70,000 members, Surf Lifesaving Australia has close to 160,000 members and estimates it has saved 600,000 lives over the past century.
They are just a fraction of the 6.4 million Australians who did some volunteer work in 2010, 40 per cent of them women and 37 per cent men. However, the face of volunteering is changing, as the corporate world gets more interested in the idea.
When most people think of volunteers, they picture well-meaning grandmothers behind the counter of op shops or energetic retirees packing hot lunches for Meals on Wheels. But it is people in their 40s and 50s who record the highest rate of volunteering, most in paid employment and many offering their services to the community with the support of their employer.
''Corporate volunteering has experienced huge growth over the past few years,'' Cocks says. ''It's been driven by the major organisations that see volunteering as a significant part of their corporate social responsibility agenda.''
Banks, legal firms, technology companies and accounting groups are increasingly giving staff the opportunity to lend their expertise to not-for-profit groups. Staff gain satisfaction from helping out while the company gets greater employee engagement, higher staff morale, improved productivity and a better public image.
''It's a win-win-win situation,'' says Claire Johnson, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide who is researching corporate volunteering. She believes companies are turning away from sponsorship in favour of corporate volunteering. ''I think people can be cynical about sponsorship. The idea that the company can give money to a group and get advertising in return - it just looks like a media opportunity.''
The director of research at the University of New South Wales's centre for social impact, Les Hems, believes the future of corporate volunteering lies more with skilled workers, who can offer their expertise rather than just a willing pair of hands.
''The days have gone when you got 50 sets of overalls, 50 tins of paint and painted the walls of a school,'' he says.
''Corporations tend to identify what community groups could benefit from their experience. People actually use their core competencies, which they have learnt in their jobs to help organisations.
''Why would you get an IT professional in to paint walls when they could overhaul your computer system or improve your website?''
At Reverse Garbage in Marrickville, a not-for-profit group that diverts waste from landfill and sells it, it is often the highly skilled white-collar volunteers who want to get their hands dirty.
''You'd be surprised how many lawyers want to do the labouring work,'' the development director at Reverse Garbage, Christine Harris-Smyth, says. ''They actually want to do something different from their paid work in the office. The last thing they want to do is the paper work.''
One of the challenges for the group is training volunteers, which can be time consuming and costly, which is why they were delighted when the National Australia Bank approached them and offered the business expertise of its staff for free.
''You'll get bankers to come in and fix up the paving but they can also do the accounts,'' the general manager at Reverse Garbage, Narelle Mantle, says. ''But the important thing is they come to us with skills that we don't have. We don't have to spend time or money training volunteers up. It's been really positive for us.''
Mr Cocks explains that Australia's community spirit was born out of need, particularly in rural areas. ''The various rural fire services were formed by farming communities banding together. Surf lifesaving is the same. It morphed out of a need for survival.''
The NAB has a long-running corporate volunteering program that assists about 400 community groups. Staff participation is high, with about 40 per cent of employees giving a minimum of two days a year towards volunteering.
Melanie Hilton, who works in business banking for NAB, has volunteered at Reverse Garbage as well as the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, where she has helped support a program that engages people with disabilities in the arts.
''The bank wants me to do it. I want to do it. I've got some skills. And there's a demand out there in the community,'' she says. ''Why wouldn't you do it? People really appreciate you helping them. It's quite satisfying. I get a kick out of it.''
Another NAB staffer, Ronnie van Dijk, the head of service governance in technology, left his spreadsheets behind when he went to a remote Aboriginal community in the East Kimberley region last year. He worked with an organisation called Bina-Waji Nyurra-Nga Aboriginal Corporation, showing the managers how to run a business, teaching basics such as how to send an email, raise invoices, organise timesheets and manage cashflow.
''We sit here in the city and look at computers all day,'' he says. ''We're so removed from the rest of Australia. I came back with a sense of personal gratification because I could offer something which meant a lot to them. I felt a real sense of achievement.''
At IBM, corporate volunteering is strongly encouraged as a form of professional development.
''The opportunities are there,'' says Miranda Scarff, the corporate citizenship and corporate affairs manager at IBM Australia.
''Often we have people who want to move into a leadership role and it's another way for them to get experience in leading a project. Or if they want senior management experience we encourage them to join the board of a not-for-profit. It's an excellent way of broadening their skills.''
At the major audit and advisory firm KPMG, more than 50 per cent of staff take part in the company's corporate volunteering scheme, according to its director of corporate citizenship, Catherine Hunter.
She has noticed that prospective employees ask about opportunities for corporate volunteering during the recruitment process.
''In this day and age, it's pretty much an expectation from younger staff,'' Hunter says.
''Younger people have a greater sense of their place in the world. They are interviewing their employers now. They are asking: 'What is your commitment to the community? What are your values?'''
Those aged between 18 and 24 make up 9.4 per cent of volunteers, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Mr Cocks believes social media could do for youth volunteering what the corporate sector has achieved in the wider community.
''The single biggest challenge for the not-for-profit sector is embracing new social media technology,'' he says.
''How do we bring volunteering to a generation that wants instant satisfaction? They want something and they want it now. They want things on Facebook and Twitter and every other social media platform. I'm not sure we have caught up with that as a sector but I think that will be our next big step.''
National Volunteer Week starts tomorrow, see volunteeringaustralia.org.