July 29, 2012
Army of volunteers ... Olympic volunteers parade down George Street, Sydney, in October 2000. Photo: Andrew Meares
Australians love to give. Well, they love to give up their time for a good cause even if they are not so generous with their cash. We may have long pockets but in 2010 Australia was third on the international giving index. It is this enthusiasm for lending a helping hand that has caused something of a headache in the volunteering industry.
While some organisations are knocked down in the well-meaning rush, others struggle to attract volunteers to perform vital, if unglamorous, work. Channelling volunteers in such a way that all deserving causes are benefiting from the Australian largesse is a challenge.
Taronga Zoo calls for volunteers once a year and turns away more applicants than it recruits. The Wayside Chapel at Kings Cross filled 200 available Christmas volunteer positions in an hour.
But the search for people able and willing to care for the elderly, such as doing their shopping or simply visiting them in their homes or nursing homes, is a struggle.
While sweeping the primates' cage at the zoo is a wonderful gesture, perhaps an act of kindness towards the country's senior citizens deserves priority.
Another problem charity organisations face is that they are professionally run businesses whose demands often don't mesh with the flexibility or whims of volunteers. And then our levels of altruism tend to be seasonally adjusted. At Christmas and in well-publicised times of crisis, such as after natural disasters, we cannot do enough. But in between such times, when the travails of the less fortunate are daily and real, volunteers are thinner on the ground.
Everybody who is capable of volunteering should be encouraged to do so. But it needs to be remembered that it's not just time that is required. Skill, experience and suitability often are prerequisites and volunteers need not take umbrage if their offer is declined.
During the Olympic Games in 2000 Sydneysiders showed just how community-minded they could be when thousands of volunteers played a key role in making those Games, on the assessment of many, the greatest of all.
All this goodwill is a rich resource, and governments must be prepared to harness it.
Sometimes the armies of volunteers will need to temper their enthusiasm with some consideration for the needs of the groups they choose to support - or those they have chosen not to support.
In the meantime, we can all pitch in by doing what we can. Make an affordable donation. Give blood. Pick up some litter. Say a simple hello to a fellow citizen. It really does make a difference.