Volunteers substantially benefit their communities through providing important services to others. They may also bring new insights to the organisations or groups for which they volunteer, increase efficiencies and improve effectiveness.

Volunteering broadens people’s networks and professional skills, and serves as an indicator of wellbeing and social cohesion (see Australia’s Health Indicators AIHW 2019). It also has links to the economic and health status of a nation. By volunteering, people can become more outwardly focused, which may strengthen social interactions or even reduce anxiety (AIHW 2019; Head to Health 2019).

People can volunteer formally through an organisation (‘volunteering’), or informally through the provision of unpaid work and support to non-household members, excluding family members (‘informal volunteering’). Informal volunteers and informal carers may be involved in similar forms of unpaid work, however, while some informal carers care for people living in the same household, informal volunteers do not.  For information on people who are informal carers, see Informal carers.

Data about people in Australia who volunteer are primarily drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2019 General Social Survey (GSS). In this survey, volunteering is defined as providing unpaid help (time, service or skills) to an organisation or group, excluding work done overseas (ABS 2018).

3 in 10 people are volunteers

Almost one-third (29%) of Australians aged 15 and over participated in unpaid voluntary work through an organisation or group in 2019. Over a 12-month period, volunteers contributed an estimated 596.2 million hours to the community.

Who volunteers?

In 2019, almost 5.9 million people participated in voluntary work through an organisation. A similar proportion of males and females participated in voluntary work (31% of males and 29% of females), and the proportion of people volunteering fluctuated with age. People aged 40–54 were most likely to have participated in unpaid voluntary work through an organisation (36%) followed by people aged 55–69 and 15–24 (both 29%) (Figure 1).

 

The horizontal bar chart shows the proportion of people who undertook voluntary work (either volunteering or informal volunteering) in the relevant period. The values are the proportion of people male and female (or total persons) in each age group involved in voluntary work, either volunteering (in the last 12 months) or informal volunteering (in the last 4 weeks), which can be selected via a button. The chart shows that the greatest proportion of people volunteering, male or female, are aged 40–54. The chart indicates that informal volunteers tend to be younger, with the greatest proportion of people aged 25–39. The greatest proportion of female informal volunteers were aged 25–39, while the greatest proportion of male informal volunteers were aged 15–24.

The proportion of people who participated in voluntary work in 2019 was higher for people who had attained a Bachelor degree or above, or an advanced diploma (33% and 32%, respectively), compared with those who had a primary or secondary school qualification (25%).

Couples with children were more likely to volunteer than other family compositions, such as single individuals (37% compared with 23%).

People living in households with higher incomes were also generally more likely to volunteer. The proportion of people who participated in voluntary work was highest for people living in households in the third and fourth quintile of gross household income (both 33%), and second highest for the highest quintile of income (30%), compared with those in the lowest and second lowest quintiles (23% and 26% respectively).

How often and where do people volunteer?

Volunteers in Australia are generous with their time. In 2019, 30% of people who volunteered in the previous 12 months had contributed 21 to 99 hours during that period, and over a quarter (28%) contributed 100 or more hours. Almost 2 in 5 (38%) volunteers had been volunteering for more than 10 years, and women were more likely than men to have been volunteering for that period of time (43% compared with 33%).

In 2019, almost two-thirds (61%) of people who volunteered did so for one organisation, 25% for 2 organisations and 15% for 3 or more. The most common types of organisations were sports and recreation (39%), religious groups (23%), education and training (22%), and welfare/health (12%). The most common reason for people’s first involvement with unpaid voluntary work was that they knew someone involved or were asked to volunteer.

Informal volunteering

In addition to voluntary work for organisations, people may participate in informal volunteering, which is the provision of unpaid work and support to non-household members, excluding family members. Examples of informal volunteering include providing transport or running errands, unpaid childcare for a friend or neighbour, and providing emotional support. About one-third (33%) of the Australian population aged 15 and over participated in informal volunteering in the four weeks prior to the GSS 2019.

For the purposes of the GSS, unpaid work undertaken for anyone within a person’s household falls outside the scope of informal volunteering and is referred to as informal caring (ABS 2018). Formal volunteering is distinct from informal caring, but informal volunteering can be closely related to informal caring. For more information on informal caring, see Informal carers.

Impact of COVID-19 on volunteers

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has limited the communal and social activities of many Australians. To reduce the risk of infection, different levels of formal restrictions have been in place, and these may have affected how or when people volunteer.

The proportion of Australians volunteering has declined since the onset of COVID-19. In April 2021, close to 1 in 4 (24%) people had undertaken voluntary work in the previous 12 months, compared with 1 in 3 (36%) people in late 2019 (ANU 2021). This study also reported that social contact is one of the key motivators for people to volunteer (opportunities for which were severely limited during the pandemic), and that people who stopped volunteering during the pandemic had greater reductions in life satisfaction than people who had not volunteered.

The Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey conducted by the ABS also indicated a decline in volunteering because of COVID-19. In March 2021, over 1 in 5 (21%) respondents had participated in unpaid voluntary work for an organisation or group in the last 12 months, compared with 26% of respondents before March 2020. More than 1 in 3 (36%) respondents did not undertake unpaid voluntary work because of COVID-19 restrictions. Reasons included that people could not participate in person, were not sure how to volunteer, and their previous volunteering group had stopped or reduced their operations due to COVID-19 (ABS 2021).

In the four weeks before March 2021, people aged 18 and over were more likely to participate in informal volunteering than volunteering through an organisation or group (27% and 15%, respectively). More than 2 in 5 (43%) people aged 18 and over provided unpaid help to people living outside of their own household. Of those who could not provide unpaid help, 15% wanted to minimise their exposure to people to protect their health and others.

New COVID-19 outbreaks in 2021 are likely to have similar impacts on volunteering as seen in 2020. For information and advice on volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic, see the Volunteering Australia website and the Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey.

Trends

Overall, the proportion of Australians who participate in voluntary work has fluctuated over time. Between 2006 and 2010, more than 1 in 3 (34%–36%) people aged 18 and over reported volunteering through an organisation in the previous 12 months. In 2019, this decreased to 29%. On the other hand, people providing informal volunteering (unpaid work or support to people living outside their household) in the 4 weeks prior to the survey increased from 49% in 2010 to 53% in 2019 (Figure 2).

 

The line chart shows the male-to-female trend of people aged 18 and over, who had some form of community involvement from 2006 to 2019. The values are the proportion of people male and female (or total persons) across 2 categories of community involvement, either volunteering (in the last 12 months) or informal volunteering (in the last 4 weeks), which can be selected via a button. The chart shows that there is a decline in people volunteering, and that the difference between males and females has narrowed. The chart also shows that the proportion of people participating in informal volunteering has increased, with females being more likely than males to provide unpaid work/support to non-household members.

The decrease in volunteering through an organisation reflects the broader changes noted in the GSS: there has been a decrease in the time and opportunity that Australians have for recreation and leisure, and social and community interaction. Between 2010 and 2019, the proportion of people involved in social, community support and civic/political groups has decreased (ABS 2020, ABS 2014).

Where do I go for more information?

For the latest data and more information on volunteers in Australia, see:

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2014. Measures of Australia’s progress, 2013. ABS cat no. 1370.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2015. Australian national accounts: Non-profit institutions satellite account, 2012–13. ABS cat. no. 5256.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018. Information paper: Collection of volunteering data in the ABS, March 2018. ABS cat. no. 4159.0.55.005. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2020. General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia, September 2020. Canberra ABS.

ABS 2021. Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, March 2021. Canberra ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2019. Australia's welfare indicators. Canberra: AIHW.

ANU (Australian National University) 2021. Volunteering during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (April 2021). Canberra: ANU

Head to Health 2019. Purposeful activity - volunteering. Canberra: Department of Health. Viewed 9 April 2021.