Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Launch of National Volunteer Week 2009

Location: Canberra Southern Cross Yacht Club, Canberra


Good evening and thank you for your kind introduction and for the opportunity to launch National Volunteer Week 2009, here in the ACT.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge Cary Pedicini, CEO of Volunteering Australia, Jim Turner, President of Volunteering ACT, Mary Porter MLA, my fellow federal parliamentary colleagues and most importantly the volunteers and their supporters here tonight – this really is your night tonight and we’re here to celebrate and acknowledge your invaluable contribution to the ACT.

National Volunteer Week, now in its 21st year, is the largest celebration of volunteers and volunteering in Australia, and provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the precious contribution of our volunteers. It’s also a time for the government and all Australians to say thank you to the more than 5 million Australians who give of their time and talents to help others, and without whom our community organisations and charities would struggle to survive.

The theme for this year’s National Volunteer Week is ‘Everyday people, extraordinary contribution’.

This theme was nowhere more evident than in the horrific fires and floods our country suffered earlier this year.

Everyday people responding to the call for their services, donning their protective clothing and heading out into natural disaster zones. These are the images we saw on television, the internet and on the front pages of our newspapers – images of ordinary Australians from all walks of life, leaving behind their day jobs to go to the aid of people they have never met, in places they had never before been.

The contribution of these everyday Australians was indeed extraordinary and entirely deserving of the national acclaim they received. However, along with these highly visible emergency response volunteers our Australian volunteering story also includes many, many more quiet local heroes. Like many of you here today – the Connections team, SPICE volunteers, Landcare and Conservation Australia volunteers.

I would like to share with you some of the lesser-known volunteer stories that have been coming into my office in the past few weeks. These stories are about volunteers who quietly make their contribution with little public recognition and some of you may even be here this evening.

Let me mention Irena who migrated to Australia in the 50s and has been providing help to other migrant families for over half a century; visiting isolated women and families, listening quietly to the stories of homesickness, and mentoring young women into community involvement and volunteering.

Then there is Bruce the multi-talented volunteer who has provided advice on building, glaziers, hydraulics and farming to his local non profit. He seems to be the ultimate “can do” man who steps in to drive the delivery truck and do the materials shopping when staffing is short.

And Coral the forty year veteran of the local tennis club who has raised over $100 000 as a dedicated social secretary and who has seen the junior tennis group she supported grow up over the course of four decades to become the seniors team.

These “everyday people” are volunteering as board members, teachers, athletic coaches, administrative assistants, tour guides, BBQ chefs, carers for the aged and isolated and sometimes simply as people who are there in times of need. 1500 fabulous volunteers helped make the National Folk Festival here in Canberra a resounding success over the Easter period.

Where work can sometimes narrow our vision and limit our social connections, volunteering broadens our experience. We meet people from different walks of life, talk about topics far from our usual repertoire and encounter experiences that enrich and mature our world view.

Volunteering connects people with each other and with their community. I saw this when I shared a barbeque dinner with the Red Cross Australia Volunteers in Broome on Friday evening. Warren and his staff acknowledging the contribution the 50 or so volunteers are making to their programs, was complemented by the personal stories of Zelda, Felix and Joan about what volunteering meant for them – connection, friendships, enriching experiences.

And these connections are intrinsic to an inclusive Australia.

Volunteers reach out to people on the margins. And perhaps even more significantly, by becoming volunteers themselves, volunteering provides ways in which people who don’t feel they belong, with a way to engage with their community.

An inspiring example of this dynamic at work is the Homeless Connect programs that are run in both Brisbane and Perth. Homeless Connect brings together the local council, state government, businesses and community groups to provide free services to homeless people for a day. So many once homeless people come back to become volunteers providing support to others that they once received themselves.

Volunteering is intimately linked with social inclusion. It is an enriching experience that nurtures peoples’ sense of self, builds confidence and can provide that “step up” into full participation in the social and economic life of our country.

Australia’s volunteering spirit is a powerful force for social good in our country. It is one of our biggest strengths as a nation and it is important that the government foster and support these “gifts from the heart.”

That is why Minister Jenny Macklin and I will tomorrow announce the government’s continued financial support for 50 volunteer resource centres around Australia. The Commonwealth Government will provide over $5 million a year for two years to enable them to assist and train volunteers and to support volunteer involving organisations.

These volunteer resource centres are often the first port of call for people looking to volunteer and the government recognises the important role they play in fostering the Australian volunteering spirit.

I would also like to acknowledge other key bodies such as Volunteering Australia and the State and Territory bodies for the professional and creative leadership they are providing to our volunteering workforce.

We also know too that volunteering, whilst freely given is not cost free.

There can be a myriad of associated expenses and it is important that these not become a barrier to volunteering. Our additional investment of $15 million over three years into the Volunteer Grants Program aims to ensure that expenses such as petrol costs do not prevent people from volunteering and that volunteers have the amenities they need, to do their work in a safe and enjoyable environment.

We will be opening another grant round in the next second half of the year for organisations to seek funding to support their volunteers.

We have also been looking at new and innovative ways to work with the community in linking potential volunteers with volunteer opportunities.

Some of you may have heard about the national Golden Guru program that was announced by the Prime Minister as part of the 2020 announcement a few weeks ago. The Golden Guru program will link skilled Australians over the age of 55 who are retired, semi-retired or not working full time to businesses, and especially start up businesses, looking for an experienced mentor.

A key component of the national Golden Guru program will be its connection to the Australian Government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme. The program will create opportunities for skilled mature age people to mentor new small business owners as they get on and grow their businesses.

Our plan is to work in with similar existing state and territory mentoring schemes to create a national ‘guru’ community. And we are currently consulting with state and territory government and third sector organisations to ensure that the National Golden Guru program will complement these existing schemes and utilise the incredible amount of talent that these baby boomers possess.

Work is also underway on a pilot volunteer mentoring program in schools. This program will give recently retired professionals and tradespeople the chance to pass on their knowledge and skills to secondary students. Grants of up to $50,000 each year will be available to 25 communities to establish the pilot program through existing Local Community Partnerships. These funds will help to meet training and associated costs for mentors.

By running this mentoring program in schools, we present an example of the volunteering spirit to students. And this is how we start to nurture these “habits of the heart” in our children.

I’m sure you are probably aware of other clever and nimble volunteering programs that a filling gaps in your own communities – renta-grandma is one I heard about just day. Virtual volunteering is something that is already happening through social networking sites – again I spoke to a young uni student today who is doing online volunteering tutoring in HSC maths. Another is translating documents for a migrant organisation, another is preparing RPL documentation for people trying to get their lifeskills recognised for a VET qualification.

All of these activities are happening at a time of great flux in the volunteering landscape.

In the space of only 6 months we have moved from a position of concern about an aging volunteering demographic creating a dearth of volunteers, to a situation where volunteer resource centres are experiencing overwhelming demand for volunteering opportunities.

Out of the fire experience, the great influx of spontaneous volunteers this generated created real challenges for Volunteering Australia and its Go Volunteer website to manage.

The economic downturn is also clearly causing significant reverberations across the volunteering sector. Many third sector organisations for which people volunteer, are suffering reduced financial support at a time when demand for their services is rising. Simultaneously, however, the pool of volunteers willing and able to contribute is growing as people lose paid employment and look to volunteering to provide meaningful activity to fill their days.

A key challenge for volunteering and third sector organisations will be how to make the most from this unexpected gift of extra volunteers. How can you craft volunteering opportunities to maximise the skills these volunteers have to offer. What changes might you need to make to be able to take advantage of these new volunteers? And what might you need to do to keep them with you when our economic circumstances improve?

As an example of this kind of thinking, some corporate and non profit leaders have been discussing ways to link returning ex pat employees to volunteering positions given the lack of work that will be awaiting their immediate return.

Another factor contributing to the shifting volunteer landscape is the government’s third sector regulation reform agenda. This agenda is about creating streamlined regulation that encourages good governance but does not impose weighty burdens on third sector organisations.

A central component of this is the Productivity Commission’s study into the contribution of the non profit sector. This study will recommend to government ways to measure the sector’s contribution, including volunteering effort, and ways to remove obstacles to maximising its contribution to Australian society. I encourage you to be involved in this study, which will shape the third sector’s future.

As well as improving the regulatory environment, the government is also working to improve our relationship with the third sector through developing a national compact. The purpose of the compact is to develop a strong, respectful relationship between government and the sector that will enable us to better work together to achieve outcomes for the people we serve, including our volunteers. In fact, similar compacts in other countries have included codes of volunteering, which outline how the non profit sector and government will work together to support and encourage volunteering.

So there are several significant external drivers shaping the volunteering landscape – the economic downturn, third sector reform and the national compact. As is characteristic of all times of flux, within the challenges, there a great many opportunities. One of these is the chance to accelerate our work on a National Volunteering Strategy, which will outline how the government will support and encourage volunteering into the future.

The UN has requested that all countries identify and develop ways to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the 2001 International Year of Volunteering in 2011. So in government we have been doing some thinking about ways that we can strengthen and foster Australia’s volunteering community.

In March, I chaired an inaugural meeting of Volunteer Ministers from the states and territories, which agreed to commence work towards this national strategy. Since this meeting work has begun at officials level on identifying priority areas that will have the most meaningful impact for volunteers and this will inform the development of the National Strategy.

I’d also like to recognise Volunteering Australia’s work on scoping the views of volunteers and volunteer managers on a national strategy. This too will inform our strategy development along with ongoing consultations and discussions with volunteer groups around Australia.

Most importantly, we do not see volunteering as an individual, discrete issue but one that is intimately interwoven in the fabric of our social inclusion work. Our National Strategy will therefore be crafted as a core component of our social inclusion agenda, reflecting the extraordinary contribution of volunteering to an inclusive Australia.

And this brings us right back to our National Volunteer Week theme- “Everyday people, extraordinary contribution.”

Tonight at this launch of National Volunteer Week, we celebrate the extraordinary contributions of more than 5 million Australians. We recognise, acknowledge and affirm all these volunteers in the great diversity of roles they fill from language tutors and mentors to lifeguards and cooks. They are the lifeblood of our charities and the glue that binds our society together.

So it gives me great pleasure to officially launch National Volunteer Week – a week of celebration of Australia’s extraordinary volunteering spirit!