Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Launch of National Volunteers Week, Canberra

Location: The Great Hall Australian National University

Check Against Delivery

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, and to their elders past and present.

As we have heard tonight, National Volunteer Week is a time to recognise the wonderful efforts of our nation’s 5.2 million volunteers. However, not only is it a time to celebrate and recognise, it is also a valuable opportunity to reflect on the way that volunteering is changing and evolving, and to look to the future.

With rapidly advancing technologies making available new forms of connecting and contributing, demographic changes, environmental imperatives and a new focus on partnerships and social innovation, “Now, More than Ever” we need to be equipping ourselves to engage with this changing landscape and the challenges and opportunities it provides.

Today, more than five million Australians contribute more than 700 million hours to volunteering every year. But the way we are doing so is changing.

Volunteering in Australia is a part of our culture in a way that is distinctly Australian – it’s part of our culture of a “fair go” and helping out a mate. Observers overseas admire our ethos of volunteerism and, in fact, one of our biggest exports out of the Sydney Olympic Games was our volunteer management expertise.

So it’s important that we remind ourselves sometimes that we’re leading the world in the work that we are doing here.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge the ways in which volunteering is changing.

The same sense of bonding and altruism that has always marked volunteering remains the driving force – the Productivity Commission reported in January this year that the main motivation for volunteering in contemporary Australia is altruism.1

However, the way we are expressing this altruism is changing and we now have new ways of expressing this motivation through volunteering.

Virtual volunteering, for example, now allows people to contribute to organisations from their desktops, and young people are driving many new volunteering initiatives.

In a submission to the Productivity Commission Report that I just mentioned, the Smith Family noted that

Younger generations are also reshaping the nature of volunteering through their technological skills, their focus on outcomes rather than inputs and the greater levels of autonomy and responsibility they are seeking in their roles.

Sydney Real Estate Agent, Leighton Walters, is a case in point. He started Heart for the Homeless after becoming fed up with the amount of food and old furniture he noticed got thrown out every time his clients moved house. Heart for Homeless is a volunteer group of young real estate professionals that encourages people moving house to give their excess food – and clothing and furniture – to the homeless.

And tonight we’re going to hear from Michael Ullmer from NAB about their approach to skilled volunteering. Michael was telling me over dinner that last year NAB employees gave 7 000 days of volunteer time, which is a remarkable contribution.

At the other end of the age spectrum we have the grey nomads – quintessentially Australian – and also the Golden Gurus – a mentoring program that matches mature age mentors with community groups or new business owners. Golden Gurus is turning what some see as the challenge of an ageing population into an opportunity both for the retired and for the younger people they are mentoring.

So new ways of volunteering are taking shape every day, and our challenge is to respond and evolve so that we can engage with this new volunteering landscape and make the most of what it offers.

This is what the National Volunteering Vision and Strategy that I am leading in government is all about.

The Strategy will set out our vision for volunteering and provide a framework for achieving that vision.

Our work on the Strategy coincides with the 10 year anniversary of the International Year of the Volunteer next year, which is the United Nation’s call to celebrate volunteering and how it has evolved since the International Year of the Volunteer in 2001.

So in this vein, the Strategy will reflect the vital role volunteering plays in the Australian community – in welfare, the arts, environment, emergency response, health, ageing, sports, education and local government – and articulate the Government’s commitment to volunteering.

Importantly, it will also highlight the key issues and emerging trends in volunteering – some of which I spoke about earlier.

I am lucky to be working on the Strategy with a great group of representatives from across the volunteering community through the Volunteer Policy Advisory Group to work out the direction and potential of the Strategy. And we are also collaborating with the state and territory governments, along with their volunteering peaks.

The Strategy will be a wonderful adjunct to the National Compact which the Prime Minister launched at Parliament House in March this year.

As many of you know the Compact is an historic first – the first time an Australian Government and the Third Sector (not-for-profit sector) have come together to formalise their partnership.

It is the result of an exhilarating two years of consultations in which we brainstormed, debated, argued, philosophised, analysed and finally, together, developed a document dedicated to ensuring a new relationship between Government and the sector.

At its core is a shared intent to work more effectively together for the benefit of all Australians.

The Prime Minister has signed the Compact on behalf of the Government and, already, more than 170 organisations from across the Third Sector have become compact partners – and Volunteering Australia is one of them – with more doing so every day.

We are currently examining ways that the compact can promote best practice among not-for-profit organisations in how they manage and support their volunteers.

It is, of course, a truism that without volunteers, many not-for-profit organisations would simply cease to exist. So it is vital that the needs of volunteers find voice in the compact.

As volunteers, you build the connections that keep people engaged in the world around them, and you enrich our communities by your gifts of time and talent to the cultural, environmental and sporting life of our country. And in so doing, you shape the nation.

So on that note I would like to launch National Volunteers Week 2010. This is your special week and I hope you all feel especially valued and recognised as we, as a nation, thank you for your amazing contribution.

  1. Contribution of the Not-for-Profit Sector, Productivity Commission Research Report, January 2010. p 250.