By Yasmine Phillips

Western Australia’s rural communities are more actively engaged in volunteering than their city counterparts, but the sector is facing volunteer shortages and burnout risks, says a new report released by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre today.

The report, ‘The social and economic sustainability of WA’s rural workforce’, identifies the challenges faced by organisations seeking to recruit and retain volunteers in rural WA, and finds there is increasing pressure on the rural volunteer organisations and their workforce.

Report author Professor Kirsten Holmes, from the School of Marketing at Curtin University, said volunteers delivered crucial roles in under-resourced communities, but an ageing population and trend towards city-living among younger people was a growing challenge for the sector.

“Our findings show there is a very high level of volunteering participation in rural WA communities, with more than 50 per cent of residents volunteering in some form, with sport and emergency services the most popular activities,” Professor Holmes said.

“Volunteers are generally happier with their sense of community, and develop stronger social networks and ties in the local region.

“However, 40 per cent of the volunteering organisations that we surveyed indicated that they currently had volunteer shortages, and another 16 per cent expected to have volunteer shortages in the next one to five years.”

The report found an ageing population was putting increased pressure on demand for volunteer-driven support services.

“Our ageing population is creating stronger demand for services provided by volunteers including social activities and respite care for seniors. Recruiting younger people, new migrants to the community and early retirees who are not already volunteering should be a priority for volunteer organisations,” Professor Holmes said.

“Involving people in volunteering activities from a young age, including at school, may ‘normalise’ volunteering for younger people, and carry their involvement throughout their lives and increase the pool size from which organisations can recruit from.”

Report co-author, Associate Professor Amanda Davies, from the School of Design and the Built Environment at Curtin University, said expected volunteer workforce shortages also came as a result of locals, particularly young people, moving out of the region to explore education and employment opportunities.

“More than 1,000 survey respondents indicated they would move away from their local community in the next decade, representing a potential loss of 23 per cent of the current volunteer workforce,” Associate Professor Davies said.

“Given the current volunteering participation rate is high in regional WA, if we see a large outmigration in these communities then this does threaten the viability of the volunteer workforce in the long term.”

The report also examined the impact of increasing accountability and regulation on volunteer organisations, particularly those governed from metropolitan headquarters.

“The way people volunteer has changed substantially over the past 20 years and volunteer-involving organisations need to ensure that volunteer roles meet volunteers’ needs as well as the organisation and the clients,” Professor Holmes said.

“Volunteer organisations have also reported an increase in ‘professionalism’ in the volunteering space over the last decade, particularly in response to advances in technology. As a result, we are now seeing time and efficiency expectations placed on volunteers, which is potentially deterring new recruits who are seeking a less regimented volunteering experience.

“Increased training and safety practices are certainly benefiting volunteer organisations, but if we want to see a sustainable, viable volunteer workforce, then we need to consider there is a limit on the expectations we can set for a non-paid volunteer workforce.”

Key findings from the report include:

The volunteering landscape in rural Western Australia

  • Rural Western Australians have a very high rate of involvement in local volunteer activities, with more than 50 per cent of the population engaged in local volunteering.
  • The most popular volunteer activities are sport and emergency services.
  • Volunteers shift the nature of their participation in response to changes in their life stage. Starting a family and entering retirement are key stages when people become more engaged in volunteering.
  • Volunteers become and remain involved in volunteering because they believe it is integral to the survival of the community.
  • Volunteer participation is linked to social wellbeing, with those engaged in volunteering more likely to be happy with their sense of community.

Risks facing volunteer supply in rural communities

  • Outmigration of volunteers is a major threat to the viability of the volunteer labour force. Nine per cent of the rural WA volunteer workforce is planning to move within two years, threatening the sustainability of the volunteer workforce.
  • Structural ageing of the population is underpinning increased demand for volunteer-provided services.
  • The established trend of outmigration of young people for schooling, training and employment removes this cohort from the volunteer labour pool.

Challenges faced by rural volunteer-involving organisations

  • Volunteer-involving organisations report that increases in regulation impact negatively on volunteer participation.
  • The uptake of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) by central volunteer umbrella organisations causes major difficulties for rural counterparts, with rural volunteers having limited internet and mobile phone coverage.
  • Volunteer organisations require increased certainty regarding funding schemes, particularly related to longer-term initiatives.

Challenges faced by individual volunteers

  • Volunteer burnout is a major risk facing rural volunteer organisations.
  • The workload created by volunteering activities can be a major source of stress for individual volunteers, particularly those volunteers managing multiple volunteering commitments.
  • Volunteers have a range of coping mechanisms for managing their volunteer workload. Some seek to combine tasks with their other work and family commitments, some simply say no to further roles, while others actively plan their withdrawal from particular volunteering roles.
  • Volunteers are primarily responsible for succession planning, which is finding someone else to take on their volunteer role(s).

There is a need to develop data driven strategies to support rural volunteering