20/02/2007 - 22:00

Not for profit: Volunteering comes at a cost

20/02/2007 - 22:00

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Volunteering makes a significant contribution to the national economy, worth between $35 billion and $50 billion a year and equal to 5 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Not for profit: Volunteering comes at a cost

Volunteering makes a significant contribution to the national economy, worth between $35 billion and $50 billion a year and equal to 5 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

 

However, many volunteers incur out-of-pocket expense, which limits participation to the detriment of many not-for-profit agencies. 

 

A report by Anglicare, on behalf of the Australian Emergency Management Volunteer Forum and released in November last year, found direct and in-kind contributions were worth about $950 a year for each emergency services volunteer.

 

Volunteering Western Australia chief executive officer Lynn Fisher said that, in other sectors, volunteers were on average $300 out of pocket for their work annually.

 

She said some organisations did not have a culture of reimbursement, while others were unable to.

 

“Most organisations report that the reason they don’t reimburse is they don’t have the budget,” Ms Fisher said.

 

This was supported by a Volunteering WA survey, undertaken in August last year, which found about one third of organisations surveyed did not reimburse out-of-pocket expenses, citing budget constraints, while 51 percent believed volunteers were lost because of the out-of-pocket expense of volunteering.

 

National body Volunteering Australia has produced a report recommending three options for the federal government to address the situation.

 

One option is to introduce a tax rebate for volunteers, although Ms Fisher said many retired individuals or low income earners would not stand to benefit from this.

 

An option that has received stronger endorsement from the not-for-profit sector is a system whereby organisations reimburse volunteers out of their own revenue, with a government funded top-up system in place.

 

Ms Fisher said any strategy adopted would need to be straightforward to administer, as most community organisations did not have budget allowances for additional administration costs.

 

Among the options being considered was a capped govern-ment contribution to services, she said.

 

Advocacy group SES Volunteers Association WA president, Phillip Petersen, said he believed a lack of financial reimbursement was not prohibitive to people volunteering in the state’s emergency service, although it had an impact on some volunteers.

 

“I don’t think the issue is stopping people volunteering…however, some people volunteer and it certainly puts a strain on their purse strings, especially those on pensions,” he said.

 

Mr Petersen said people who had retired from full-time work often became volunteers, and were more vulnerable when incurring expenses, such as petrol, as a result of their work.

 

He said he supported the principle of a tax break for emergency services volunteers, while acknowledging that unemployed volunteers would not benefit, and said that the state government had a role to play.

 

“Even the state government can contribute, because just about every volunteer has a car, or pays some sort of state tax each year, whether through their driver’s licence or some other tax,” he said.

 

Mr Petersen said one option was a voucher system, whereby the user could obtain an exemption on a state tax up to a specified amount.

 

With 200 volunteers on its register, the Association for the Blind WA is one organisation where the issue of financial reimbursement for volunteers influences service delivery.

 

According to the organisation’s manager public relations and fundraising, Justin O’Meara Smith, volunteers on low or fixed incomes, and particularly those who live in outlying suburbs, struggle with out of pocket expenses, particularly relating to travel.

 

“There is demonstrated evidence that our inability to reimburse costs that volunteers personally bear has a direct impact on our ability to source volunteers in those areas…and also in regional areas,” he said.

 

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