27/06/2022 - 11:35

Volunteers shoulder the gap as NFPs work hard to attract those who give so much for free

27/06/2022 - 11:35


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It’s a constant challenge to attract and retain volunteers in the not for profit (NFP) sector, especially in light of COVID, but for many organisations operating in this space, the simple acts of this legion of selfless individuals are hard to underestimate.

Volunteers shoulder the gap as NFPs work hard to attract those who give so much for free

During this year’s Volunteers Week, the spotlight once again shone on this often unsung sector of the community. People from all walks of life regularly volunteer to a wide variety of organisations including NFPs – amounting to over 600,000 volunters contributing over $39 billion a year to WA’s economy each year. It’s fair to say that without volunteers our state would grind to a halt.

Attracting and retaining volunteers remains a challenge

For many NFPs, it would simply be impossible to operate without this generous army of selfless individuals, including St Pat’s, an organisation which found its genesis through the support of volunteers.

St Patrick’s Community Support Centre (St Pat’s), would not exist without the support of volunteers,” said Michael Piu, CEO of St Pat’s.

“Our founder, Brother Ignatius Hannick (OMI), was originally supported by a stalwart group of 18 women from diverse backgrounds and walks of life, who dedicated their time and energy to supporting people rough sleeping around Fremantle. As the organisation has evolved and grown over the past 50 years, the relationship with our diverse range of volunteers and professionals has only deepened.”

Rob,volunteer in the Health Clinic 

Continuing to attract and importantly retain volunteers is an ongoing challenge, especially when certain skillsets are required.

“When recruiting volunteers, we like to be guided by what people hope to get out of the experience while respecting their time and the skills and experience they bring to St Pat’s,|” said Mr Piu.

“We recognise that many people are time-poor, so if someone can only volunteer once a fortnight, on an ad-hoc basis or for just one event, we will try and accommodate them.”

There’s also a subset of professional volunteers who work in St Pat’s health and dental clinics, and the long-term benefits that these people witness from those who they treat is priceless.

“Our volunteer health practitioners, particularly our dentists, often talk about how rewarding it is to see the significant and long-term impact their work has on someone’s life,” said Mr Piu.

“It’s challenging work, with many people who’ve experienced homelessness suffering from complex and chronic health challenges, and the gratitude which our clients show for their work is humbling.”

The work the team at St Bart’s carry out every day – supporting more than 500 people each day in Perth, who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness – is significantly supported by a community of volunteers who stand side by side with St Bart’s to support Perth’s most vulnerable people.

Vicki volunteer in the Day Centre kitchen. 

The 2020-21 financial year saw 200 Perth corporate volunteers partner with St Bart’s to deliver a range of services and initiatives. These included St Bart’s Christmas Appeal, driving residents and service consumers to appointments, assisting them with grocery shopping, providing social interaction and emotional support, cooking meals and making coffees for service consumers as well as providing maintenance, landscaping and painting services at residential properties. 

St Bart’s Volunteer Programs Manager Carla Mele said the organisation is actively seeking new corporate and community volunteers following a drop in numbers over the past two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Volunteering options with St Bart’s range from a few hours for individuals through to full day activities for small groups and everything in between,” Ms Mele said.

“Our volunteers come from all walks of life including corporate Perth, local high schools and community groups, as well as benevolently-minded individuals who want to make a real difference in the lives of those less fortunate.

“What links all of our volunteers is that they bring a wealth of valuable skills, compassion, empathy and understanding that enriches the services St Bart’s provides to our residents and service consumers.

“We are currently looking for volunteers to join us who are interested in transporting our residents and service consumers to appointments, social outings and leisure activities, as well as for people with specialist skills in budgeting, cooking and writing cover letters and resumes to assist and empower our residents and service consumers to build and enhance their own skills.”  

Lived experience a bonus

Volunteers make up 30% of the workforce at Anglicare WA, with more than 250 people volunteering across a diverse range of opportunities from staffing Op Shops to assisting at Child and Parent Centres. It’s particular valuable for those who have been through similar experiences of disadvantage and trauma to volunteer, says Mark Glasson, CEO of Anglicare WA.

Peer support volunteers are also integral to the frontline work of Anglicare WA,” he said.  “These are people who have lived through experiences of disadvantage or trauma, and are able to now help others going through similar situations.”

The benefit to volunteers is as enriching as it is for the NFP who receive their time and assistance in many cases.

“Volunteering reduces isolation and provides the opportunity to connect with others. This in turn, has been proven to reduce depression and anxiety.

Some volunteers in our Op Shops have been consistently involved for over a decade,” said Mr Glasson.

“Volunteering has created for them, a sense of belonging, a team of friends and a safe place to be. Other volunteers are motivated by altruism – they wish to give back, feel a sense of purpose and support others, while still others may be keen to increase their skills, connections and the chance to gain employment. This is perhaps the main driver for our volunteers.”

Jan Korek, a volunteer for St Bart’s, would wholeheartedly agree with this these motivations to volunteer – he has proudly been supporting St Bart’s for over a decade.

“I began volunteering because I wanted to pay back St Bart’s for all they had done for me,” Jan said.

“St Bart’s rescued me from homelessness at a time when I was most vulnerable. They supported and encouraged me, allowing me to take the small steps back to a hopeful future. I feel I am, in some small way, supporting those who find themselves in a similar situation to me.”

Jan said he’d recommend volunteering with St Bart’s to anyone seeking an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

“Many people experiencing homelessness feel invisible on the streets and even a small chat can lead to valuable relationships being formed,” Jan said.

“It is rewarding to see people gain accommodation and start a new life supported by St Bart’s and to know that you may have contributed in some way to their success with a brief chat or even providing a cooked breakfast.”

Gaining new skills and a sense of civic duty

Those who volunteer at St Pat’s are often surprised to discover the wide variety of roles on offer; it’s not all about serving food or working in the kitchens.

“We have amazing volunteer drivers, retail stars in our Op-Shop, Community Store and Furniture Store, volunteers working behind the scenes sorting and collecting donations, running art workshops, helping out at the Fremantle Long Table Dinner, manning reception at our Day Centre and lots more,” said Mr Piu.

As one of the smaller NFPs in Perth, an additional benefit for those who volunteer with St Pat’s is that individuals invariably become part of the St Pat’s family and are as valued as staff and clients. This value is also recognised by potential employees who are increasingly looking for evidence of this kind of personal generosity on resumes for new recruits.

“Volunteering can help people re-build their sense of self-worth and confidence, connect them with community and learn valuable skills which they can transfer to the work force,” said Mr Piu.

“More and more employers are also recognising the importance of volunteering and fostering a workplace culture which encourages a sense of civic duty.”

Volunteers with Uniting WA are primarily involved in preparing nourishing meals for people in need who access the Tranby Engagement Hub. They make over 40,000 meals each year, using generously donated food. Of course, it’s not just about delivering a delicious meal; volunteers also cook, clean and listen to people who access Tranby as well as handing out towels and toiletries.

A new employee volunteering program is being launched to enable those already working for Uniting WA to volunteer in different areas of the organisation – an innovative solution to a volunteer shortage across the board.

“Volunteers at Uniting create tangible positive impacts in the lives of vulnerable Western Australians, while also creating meaningful connections within their community and with other individuals,” said Jen Park, Co-CEO of Uniting WA.

“Our peer volunteers at Uniting have reported improvements in their self-esteem, with some speaking to the role of volunteering in helping them develop new friendships and creating a sense of purpose in their lives.

“Volunteering also presents opportunities to develop professional skills and knowledge in certain areas and can round out a candidate’s character and value to future employers.”

The rewards of volunteering are far-reaching

RSPCA WA Volunteer Engagement Coordinator Kathrin Terblanche said the charity simply couldn’t function without its treasured network of volunteers.

“Around 900 volunteers give over 26,000 hours each year to help rescue, rehabilitate and rehome animals in need,” she said. 

“They help with everything from walking the dogs and playing with the cats, to sorting donations, washing the enormous amount of blankets and towels we go through, and raising much-needed funds. Their love for animals and drive to make a difference is inspiring.”

RSPCA WA recently revamped its volunteer program to better utilise people’s individual interests and abilities.

“Those who have racked up experience in one area of volunteering, or have prior training, are now able to get hands-on in more skilled roles,” Ms Terblanche said.

“For example, cat and dog lovers can help the behavioural trainers or vet clinic team, while those who love children or have teaching experience can lend a hand running our school holiday program or the AWARE education initiative.”

A recent challenge for the charity has been a surge in prosecution cases.  RSPCA WA currently has over 140 seized animals in care–80 per cent more than the same time last year. 

Seized animals are those taken in by inspectors when a suspected cruelty offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2002 has occurred.  These animals usually remain in RSPCA WA’s care until there is an outcome in court, which can take months or even years.

“There is only so much room in the shelter for incoming animals, so long-term foster carers have become absolutely critical in recent months with the surge in prosecutions,” said Ms Terblanche.

“Foster carers can offer seized animals a temporary home, much-needed TLC and respite from the shelter. Many of these dogs and cats have never known a kind hand, so carers help them learn to trust people again, which is so rewarding.”

It was a desire to help neglected dogs that drove 66-year-old Connolly resident Tricia Fox to sign up as a carer 18 months ago.

She’s found the love and care she gives to the animals comes back to her tenfold. Fitness, community connection and companionship are just some of the other benefits she said fostering had provided her.

“I love showing them how a real home can be and giving them love, daily walks and lots of belly rubs. It’s very rewarding,” she said.

RSPCA WA has welcomed more than 100 new carers this financial year but like many other NFPs, is desperately seeking more for a growing waitlist of animals. 

 “Volunteering is truly  a win for everybody, as it helps the animals in our care, reduces pressure on staff, and helps volunteers feel fulfilled and stimulated.”

Filling the gaps and serving the people

Kate O’Hara, CEO of Foodbank WA, joins in the chorus of praise for those who volunteer their time so selflessly.

“At Foodbank WA volunteers are our lifeblood and we couldn’t do what we do without them,” said Ms O’Hara.

“Our team is small and we rely heavily on teams and individuals who generously give their time to help us get food to the people who need it.”

Foodbank WA currently attracts 200 volunteers to help on a regular basis and over 1,600 corporate volunteers across the year. Attracting volunteers can be a challenge – especially in the regions – but the benefits of corporate and group volunteering are often hard to underestimate. The organisation was already noting a general downturn in the numbers of volunteers, and then the pandemic accelerated the trend.

Fortunately, there are always those who answer the call for aid.

“Since April, after an urgent all out for help, Rotarians stepped up to help pack pantry staple hampers along with various other bundles such as coffee and tea packs, and hygiene packs amongst others,” said Ms O’Hara.

“Matilda Bay Rotary Club members alone did  seven shifts, Heirisson Rotarians also did two mornings with another being scheduled - just to mention a few of the 30 groups. Hundreds of hampers and bundles are prepared each shift meaning those most vulnerable in our communities around WA are being helped.”

Corporate organisations have also continued to offer their services free of charge.

“We have many corporate volunteering options available in both our Community Kitchen and our warehouse,” said Ms O’Hara.

“From one day options through to full week options, our volunteers help us with a range of tasks including packing hampers for our Mobile Foodbank and emergency relief, sorting fruit and vegetables, stocking shelves, cooking food in our Community Kitchen and assisting at the check-out. It’s a great chance to build teams while making a real difference in the community.”

Nick Zukowski, a volunteer with Foodbank WA, feels special pride when he sees the fruits of his labour having a direct effect on end users.

“When I see all the food hampers being made for distribution to various areas that are in need, and knowing I helped to prepare them, it really gives me a buzz.”

Equally, those on the receiving end of a volunteer’s actions also feel enriched. One of Foodbank WA’s clients had this to say.

“Relying on food relief could be a humiliating experience, however Trent treats everyone that approached with dignity and respect,” he said.

Community and individuals are the winners

For Special Olympics Australia, a small NFP, there are a multitude of opportunities to volunteer, from grassroots sports coaching to athlete leadership development, co-ordinating events and fundraising. In many cases too, volunteers are encouraged to lend a hand because they may have a family member or friend with an intellectual disability – and Special Olympics is able to deliver life-changing experiences to these people.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, Special Olympics Australia has been fortunate to maintain a steady volunteer base.

“However, challenges were experienced in recruiting volunteers to fulfil leadership roles at a club or State committee level,” said Tanya Brown, Board Director, Special Olympics Australia.

“We also found that, due to the time it takes to support a family member to navigate the complexities of the NDIS system and work with service providers, some of our volunteers had less time available to volunteer with us. 

“This will have a significant impact on volunteer retention and succession planning in the coming years.”

The significant benefits of participating in sport, even in a small way, are hard to underestimate and a big plus point for those who volunteer with Special Olympics.

“Through our volunteering, we see a two-way flow of benefits - our athletes and employees learn new skills from the volunteers who come from a variety of different professional and personal backgrounds, and vice versa,” said Ms Brown. 

“Our volunteers find it deeply satisfying and rewarding to help athletes with intellectual disability through the catalyst of sport. Put simply, Special Olympics Australia would not exist without volunteers who have been giving their time and talent to bring sport to people with intellectual disability for more than 40 years.”

If those who are reading this article are in any doubt about the importance of volunteering, then perhaps the last word should rest with somebody who has experienced both sides of the coin; being both a client and now a volunteer herself.

“Helping the community was what helped me through my darkest moments. Not only has volunteering helped me heal, it’s helped my children heal, and have a safe place to make memories for childhood,” said Sandra, an Anglicare WA Dudley Park Child and Parent Centre volunteer.



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