Volunteers nurture resilient, strong and connected communities

| May 23, 2020

This week Australia celebrates National Volunteer Week, providing an opportunity to acknowledge the immense and valuable contribution volunteers make to our nation. There are close to 6 million Australians engaged in formal volunteering, creating an estimated annual economic and social contribution of $290 billion.

In times of crisis, Australians are well known to lend a hand, stepping up to support their local communities. The Mud Army was formed to clean up in the aftermath of the 2011 Queensland floods, and thousands of volunteers were relied upon during the bush fire emergency this summer.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Queenslanders have signed up to the Care Army, a Queensland government initiative focused on social connection and essential services for those most at risk or vulnerable due to the coronavirus. Other states have also created similar COVID-19 emergency support volunteering initiatives.

Yet volunteers do so much more than just provide support during emergencies. Volunteers are the weavers of a strong social fabric, nurturing resilience, strength and connection in local communities.

In the Australian context, volunteers play a key role in creating communities that cultivate feelings of connectedness and are a powerful community resource in the lives of those most vulnerable to social disconnection.

For example, Volunteer Family Connect is a community-driven, structured social relationship intervention that mobilises trained volunteers to support families with young children experiencing social isolation. A large and rigorous multi-state trial, led by researchers at Western Sydney University, demonstrated that families who received Volunteer Family Connect experienced significantly positive changes in their wellbeing, parenting confidence, and connection to their local community.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Volunteer Family Connect consortium made up of Benevolent Society, Karitane and Save the Children, have successfully continued the Volunteer Family Connect model utilising a virtual application.

The transition has not been without challenges yet the family service providers’ experience of working collaboratively and with agility has facilitated engagement in inter-organisation delivery across diverse geographic footprints.

Finding innovative solutions to translation issues for culturally and linguistically diverse families, strategies for nurturing the volunteer-family relationship in the virtual world, connecting volunteers with families across different states, and providing ongoing virtual training to ensure volunteers are well-equipped to support families during these challenging times have all been possible through sharing practice wisdom, learnings and expertise.

But most importantly, it has ensured the ongoing engagement of volunteers, and support for them to continue supporting families wherever and however possible:

The mum and I have consistently kept in touch with video calls every week during the pandemic. Despite the fact that she always has all four young children in the same area as herself, she appears to really enjoy our catch ups. She uses video calling to also allow me to interact with the children and I can see how much they have grown and how much the babies are learning. She enjoys debriefing about the week that’s been and the week to follow.”

Service models like this serve not only individuals but whole communities, doing good things for the health, wellbeing, and social connection of those being supported as well as for those doing the supporting.

The individual benefits of volunteering have been demonstrated in research with volunteers being happier, healthier, and having a greater sense of belonging and connection than non-volunteers.  Continuing to volunteer during the COVID-19 crisis also appears to be a protective factor for current levels of life satisfaction and psychological distress.

However, the current pandemic has forced many organisations to pause volunteer-delivered programs and activities. Research commissioned by Volunteering Australia has highlighted the significant impact of COVID-19 on volunteering, with an estimated two-thirds of volunteers no longer active.

Not every volunteer-involving organisation has the same experience and ability to pivot to extend their service delivery model online. A failure to rebuild volunteering will impact on the support available to those experiencing social isolation or vulnerability, further diminishing the fostering of connection in local communities.

Reinvigorating the volunteering sector post-coronavirus will be challenging, but optimism remains. Others argue for the need for volunteering to come out of the policy shadows and for state and federal governments to reinvest in volunteering after years of reduced funding.

While volunteers willingly give their time for the common good and without financial gain, volunteer management is not free. Training, ongoing supervision and support for volunteers are all crucial components needed for volunteering to be effective.

Under the lead of the Program Coordinator, Volunteer Family Connect volunteers are better able to make a difference in families’ lives because of the training they receive, and the ongoing management and support provided to them. Investments from government need to consider the role of the Program or Volunteer Coordinator as part of the management activity of volunteers.

Program or Volunteer Coordinators are pivotal to the success of any volunteer program, providing the necessary structure for volunteers while also remaining flexible to support the individual needs of both the volunteer and end user.

Volunteers have, and always will be, at the heart of solutions to social issues. The coronavirus pandemic has been no different, and volunteers – like those involved in Volunteer Family Connect – will continue to nurture resilience, strength and connection in local communities.

This article was written by Associate Professor Rebekah Grace and Dr Kelly Baird, a Research Fellow in the Translational Research and Social Innovation (TReSI) group in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University. Kelly takes a collaborative, applied and community-embedded approach to research, partnering with organisations delivering support services to children, young people and families. She has a particular research interest in addressing the service and support needs of those within our communities who are most vulnerable.