Tuesday, 28 August 2012
Volunteering has always been a strong tradition in Australia, but a University of Adelaide study has now revealed the true extent of its monetary value - more than $200 billion a year.
Its economic contribution to Australian society outstrips revenue sources from mining, agriculture and the retail sector, according to Dr Lisel O'Dwyer, a Senior Research Associate in the University's School of Social Sciences.
More than 6.4 million people volunteer their time in Australia, which is double the number in 1995.
And with the looming retirement of the first wave of baby boomers, these figures are likely to increase at an even more rapid rate.
"There are many ways to measure the value of volunteering and the benefits flow both ways," Dr O'Dwyer says.
"Volunteers get a lot of satisfaction from helping others, enhancing the quality of their life and their health. The benefits to the recipients are obvious and there are also positive spinoffs for governments and workplaces."
A previous study in 2003 by Dr Peter Mayer from the University of Adelaide revealed one of the less tangible, potential effects of volunteering - a reduced crime rate.
Dr Mayer's study suggested that even a 1% increase in social capital (including volunteering) was likely to lead to falls in homicides, sexual assaults, burglaries and vehicle thefts.
While the economic value of volunteering to Australia is huge, Dr O'Dwyer says the true value of volunteering goes far beyond a dollar figure.
"If a volunteer fire fighter saves the life of a child, what is that worth? If environmental degradation is slowed because of millions of trees planted by volunteer conservationists, what is that worth? And if an elderly person receives a hot meal five days a week, what is that worth?
"The value of volunteering is difficult to measure. Volunteers gain a broad range of new skills that are transferable to their workplace, for example. They are healthier, fitter, more mentally alert and more socially connected than people who do not volunteer. These benefits may even act as a pathway to employment," Dr O'Dwyer says.
She says current estimates relating to the economic value of volunteering are likely to be "gross under-representations" but warns that focusing on the monetary value may even be damaging if it reinforces the notion that volunteering is all about saving money.
According to Volunteering Australia, people aged between 40-54 comprise the highest bracket of volunteers, with slightly more women (40%) than men (37%) giving their time to voluntary work. Employed people are more likely to volunteer, as are couples with dependent children aged 5-17 years.
Dr O'Dwyer's research findings form a chapter in a forthcoming book, Positive Ageing: Think Volunteering, published by Volunteering SA & NT later this year.