This weekend we will again vote in a Federal election.  An election which “will be held in the lowest-trust environment for a generation.”  With studies indicating that more and more Australians are becoming disillusioned not only with politicians but also with the way we express our democracy at a leadership level, it is interesting to look at other ways through which Australians are passionately expressing their commitment to democracy.

One such way is through volunteering.  By coincidence, the Federal election takes place two days before the start of National Volunteer Week (NVW).  This is an initiative by Volunteering Australia supported by state volunteering peak bodies to not only celebrate Australia’s volunteering culture and thank volunteers but also to raise awareness about the importance of volunteering.

The juxtaposition of the election and NVW really got me thinking about one of my favourite quotes which describes volunteering as the ultimate expression of democracy.  When people volunteer, they are voting everyday about the type of community they want to live in and through every action they take as volunteers, they are shaping our society. 

How people choose to spend and give their money is certainly significant but how people choose to spend their time and give of themselves – their skills, experience, wisdom and passion, is a truly strong indicator of what people consider to be important.

There are of course myriad reasons why people volunteer.  In fact, the most successful volunteer-involving organisations understand that if they have 100 volunteers, they have 100 motivations for volunteering.  It is also important to acknowledge that not all who volunteer do so for altruistic reasons but, by its very definition, no matter the motivation, volunteering is a choice.  It is a choice that recognises that a particular cause, organisation or activity is important to the person volunteering.        

31% of Australians engage in formal volunteering (and we know there are many more who volunteer informally) across every sector of Australian society, contributing over $290 billion annually to our economy as well as immeasurable social benefit.  Yet volunteering remains largely underappreciated and under-resourced with trends and changes not particularly well understood. 

What would happen if tomorrow all of Australia’s volunteers decided to go on strike?  The repercussions would be complex and far-reaching and it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that it would be a catastrophe.  This is because not only would whole sectors of Australia’s society (and economy) be hamstrung, including health and social services, education, emergency services, sport, recreation, tourism and art but as a result, people’s lives would literally be lost.  Of course, many of the motivators for volunteering are such that regardless of conditions, a mass action to cease volunteering is very unlikely.  Thus, perhaps it is better to consider what is gained when we properly acknowledge and respect the role volunteers play and the message they send about the country and world their actions shape. 

At Access Inc, for example, we recognise that our volunteers are not only essential for delivering services, they are essential for advancing advocacy.  In our endeavour to follow best practice in volunteer management, we aim not to be reliant on volunteers to run our programs but we are most definitely reliant on volunteers to make our services the best they can be.  We do this by recognising the value of the diverse skills, knowledge, experiences, energy and insight that our volunteers bring with them.  We are so truly wealthy in this respect and could never afford to pay for the immense expertise that is shared with us and our participants. 

More than this, however, we understand the significance of volunteers and donors choosing to support Access and the message that they send in doing so about the importance of a community and society which celebrates ability, appreciates diversity and is built on inclusion.  Whether they come to us with a strong understanding of disability or very little knowledge about it, in volunteering with Access, they stand with and amplify not only the voice of the participants they volunteer with but of all those living with a disability.  Having a voice and having that voice heard is such an essential part of a healthy, engaging and robust democracy and volunteering is one of the most accessible ways to make this happen.         

I have personally volunteered since I was a child and some question whether this was really a ‘choice’ but reflecting back, I remember only ever being presented with opportunities to make an impact and then being left to choose whether to pursue them.  I am so grateful that my parents gave me this gift because it really instilled in me the belief that we can all make a positive impact and we do all have the power to shape our world, even as a child.  This was so empowering for me growing up and was the impetus for the leadership path that I have chosen. 

So as we work through the challenges of politics, leadership and ensuring effective democracy, perhaps we should be giving more credit and investing more into better understanding volunteering as an opportunity to invigorate, empower and inspire society and our leadership of it.   

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the dedicated Access Inc volunteers for their partnership and to wish them and all of the volunteers in our community and across Australia happy National Volunteer Week! 

May our upcoming election bring with it some clarity, stability and inspiration. 

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Sharon Malecki
Sharon Malecki is the CEO of Access Inc, a volunteer-involving organisation which partners with people with disabilities. She was also previously a Volunteer Program Manager, has been part of working groups for Volunteering Victoria and is a life-long volunteer.

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