Natural disasters and COVID-19 have resulted in the loss of 293 million volunteer hours, estimated at $13.5 billion in help and support. Here’s what we can do about it says FRRR CEO, Natalie Egleton.

The theme for this year’s Volunteers Week was ‘Better Together’ and it could not be more apt.

The Foundation For Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) is privileged to work with remote, rural and regional community organisations to help fund them to solve local problems, and build capacity and sustainability. These organisations are groups of local people who share a vision for their community. They donate their time and service because they believe in their community and they want to make a difference. They belong to Australia’s volunteer army that is valued at an estimated $30 billion per year. They epitomise this year’s National Volunteer Week theme of ‘Better Together’.

Volunteers are often the glue that hold small communities together. But they have been under incredible pressure in recent years as one disaster after another keeps coming their way. This was clearly confirmed in FRRR’s Heartbeat of Rural Australia report, and we continue to see it manifest, day to day.

The bottom line is that communities are in danger of missing out on essential services because such services are often delivered by volunteers who run community organisations.

Our research clearly shows that the desire to help each other is still strong within communities and people want to return to volunteering [after lockdowns]. In particular, people moving into new communities want to volunteer as a way to meet people.

So why am I so concerned about supporting volunteers and succession planning?

Across Australia, it is estimated that, pre-2020, nearly 6 million people volunteered through an organisation annually. These organisations include sports, recreation, religious groups, education and training, environment and animal welfare, emergency services, and arts and heritage. This community service is valued at an estimated $30 billion, or a total of 596.2 million hours each year. However, since the recent bushfires, floods and COVID-19 pandemic, we now have a third fewer volunteers. This means that during the height of COVID-19, Australian communities missed out on around 293 million volunteer hours, or an estimated $13.5 billion in help and support. This is a huge number!

Our Heartbeat of Rural Australia report found that volunteers have been fatigued and exhausted for years, but they have always remained optimistic. However, with the events of recent years, about one third of community organisations have had to reduce volunteer hours or have lost volunteers altogether due to illness, isolation, relocation, or caring responsibilities. In many instances, our volunteers have themselves been victims of the disasters, and have therefore had their own need for the support of volunteer services.

Other key Heartbeat findings highlighting the crucial role of volunteers included:

  • For people living in rural Australia, access to healthcare services and wellbeing support is much more limited and, in some places, almost non-existent. For this reason, community organisations provide a bridge that connects people with services. Without the volunteers that run these organisations, service delivery is put at risk – as is the wellbeing of communities.
  • Global issues such as a pandemic, floods, fire, climate change, economic disruption, and wage disparity tend to be even more intense in regional communities. While our survey respondents were dealing with the pandemic, in the last two years, more than 50% were also dealing with drought; 37% faced bushfires; 26% floods; and nearly 20% dealt with the mouse plague. On the global stage, these issues can feel insurmountable, but small communities tend to roll up their sleeves and take up the challenges. This can be attributed to local community organisations – mostly led by volunteers – having a vision, tenacity, patience and an unwavering commitment to finding solutions.
  • The compounding impact of cumulative disasters meant that many younger people were too busy managing their families’ needs to volunteer, and others found it hard to navigate the lockdown rules, resulting in fewer volunteers. This in turn put more pressure on the few “stalwarts” remaining to meet their communities’ needs.

What’s next

In light of our findings, it’s timely to keep talking about volunteering and succession planning. I feel optimistic that there is a real shift in policy and funding on the horizon that acknowledges the interconnectedness of rural communities, economies, and environments, appreciation of the value of investing in resilience of people and systems, infrastructure and digital connectivity. We just need to make sure those policies and approaches extend to supporting the volunteers that are the lifeblood of those communities.

Their economic, environmental and social impact is invaluable. It’s time we look at how we can work ‘Better Together’ to keep communities connected. At FRRR, we know that we are better together, because every day we bring together philanthropy, government, businesses and individuals who share our belief in the important role of community-led groups. We provide grants and capacity building support to help make their ideas and vision reality. But we can only do so much.

Australia’s volunteer army are our unsung heroes. They generously donate their time and service to rebuilding communities and making them stronger, so in 2022, let’s come together as a country to find solutions and transform volunteering, so that no community ever misses out on essential services. This will be the blueprint for us to protect and care for the incredible volunteers who deliver services and care for remote, rural and regional communities. They are the multi-billion-dollar industry that we really can’t live without.

To read FRRR’s Heartbeat of Rural Australia Report, click here

To read FRRR’s opinion piece – The great resignation or the volunteer revolution – click here.  

About Natalie Egleton

Natalie Egleton is the CEO of the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR). With a 25-year career in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, she is passionate about facilitating effective and enduring responses to issues facing rural communities.

Since becoming CEO of FRRR in 2015 she has led the organisation through a period of significant growth and impact, facilitating over $80 million in funding to remote, rural, and regional communities through hundreds of partnerships and collaborations.

Natalie lives in the small rural town of Maldon in central Victoria.




About FRRR

The Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal – FRRR – is the only national foundation specifically focused on ensuring the social and economic strength of remote, rural and regional communities. FRRR’s unique model connects common purposes and investment with locally prioritised needs, to create communities that are vital and resilient. Since FRRR’s start in 2000, it has delivered nearly $135 million to more than 12,000 projects.

To find out more about applying for FRRR funding, click here.

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