Volunteers worth billions but still ignored

AS we speed ahead through another Tasmanian election campaign, we are starting to see a flurry of election commitments to sectors and issues pertinent to the state.

Health, tourism, business, community services and infrastructure are generally at the top of the list, including the occasional sporting venue.

But experience tells me there will be a very important priority missing.

It’s a silent group that will underpin the success of many of these commitments.

They’re our volunteers.

You only have to scratch the surface of the sectors I’ve mentioned to find thousands of hardworking volunteers contributing to their success.

For example, tourism in Tasmania is booming but many aren’t aware of the thousands of volunteers that support our flagship industry.

Hundreds of volunteers are directly supporting the visitor experience either from the cruise ship gates, to the information centres or to our festivals and events.

There are thousands of volunteers taking pride in keeping our environment pristine, such as the Wildcare of Cradle Mountain volunteers, and those tucked away in our regional trails keeping local historical attractions open for our guests, like the Derby Schoolhouse Museum on the East Coast.

And whilst the Tasmanian business sector is dominated by small operators, many don’t realise there are also hundreds of volunteer business mentors, board members and industry ambassadors supporting the economic and entrepreneurial growth of our state.

Sporting clubs are also generally well catered for during an election, but the sustainability of the use and viability of that investment will rely on volunteers.

And we all know that volunteers are heavily supporting the community services sector but many are surprised to learn that in some of these workforces the paid staff are outnumbered more than 10 to one by volunteers.

My point is that Tasmania’s success is underpinned by our volunteers, and many of the funding commitments will rely on the contribution of our volunteers.

In fact, all of the political parties will be campaigning with a team of volunteers who will give their time freely to put up signs, door knock and attend community events.

So why do we not see volunteering higher up in the political discussions on how to support the liveability and economic viability of Tasmania?

Why do I hear political representatives telling me that volunteering is not on their agenda in this election because the issue is “not as important”?

Our volunteers represent the third largest workforce in Tasmania, and with their efforts conservatively estimated to be worth $4.9 billion every year, any reduction in that contribution would cripple some sectors.

The hard truth is that when many politicians say that they value volunteering, it’s actually the romance of the concept they think about.

That is, a group of community members coming together with no desire for financial gain to do something positive for themselves, and others.

But too often I witness a disregard about the issues that are impacting volunteers, making it harder for them to get involved or in the worst cases removing any motivation for them to volunteer at all.

Equally too often I witness a lack of awareness of the reliance our key industries have on volunteers and this lack of awareness is creating an apathy to the seriousness of this issue.

Regularly I find myself having to speak louder to convince people that although they may see volunteers as people undertaking hobbies that would be listed at the bottom of their resumes, that those volunteers’ combined contributions are having a significant impact to our state.

And for that they deserve more than just our thanks — they deserve the support of the government to invest in strategies that will proactively seek to safeguard their contribution.

I’m not referring to a commitment to an organisation that involves volunteers, as there’ll be plenty of those.

I’m referring to a commitment to invest in strategies and interventions that will keep and encourage more Tasmanians to volunteer.

Tasmania is lucky to have four in five people volunteering but the number of hours that they are contributing and their availability, particularly in our regional communities, is showing signs of decline.

There are a range of issues that are causing this trend and governments nationally and overseas are investing in strategies to address them.

Tasmania must do the same and Volunteering Tasmania has provided both major political parties with a comprehensive funding proposal to implement an evidence-based approach to help local communities safeguard volunteering.

To do otherwise is to have apathy for a multi-billion dollar industry that supports our quintessential Tasmanian way of life.

Tasmania has been built through the commitment of our volunteers, and it’s time for our government to show their commitment to them.

And a Tasmanian government that commits to safeguarding volunteering is one that is committing to securing Tasmania’s future.

Alison Lai

CEO, Volunteering Tasmania