4441.0.55.002 - A Comparison of Volunteering Rates from the 2006 Census of Population and Housing and the 2006 General Social Survey, Jun 2012  
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As with collecting many social statistics, collecting information on volunteering is not a straightforward task. Different people have different perceptions of volunteering. Rooney et al. (2004) reported that longer, more detailed prompts led respondents to recall volunteering at higher incident rates than questions with fewer prompts. Therefore, it is very important to adequately define and explain the term ‘volunteer’ in a way that is easily understood in a consistent way by respondents. People may not identify themselves as volunteers even though they perform voluntary activities. Does a parent coaching their child’s sporting team or helping out at their child’s school think of themselves as a volunteer? International research suggests not, unless questions are appropriately structured (Bailie, 2006; Rooney et al., 2004).

There is a need to consider whether the ABS definition of a volunteer can be conveyed to respondents in ways that elicit accurate and consistent responses. Research has shown that prompting respondents with examples of volunteer activities results in more accurate identification by respondents of volunteering activities and leads to higher estimates of volunteer participation (Bailie, 2006; Rooney et al., 2004).

The name of the organisation or type of work may be useful to prompt people to respond appropriately to questions about voluntary work. Some activities are commonly regarded as voluntary work, such as volunteering for a well-known community organisation such as the Red Cross or Lifeline. Other activities, such as assisting people in one’s local church community, may be regarded as part of their church commitment rather than formal voluntary work, even though it encompasses help willingly given through an organisation, and therefore falls within the scope of the definition. Alternatively, people may not see this as different to informal assistance within their community.

The proficiency in English of respondents also has an impact on the identification of volunteers, especially when collection instruments in Australia are presented in English. People who do not speak or read English well may receive help from a trained interviewer or a member of their family in a survey setting; however they need to actively seek help when completing their Census form. The ABS offers translation services to assist people to complete the Census, but respondents may choose not to take advantage of these services. There is a wide body of research into the effects of language proficiency on data quality (Bowling, 2005) and response patterns (Harzing, 2006; McCrae, 2002; Gibbons et al., 1999; Church et al., 1988). The results show that survey concepts are more refined in the minds of respondents when the person is allowed to respond in his or her own language. It is expected that there would be a similar impact on questions on volunteering.


The GSS is the primary source of information on voluntary work in Australia. This survey collects information about the household and about one person 18 years and over in the household in non-very remote areas. It collects information on many different topics, such as living arrangements, health, education, work, income, housing, and social participation. Information collected on participation in voluntary work is collected directly from the respondent and includes: time spent; frequency; number and types of activities; whether people are reimbursed; and the organisation for whom they volunteer.

Prior to the inclusion of the voluntary work module in the GSS in 2002 and 2006, similar modules were included in the 2000 Population Survey Monitor and a supplementary survey to the June 1995 Labour Force Survey.

The voluntary work questions in the GSS are carefully designed to help respondents correctly identify whether or not they volunteered in the last 12 months and to collect information about any voluntary work undertaken. An adult aged 18 years or over is selected from those people living in the household to participate in a personal interview. In the voluntary work module, a trained interviewer presents the randomly selected adult with a list of the types of organisations for which they may have volunteered (not a list of the types of voluntary activity). After establishing that a person participated in activities that might be voluntary work, they are asked a series of questions to ensure that these activities meet the definition of voluntary work. Selected questions from the survey are included in Appendix A and more details can be found in the ABS publication General Social Survey: User Guide, 2006 (ABS, 2006b).


The Census of Population and Housing is the largest statistical collection undertaken by the ABS. Conducted every five years, the Census measures the number of people in Australia on Census night, and collects key information about their personal and household characteristics and the dwellings in which they live. The Census allows data collected to be used for analysis of small areas to a lower level than cannot be achieved from a sample survey.

A single question on voluntary work was included for the first time in 2006 (ABS, 2006c). It was collected for all persons 15 years and over. In the Census, households were provided (along with the Census form) with a separate Census Household Guide to help them complete the Census. The guide provided information on the importance of each question and included a ‘How to answer’ section to help people respond accurately. For the 2006 Census, the guide provided examples of activities, such as assisting at organised events and with sports organisations; or helping with organised school events and activities, which could be included as voluntary work. However, the use of the guide is up to each individual. For those households that completed the Census on-line, this information was provided electronically with the question. The Census question on voluntary work and information from the guide are included in Appendix A.


The difference in volunteer rates between the GSS and the Census may be partly explained by the differences in collection methods and questions. These are covered in more detail below.

Scope and coverage

There are a number of differences in scope and coverage between the Census and the GSS. The GSS collected information from people aged 18 years and over whereas the Census counts of volunteers included all people aged 15 years and over. When looking at rates of volunteering in the Census for those aged 18 years and over, the rate did not essentially change when those aged 15-17 years were excluded (19.9%, compared with 19.8% for people aged 15 and over).

As a household survey, the GSS collected information from one randomly selected adult from the usual residents of occupied private dwellings. The Census collected information not only from people in private dwellings, but also in non-private dwellings (such as hotels/motels); and in institutions such as aged care homes, boarding schools or prisons.

The Census collected information from people across Australia whereas the GSS did not include people who lived in very remote areas.

In this paper, the scope of the Census has been adjusted for each of these three factors to align with the GSS scope and coverage for comparison purposes.


A major difference in collection methodology is that the GSS used prompting techniques to guide respondents to answer according to the ABS’s concept of volunteering, whereas the Census did not. Prompting is done in two ways: firstly by designing questions to prompt respondents to remember when they volunteered in the last twelve months; and secondly through the use of prompt cards with examples of volunteering and organisations to aid respondent’s understanding. Without prompting, people (for example parents who help out at school or in sporting clubs) may not consider themselves as volunteers even though they willingly give unpaid help, in the form of time, service or skills, through an organisation or group. Previous research has shown that when survey items are obscure and respondents may not be clear how to answer the question accurately, respondents will still offer a response according to how they understand the question. When cues are presented to respondents (as they were in the GSS), cognitive capacity and the ability to answer the intent of questions greatly improves (Mondak, 1993).

The Census questions were answered using a self-enumerated form and therefore prompting was limited to two brief written exclusions.

Interviewer guidance

The GSS is a face-to-face personal interview while the Census is self-completed by a member or members of the household. The GSS has the advantage that if a respondent is in doubt as to whether an activity was voluntary work, the interviewer can assist the respondent to answer the question accurately. The interviewer can also clarify any concepts the respondent may not have understood.

Question content

As mentioned earlier, the questions in the GSS used a form of prompting. They are carefully designed to help respondents correctly identify whether or not they volunteered in the 12 months previous to the survey. However, the Census uses a single question to collect information on whether respondents volunteered in the 12 months previous to the Census. This is expected to account for some of the differences in voluntary work rates between the collections, however they are unlikely to explain all of the differences in results. The GSS asked respondents to exclude any voluntary work done overseas whereas the Census did not provide guidance to respondents to exclude overseas voluntary work. The GSS also captured information to identify people who were doing unpaid, but obligated, community work such as work for the dole or part of work or study placement. This group was then excluded from voluntary work estimates. The Census directs the exclusion of this group. As a result, it would be expected that the results in the Census may capture a broader population than the GSS.

A further reason for differences in rates between collections is the placement of the voluntary work question as the 51st question on the Census form. Because it is towards the end of a long form, respondents may have become tired of answering questions by this point (respondent fatigue) and hence may not have taken the time to consider the question fully or perhaps have failed to complete the question at all, adding to the non-response. It may also not be possible for the completion of responses in places such as nursing homes and hospitals as these are often completed by an administrator, however these groups are out of scope of this analysis.

Proxy reporting

As mentioned, another major difference in collection methodology is that while the GSS is collected through personal face-to-face interviews, the Census form is self-completed by members of the household (either by each member of the household, by one member of the household on behalf of all persons, or a combination of the two). As a result, the Census may be impacted by ‘proxy reporting’ which occurs when one member of the household provides information on behalf of other household members. While for many questions, such as sex, age and relationship in household, the proxy can easily provide the information on behalf of others, other questions, such as voluntary work, may be more difficult for the proxy to accurately answer. Proxy reporting affects accuracy when the household member who fills in the Census form either does not know about the voluntary activities of other household members, or they do not consider these activities to be “voluntary work though an organisation or group”.

Previous research on the 1995 Voluntary Work Survey showed a difference in voluntary work rates between those who self-reported their volunteering compared to those who had someone report on their behalf. While the collection methodology was different to the GSS and Census, the Voluntary Work Survey showed that there was a proxy effect on the reporting of voluntary work. The Voluntary Work Survey 1995 approached ‘any responsible adult’ (ARA) in the household and asked them to answer the survey on behalf of the whole household. The initial results showed that, where people had self-identified as volunteers, the volunteer rate was 27%, while for those who been identified by another household member, the volunteer rate was 5.5% - a ratio of about 5:1 (ABS, 2000). This large discrepancy suggests that people are generally unable to report on the volunteer activities of other household members. This ARA collection methodology was not used in the GSS, but the Census can be considered to use ARA methodology in some households if one person answered questions on behalf of others in the household. This issue of proxy reporting is further described in Appendix B.

To search for evidence of effects other than proxy reporting, a test was conducted to determine whether there is any large effect other than proxy reporting. Because proxy reporting can only occur when someone reports on behalf of someone else, lone person households were analysed from the GSS and the Census to remove most proxy reporting (some proxy reporting may occur when someone outside of the household, such as a family member, may complete the Census on behalf of a lone person). While the discrepancy between the GSS and Census voluntary work rates for lone person households was lower (compared with all households) it was found that there is still a significant difference in volunteering (26.9% for GSS and 20.1% for the Census). This suggests there are effects in addition to proxy reporting. See Appendix B for more information.

From this test, it can be concluded that the proxy reporting effect is unlikely to fully account for the overall difference in volunteer rates between the two surveys (some of the difference may be a result of question and prompting differences as previously discussed). In previous research it was shown that presenting cues to respondents greatly improves their ability to answer the intent of questions (Mondak, 1993). It is probable that part of the difference between GSS and Census may be accounted for by the prompting and multiple question design in GSS.

While non-response is a factor when comparing the GSS and Census data, its impact on participation in voluntary work cannot easily be quantified. There are two dimensions of non-response in each collection the first due to the person or household not participating in the collection at all, and the second due to the person participating in the collection but failing to answer the voluntary work questions.

Of the dwellings selected in the 2006 GSS, 13.5% did not respond fully or adequately to the survey. As the non-response to the GSS was low for a sample survey, the impact of non-response bias is considered to be negligible (ABS, 2006a).

For the Census, the 2006 Post Enumeration Survey (PES), which is used to estimate the underenumeration in the Census, estimated that 2.7% of the population did not respond to the Census.

In addition to the underenumeration in the Census identified in the PES, the non-response to the voluntary work question in the 2006 Census was 2.3% for people 18 years and over (restricted to the common population between GSS and Census). As found for other Census questions, levels of non-response were higher for older people (4.2% for people aged 60 years and over compared with 1.8% for people aged 18 to 60 years). The level of non-response to the voluntary work question overall in the Census was similar to that of many other Census questions. For further details see the Census Data Quality Statement on Voluntary Work for an Organisation or Group at www.abs.gov.au.

Research by Statistics Canada suggests that people who do not respond to telephone based survey questions on voluntary work actually have a lower rate of voluntary activity than people who respond (Hall et al., 2006). Similar factors may affect responses in the Census. This would be expected to increase the voluntary work rate in the Census compared to the GSS but is not reflected in the volunteering rates. A similar issue may also affect the accuracy of the volunteering rate in GSS, but it doesn’t explain the differences between the GSS and the Census.