Collection of volunteering data in the ABS

A summary of submissions received in response to federal government and national consultations on volunteering data conducted by the ABS in 2017



Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on volunteering and unpaid work is available from three collections:

  • the General Social Survey (GSS),
  • the Census of Population and Housing (Census) and
  • the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC).

The national prevalence rate for volunteering, that is, the official number of volunteers in Australia, is collected in the GSS. This survey has been conducted every four years since 2002, and is designed to produce reliable national, state and territory estimates. A primary focus of the GSS is to contribute to our understanding of the multi-dimensional nature of relative advantage and disadvantage across the population, and the interplay of access and barriers to social participation. It provides this data by a range of demographics and personal, social and economic characteristics. The GSS has a large set of questions to collect characteristics of volunteers and volunteering, from who does it, to what they do, how often and when they do it, and what skills they use. Prior to the commencement of the GSS, data on volunteering rates and characteristics was collected in the Voluntary Work, Australia survey in 1995 and 2000. The most recent GSS was conducted in 2014.

While the Census gathers data from the whole population of Australia and is also available longitudinally from the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset (ACLD), the information is self-reported in a single question on whether the person did any voluntary work for an organisation or group in the last 12 months, and as such is not as well-defined a measure as the GSS data. Census data is particularly useful for looking at small populations such as migrants or rural volunteers, or small areas, such as towns or shires.

Volunteering data in the SDAC is asked of people living in households who are aged 5 years or older with a disability or aged 65 years and over, and primary carers aged 15 years and over. Data is collected on whether they undertook voluntary or community service activities in the last three months, and whether they accessed the internet for volunteering or participating in community groups in the last three months. Employed people aged 15 years and over (living in households) are asked whether any of the work they do is unpaid voluntary work.

ABS data on giving is available in two surveys: whether people make charitable donations is asked in the GSS, and the amount people donate is collected in the Household Expenditure Survey (HES).


In late 2016, the ABS and the Department of Social Services (DSS) met with representatives from the National Disability Insurance Agency, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of the Environment and Energy, the Department of Education and Training, the Department of Health, the Australian Sports Commission, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Communication and the Arts, the Attorney General’s Department, the Australian Tax Office, and the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission, to define current and emerging needs for volunteering data.

A range of policy relevant topics and research questions were identified during the discussion. Of particular note was the importance of ensuring that future data collections capture the changing nature of volunteering, which is increasingly being done in a more informal manner, is more cause based, more spontaneous and one-off, and often needs to fit around people's busy lifestyles. In summary, the agencies all agreed there is a continuing need to:

  • understand the evolving nature of volunteering and giving
  • understand the economic impact of volunteering and giving
  • understand the motivations for and barriers to volunteering and giving
  • improve data literacy and access to data
  • broaden the scope of volunteering data items to capture the changing nature of volunteering activity (ie. online volunteering, informal volunteering)
  • preserve time series

More detail of key issues identified by the federal agencies can be found in the Discussion Paper: Information needs for Volunteering data, April 2017 (cat. no. 4159.0.55.004).

In April 2017, the ABS launched a national consultation on statistics for volunteering and giving, inviting the public to submit proposals on the future collection of volunteering and giving data. The ABS wishes to thank the Australian public for their response: the consultation process has supported a review of the current methods and scope of collecting volunteering and giving data, and will continue to help the ABS prioritise content for future data collection.

Feedback from both the government and national consultation identified common topics of importance and data gaps across Australia, which were incorporated into a review of the current methods and scope of volunteering and giving data collection, and will assist the ABS in prioritising content for the future. See the Summary of Submissions section below for more detail.

Volunteering Australia - new definition of volunteering

One of the key drivers behind the consultation was the introduction of a new definition of volunteering in 2015 by Volunteering Australia (VA), the national peak body for volunteering. Their previous definition (introduced in 1996) aligned closely with the current ABS standard definition of volunteering.

  • 1996 VA definition: "Formal volunteering is an activity that takes place in non-profit organisations or projects and is of benefit to the community and undertaken of the volunteer's own free will and without coercion; for no financial payment; and in designated volunteer positions only."
  • Current ABS standard definition of volunteering: "The provision of unpaid help willingly undertaken in the form of time, service or skills, to an organisation or group, excluding work done overseas."

​​​​​By 2013, Volunteering Australia had deemed this definition to be too narrow to capture the breadth of volunteer practices undertaken in Australia, as it only recognises formal volunteering for not-for-profit organisations. They note that the term 'volunteering' covers a wide range of activities, including formal activities (which take place within organisations, institutions and agencies) and informal activities (which take place outside the context of a formal organisation and structured volunteering activities). Volunteering can also include activism, donated employee time, some concept of reciprocity (including reimbursement of out of pocket expenses), online volunteering, spontaneous volunteering (such as community response to an emergency), corporate volunteering and social enterprise.

The revised 2015 VA definition is much broader in scope: 'Volunteering is time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain.'

There was strong support in both the government and national consultations for the ABS to adopt this new definition of volunteering. While the new definition accounts for a broader range of volunteering activity, the notion of 'common good' could be difficult to capture in a data collection, as it would be difficult to measure or quantify such a subjective concept.

However, the ABS has responded to the changing VA definition and the community consultation by designing future GSS collections to capture a broader range of volunteering activity and characteristics.

ABS volunteering standard

While the ABS recognises the importance of capturing data that reflects emerging trends and changing data needs, it is also important to retain time series continuity for the formal volunteering rate, an opinion strongly supported in both the government and national consultation. With this in mind, the ABS has redesigned the GSS to capture informal, online and spontaneous volunteering, for example, while maintaining the time series of existing formal volunteering items. Analysis of the new items in the 2019 GSS will help inform a revised Volunteering Standard for the ABS that includes both formal and informal volunteering.

Summary of submissions

The ABS received submissions from 32 representatives from government, community, private and not-for-profit organisations, as well as individuals in response to the Discussion Paper. Once again, the ABS would like to thank those people who gave their time to provide a submission and acknowledges the great depth of expertise and detail offered through this process.

There were more than twenty key topics of interest identified in the submissions received from the national consultation. Most related directly to current GSS volunteering data items, and some were similar to the topics raised by the federal agencies summarised in the Consultation chapter. There were also a number of new points of interest - for example, capturing data on social enterprise and how volunteering can be a pathway to employment, and improving the accessibility of giving data currently collected in ABS surveys.

The ABS has reviewed and prioritised each topic within the scope and capacity of the 2019 GSS survey instrument. It is important to note that with limited space to incorporate new and existing questions in the 2019 survey, prioritisation had to be fairly vigorous.

Thematic summaries of the submissions are provided below, with an ABS response to each.

Motivation for volunteering

The reasons why people choose to volunteer was the first of two leading topics of interest mentioned in the submissions, as this information is important for organisations and groups in improving strategies to attract and retain volunteers. Reasons for capturing this information varied by type of organisation: for example, there was interest in what motivates volunteers to offer their time and skills to emergency services, as this volunteering activity is viewed as an exceptional phenomenon because of the physical and psychological demands, the risk of potentially hazardous tasks, and the need for specialist skills that it involves. There was also interest in measuring how many people feel obligated to volunteer, in addition to capturing how much "spontaneous" volunteering occurs. For example, of those who would not normally offer their time and services, how many would volunteer in an emergency situation?

The question "What are your reasons for being a volunteer?" was initially flagged for removal from the GSS. However, given the strong support for this topic, it will be retained as part of the volunteering module in the 2019 GSS.

A new response category for the reasons people volunteer was suggested to reflect the increasing number of organisations who offer leave provisions for their staff to engage in volunteering activities. This suggestion could not be accommodated as part of the 2019 survey, however has been flagged for future iterations of the GSS.

Economic impact of volunteering

Measuring the value and economic impact of volunteering was the second most prevalent topic of interest. There was strong support for retaining questions on the number of hours worked as a volunteer, as this is vital in measuring the economic impact of volunteering. One submission stressed the importance of developing an accurate measure of the significant economic contribution that volunteering makes to Australia, as it will help with understanding the consequences of not investing in and sustaining a thriving volunteering culture. The ABS publishes an Australian National Accounts: Non-Profit Institutions Satellite Account (cat. no. 5256.0) which highlights the sector's contributions to employment and the economy, as well as reporting on the number of hours worked by volunteers. There is strong support for the continued collection and release of this satellite account.

Other submissions noted the importance of developing measures to capture social and human capital contributions to complement our understanding of the economic value and impact of volunteering. They noted it is important to acknowledge the potential for future paid employment for volunteers, as they gain valuable skills and experience through their volunteering activities, and that the health and lifestyle benefits to volunteering could help inform an economic measure in the health sector. It was also noted that many sectors are reliant on volunteering activities and programs to sustain their activities.

Barriers to volunteering

Advice received through the consultation was that understanding the reasons why people do not volunteer is just as important as knowing the reasons why they do. This information is crucial for helping organisations understand why people are not engaging in their volunteering programs, and therefore inform their recruitment strategies. The question "What are all the reasons that you have not volunteered" will be collected again in the 2019 GSS with one minor amendment to the response categories: due to consistently low response rates for 'Don't know any groups' , this response category has been removed.

One submission noted a potential data gap in capturing information about people who have previously volunteered, but longer than 12 months ago, and why they stopped volunteering. For example, someone may have volunteered for 10 years, but would be missed if their volunteering activity occurred more than a year before the survey, as the GSS only collects volunteering activity in the past 12 months. While there is no capacity for these additional questions in the 2019 survey, the ABS will take this into consideration for future iterations.

Time spent volunteering

In addition to being able to measure the economic impact of volunteering activity as noted above, understanding the time people spend volunteering and patterns of volunteering activity are critical for the ongoing management of the volunteering sector. The ABS will continue to collect information from volunteers on the frequency of their volunteering activities, the number of hours they spend volunteering, and when they first started volunteering.

A submission was also received seeking data on what days and times people were volunteering. There is no capacity to add questions on this issue for the 2019 GSS, however it will be considered for future collection.

Another submission expressed interest in capturing the time spent by volunteers in travelling to and from their volunteering activities, perhaps using an app which volunteers could use to log their travel time, together with the time spent on the actual volunteering activity.

Informal volunteering activity

As with the government consultation, a strong theme of the national consultation submissions was that statistics on informal volunteering are a critical data gap. In the absence of being able to quantify both formal and informal volunteering, it is not possible to understand the true amount of voluntary activity that people engage in.

Informal volunteering can be defined as time, skills or services offered outside a formal organisation or group: for example, providing assistance to a family member outside of your household with domestic chores such as gardening, cleaning, or grocery shopping: unpaid child care for a friend or neighbour; coaching; or providing emotional support and personal care. Unpaid work undertaken for anyone who lives in a person's own household falls outside the scope of informal volunteering.

The ABS has reviewed its volunteering data question set for the 2019 GSS to capture both formal and informal volunteering. Extensively modifying and adding to the existing 'unpaid help' questions, informal volunteering data in the 2019 GSS will be captured as follows:

  • Whether undertook informal voluntary work in last 12 months
  • Type of informal voluntary activity
  • Who was assisted through this activity (e.g. family, friends, neighbours, community)
  • Frequency of informal volunteering (e.g. once a week)

It is expected this new module will contribute to a broader understanding of total volunteering activity, and assist with future reviews of the ABS volunteering standard.

Health and wellbeing benefits of volunteering

A number of submissions noted an interest in collecting the non-economic benefits of volunteering, such as the positive effect that volunteering may have on a person's health and wellbeing. While no questions have been included in current or future surveys to date to specifically measure the health and wellbeing benefits of volunteering, there is data on health collected in the GSS that can be analysed in conjunction with volunteering data. For example, comparing life satisfaction or self-assessed health status of volunteers and non-volunteers. A detailed list of available health and volunteering data can be found in the 2014 General Social Survey Data Item List, General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia, 2014 (cat. no. 4159.0). Data users can also create their own customised GSS datasets through the Tablebuilder product.

Cost of volunteering

Out of pocket expenses for volunteers was noted as a topic of interest, and has traditionally been captured in each cycle of the GSS. Ultimately after a lengthy review of the consultation outcomes, this topic was determined to be a low priority item and will not be collected in the 2019 survey. However, the ABS will continue to monitor data needs and engage with stakeholders for its potential future collection, pending future GSS design and scope.

Types of volunteering activities

A few submissions raised the value of measuring whether the type of volunteering activity requires skilled or unskilled work, particularly in capturing whether professionals are volunteering their professional skill set (e.g. doctors volunteering their services for Doctors Without Borders). This type of information could further inform the economic contribution of volunteers, and assist organisations in evaluating the economic value of their volunteering programs and activities. Other stakeholders reported on an emerging form of volunteering known as "citizen science", where people engage in activities such as bird or frog counts through mobile apps. There are also instances of volunteering activity where the individual may not recognise that they are volunteering their time and skills (e.g. parents who help out at their childrens' sporting or school events).

Some consultation also noted the need for clearer question response categories: for instance, changing the 'Environmental Protection' response category in the 'What volunteering activities do you do with the organisation?' question to 'Environment/conservation/animal welfare' This type of feedback is very welcomed by the ABS as it enables better data to be collected.

How people volunteer has been captured in a cyclical module in the GSS, with a question asking respondents what type of volunteering activity they did for the organisation. This question module was last asked in the 2014 GSS, and is not scheduled to be asked again until 2022. The ABS will continue to review this data need and consider when this question can next be included in the collection (with new response categories to capture new types of activity).

Mode of volunteering activities

There is growing interest in capturing information on digital or online volunteering. A new question has been added to the Formal Voluntary Work module for the 2019 GSS to capture mode of volunteering:

  • In the field or in person
  • At home over the internet
  • At home over the phone
  • Other

Financial donations

A few submissions expressed interest in improved accessibility to ABS data on donations so that researchers might be able to assess the feasibility of utilising it as an official measure of giving in Australia. This information is collected in the GSS and currently only available through TableBuilder (paid product), or a paid information consultancy. The ABS will consider publishing this data with the summary 2019 GSS results.

Social enterprise

Broadly speaking, a 'social enterprise' can be defined as any business that trades with the deliberate intention of tackling social problems, improving communities, providing people with access to employment training opportunities, or to help the environment. This is an area of global growth, and one submission raised a number of pertinent research questions on the topic. For example, do social enterprises attract a different type of volunteer? Are they more skilled or from a particular demographic? How do their motivations differ from those who volunteer for organisations? How valuable are volunteers in this type of organisational model?

Currently there is no scope in the 2019 GSS to capture information on social enterprises, however it has been noted as a topic of interest for future iterations, and the questions noted above will help inform development of any collection of this topic.

Under-reporting and cultural sensitivity

Both the government and national consultations raised concerns about the under-representation of particular groups of people, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The concept of volunteering and giving mean different things across cultures, so there is a risk of under-reporting of rates for these activities. The ABS notes that this topic requires further development and research,however any collection of data for these communities would require additional funded sample, as the current sample size of the GSS is not large enough to represent characteristics of smaller populations. The ABS will continue to monitor this area of interest, and assess how volunteering rates for culturally and linguistically diverse and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations can best be captured.


A few submissions highlighted interest in volunteering rates and activity in smaller geographical areas. The current sample size of the GSS does not allow for robust data at geographies below State and Territory level. The Census of Population and Housing can provide volunteering rates at smaller geographical areas, however the information on volunteers is limited only to whether a person volunteered or not in the 12 months leading up to Census night.

Legal protection and support for volunteers

One submission asked whether it would be possible to measure the level of legal protection and injury support available to volunteers. As this could be very organisation-specific, the GSS may not be the most appropriate instrument for collecting such information, however the Department of Social Services funded Giving Australia 2016 survey collects information from specific non-profit organisations (NPOs) who recruit volunteers, and may have the potential to include a question on provision of health, safety and legal protections in NPOs.

Corporate volunteering

There is increasing evidence of some organisations introducing paid leave provisions for their staff to engage in volunteering activities, either on or off company time. While this was raised as a topic of interest in both consultations, there is no scope for the 2019 GSS to capture this type of information, though there is potential to output it as a motivation for volunteering in future collections. The ABS will continue to monitor data needs for this topic.

Pathway to employment

There was interest in measuring volunteering activity as a pathway to future employment for a number of reasons, including understanding the personal benefits of volunteering, and understanding the economic impact of the training provided by the volunteering sector on the employment sector, to encourage continued Government support for the volunteering sector.

The ABS appreciates the increasing interest and value in capturing this information, particularly the link between volunteering and employment, and will continue to engage with stakeholders and assess how this data may best be captured in future iterations of the GSS.

Data integration

There was very strong support for data linkage and data integration in both the government and national consultations. Many stakeholders value the potential of data linking and integration to create larger, more information rich data sources, and expressed their interest in collaborating with the ABS on data integration/linkage projects specifically relating to existing data collections on volunteers and volunteering activity.

The ABS is committed to informing important decisions through extracting the greatest value from Australia's statistical assets, and is supporting the delivery of the best policies and services for all Australians. The ABS will achieve this by working as a partner with all those who need better quality information to inform important decisions.

Data integration projects are only agreed to when there is public benefit in doing so. Any request to bring data together must be supported by strong justification and undergo a rigorous assessment and approval process to ensure the project provides a significant public benefit and safeguards privacy. Furthermore, any data integration project must adhere to the following set of Commonwealth endorsed High Level Principles:

     1. Strategic resource - Responsible agencies should treat data as a strategic resource, and design and manage administrative data to support their wider statistical and research use

     2. Custodian's responsibility - Agencies responsible for source data used in statistical data integration remain individually accountable for their security and confidentiality

     3. Integrator's accountability - A responsible 'Integrating Authority' (e.g. the ABS) will be nominated for each statistical data integration proposal

     4. Public benefit - Statistical integration should only occur where it provides significant overall benefit to the public

     5. Statistical and research purposes - Statistical data integration must be used for statistical and research purposes only

     6. Preserving privacy and confidentiality - Policies and procedures used in data integration must minimise any potential impact on privacy and confidentiality

     7. Transparency - Statistical data integration will always be conducted in an open and accountable way so anyone can see how their data is being used

All ABS data integration projects can be found on the ABS Data Integration Projects page or the Commonwealth Data Integration Project Public Register page.

Changes to the GSS

As a result of the consultations carried out over the past year, changes to the volunteering question modules in the 2019 GSS include new questions on informal volunteering and how people volunteer (e.g. in person, online, etc).

All changes to the 2019 GSS were decided on in collaboration with members of the General Social Survey Reference Group (GSSRG), an advisory group of representatives from government, academia and the community.

It is not just the volunteering module of the GSS that will be changing. The 2019 GSS will be the first ABS survey to use the new statistical infrastructure and business processes being implemented in the transforming ABS statistical program. Changes include that it will be collected as a smaller but ongoing annual survey, instead of a larger survey every four years and will include an e-form as an alternative survey option to a face to face interview. The ABS will examine the effect of these changes on all data collected in the survey, including the volunteering data, and will publish any findings in future GSS publications.

As data needs and trends evolve, the ABS will monitor its volunteering data collections to ensure they remain relevant, coherent and current.

Census 2021

The ABS will shortly commence public consultation on the inclusion of the volunteering question in Census 2021. All Australians will be invited to provide submissions for retention or expansion of this question.

Previous catalogue number

This release previously used catalogue number 4159.0.55.005.

Back to top of the page