Information needs for volunteering data

The ABS is seeking submissions to inform needs for volunteering and giving data to further understand national, state and community data requirements


Consultation for the collection of volunteering and giving data

The most recent estimate of the value of voluntary work in Australia was estimated at $43 billion in 2006. In 2014, 5.8 million people (31% of Australian adults) participated in voluntary work, contributing 743 million hours to the community over the previous year. However, rates of formal volunteering in Australia dropped from 34% of adults in 2010. To understand why the rates of formal volunteering are changing, and the effect that further changes will have on our society and economy, we need your help.

Robust, reliable statistics for volunteering and giving are critical for ongoing policy and future planning for communities, as well as supporting Australia's culture of volunteering and giving. Volunteering data can be used to capture the social contributions that Australians make to the nation, and explore how giving and volunteering can contribute to wellbeing. The data also helps governments understand potential pathways to employment and the effect of volunteering on the economy. 

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is seeking submissions to inform current and emerging needs for volunteering and giving data. Having consulted key federal agencies throughout 2016, we would like to understand other national, state and community data requirements. This consultation will support a review of the current methods and scope of collecting volunteering and giving data, and help the ABS prioritise content for future data collection. 

The initial consultations identified a number of data requirements (summarised below). The ABS would like to know if there are other volunteering and giving data needs, activities, issues or elements that have not been addressed in this summary.

An information paper detailing the outcomes of this consultation will be published later in 2017. 

What information is currently in ABS collections?

Various data on participation in voluntary work, the nature of the work undertaken, characteristics of volunteers and barriers to volunteering are collected in the ABS, through

  • the General Social Survey (GSS) (national prevalence rate)
  • the Census of Population and Housing (Census) and associated Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset (ACLD), and
  • the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC).

ABS data on whether people make charitable donations is available from the GSS, and the amount people donate is collected through the Household Expenditure Survey (HES). 

A list of the range of data available from these collections is available (see Appendix 1: Volunteering data in ABS Collections). The following publications and data, freely available on the ABS website, tell the latest national stories:

Additional data is available on a fee-for-service basis, or you can make your own tables using the Census TableBuilderACLD TableBuilderSDAC TableBuilder and GSS TableBuilder products. 

Outside the ABS, there are a number of other collections of Australian data on giving and volunteering, including the Giving Australia survey and the State of Volunteering in Australia survey.

Note re inclusion of voluntary and unpaid work questions in the 2021 Census

The Census has included an unchanged volunteering question in the past three Censuses. Prior to the 2016 Census, the ABS sought justification that the Census was an appropriate vehicle for the collection of unpaid work information (including unpaid domestic work; unpaid care of others due to disability, illness or old age; unpaid care of children; and voluntary work). The ABS was interested in how useful the Census data was for these topics in terms of data quality, and whether any components of the topic had higher priority than other components. The summary of submissions for this consultation advised that twenty four submissions were received on this topic, and all but one submission supported retention. 

The ABS is currently consideration plans for Census 2021 topics consultation, and it is likely that the unpaid work questions could again be up for review.

Why review the collection of volunteering and giving data?

'ABS data shows volunteering in Australia is declining, so we need to pause and ask ourselves, what does our nation call volunteering today, and are we measuring the right things?' (Williamson, 2015)¹

In 2013, Volunteering Australia (VA) and the CEO Network of peak volunteering bodies undertook a review of the definition of volunteering in Australia. The prevailing definition, in place since 1996, was perceived as lacking currency: 

'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.'

The 1996 VA definition was similar to the current definition of volunteers used by the ABS, which is:

'The provision of unpaid help willingly undertaken in the form of time, service or skills, to an organisation or group, excluding work done overseas. The following forms of unpaid work are not strictly voluntary and have been excluded:

  • taking part in Community Work under Mutual Obligation
  • work experience or an unpaid work trial
  • a community service order
  • a student placement
  • emergency work during an industrial dispute.'

Neither of the definitions above account for informal volunteering. This has been identified as a major data gap, as understanding the true amount of voluntary activity that people may be doing could shine a light on the decline in formal volunteering. Informal volunteering could include activities such as helping friends and neighbours, helping clean up after emergencies, or providing care or transport for people (including relatives) outside your household.

The definitions above also make it more difficult to capture concepts like online and spontaneous volunteering, corporate volunteering (donated employee time), and activism, as well as separating volunteering from activities with some concept of reciprocity (such as online 'volunteer banking' forums) or reimbursement of out of pocket expenses. Neither captures activities such as work experience, community service orders, student placements, unpaid work trials and internships, work for the dole, overseas volunteering, and caring for a family member. 

The 2013 revised VA definition, more closely aligned with the United Nations definition of volunteering², is much broader in scope: 

'Volunteering is time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain.'

Many of the issues raised during our initial consultations resonated with this rethinking of the meaning of volunteering. All agencies agreed that there is a need to broaden our understanding of what is currently happening in the sector because the nature of volunteering is changing - it is increasingly being done through online platforms, is more cause based, more one-off, and often needs to fit around people's busy lifestyles. There is a similar need to understand changes in giving practices (such as crowd sourcing), and the issues that arise from these changes.

Who have we talked to?

In October and December 2016, the ABS and the Department of Social Services (DSS) consulted key federal agencies to define their current and emerging needs for volunteering data. 

Representatives from the National Disability Insurance Agency, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Environment, 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 have contributed to the feedback summarised in this Discussion Paper.

What have they told us?

Understanding volunteering and giving activity

Agencies affirmed the importance of collecting information on all aspects of volunteering and giving, to shine a light on activity in Australia. A major focus of broadening the scope of current collections was to understand whether the current decline in formal volunteering activity is being offset by informal activity. It was also agreed that charitable giving is important to consider with volunteering, as it represents an alternative method of providing support where volunteering a service is not possible.

Understanding this activity also enables its relationships with individual and community resilience and wellbeing to be explored.

Understanding volunteering

To understand the volunteering sector, and volunteers themselves, we need to know:

  • who's spending time on what (looking at characteristics of volunteers such as age, sex, employment status, level of education, marital status, religion; as well as the type of voluntary work being done)
  • who they're doing it for (for example, the Scouts, friends, the local church, hospices and hospitals). Besides providing a measure of formal and informal volunteering, this could measure people's contribution to their community and neighbourhoods)
  • why they're doing it (motivations; whether people are volunteering as part of a workplace volunteering program (and the leave provisions around this activity); whether the volunteering is obligatory or conditional, whether it's spontaneous or planned; rates of spontaneous volunteering, especially in emergency management and response)
  • when they're doing it (looking at the times of day or night people are volunteering; what days, weeks and months activity is taking place)
  • how often they're doing it (whether activity is ongoing or one-off, how long the person has been volunteering)
  • how long they're doing it for (number of hours people spend, which enables economic contribution to be estimated; whether it's done in small bursts or longer sessions)
  • how they're providing their services (including whether face-to-face or online)
  • what their levels of digital literacy are (how easy is it for people to receive information or participate in online activity or training)
  • whether the work they're doing is skilled or unskilled, and what skills they have (including whether professionals are volunteering their skills, whether volunteers have the appropriate skill set to undertake the services they are volunteering for)
  • why people are not volunteering (barriers to voluntary work such as costs, lack of skills, lack of time, health reasons; reasons why previous volunteers are no longer volunteering)

Volunteering and giving also mean different things in different cultures, which is a relatively unexplored area in existing data collections. There was some feedback about the need to examine ways to collect data for different groups of interest and the different concepts of volunteering that may apply to them (such as older people, youth, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and migrants).

Understanding giving

To understand national rates of charitable giving activity, we need to know:

  • who is giving,
  • how they're giving,
  • how much,
  • how often,
  • to whom or what,
  • rates of people who contribute through both volunteering and monetary/in-kind giving

See also the 2016 Giving Australia Survey for an in-depth exploration of giving, philanthropic and volunteering activity by individuals and the corporate sector.

Understanding the economic impact of volunteering and giving

The economic benefits provided through volunteering and giving range from the individual (such as pathways to employment) through to the macroeconomic (such as the contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP)). Data on the number, hours and type of volunteering, and the amount of charitable giving, is critical for understanding issues such as the effectiveness of volunteering as a pathway to work, the economic scale of the charities sector, and the number of unpaid family workers/carers in Australia (to assist with estimating the true costs of healthcare).

Understanding motivations and barriers to volunteering and giving

Given the economic, social and community benefits which come from volunteering and giving, understanding why people volunteer and give, and what prevents people from volunteering and giving, can support efforts to attract and support volunteers and givers. 

Barriers to volunteering may include financial barriers (such as needing to buy equipment, or being unable to volunteer except in working hours), legal requirements (such as organising a Working with Vulnerable People card) and training requirements (which may incur costs or significant amounts of time).

Data literacy and improved access

One of the emerging issues noted for volunteering and giving data is that while there is a growing amount of survey and administrative data collected from volunteering organisations about volunteers, it is often done in a piecemeal way. This results in significant amounts of unused data. Improved data literacy and practices across agencies and the community could enable researchers, policy makers, community organisations and the general public to make better use of the range of survey and administrative data that already exists. For example, standardising sets of data collection over agencies and organisations could provide very robust data, which could potentially be used in linkage projects to shine an even brighter light on the sector.

Broadening the scope of volunteering for data collection

Agencies agreed that there needs to be a clear definition of volunteering and what it encompasses, and that questions to support the broader concept 'for the common good' could be useful in understanding the decline in the rate of formal volunteering that has been noted in the General Social Survey (GSS). Collecting information on informal volunteering activity, for example, could address such questions as 'Is the overall rate of volunteering actually declining?' and 'Are formal volunteers turning to more informal volunteering?'.

The GSS currently contains twenty-one questions on formal volunteering activity. To capture data on informal volunteering, as well as other forms of voluntary work such as unpaid work trials or community service/contractual work, more questions would be required. These could take the form of picklists (i.e: Do you do any of the following types of volunteering?). Questions to capture overseas and corporate volunteering would need to be separate, as they would both need clear definitions. Overseas volunteering would not be added into a national rate, but could shed some light on overall volunteering activity carried out by Australians.

Preservation of time series

There was general agreement that having a national benchmark measure that can be monitored over time is important. Changes to the collection of volunteering information should enable comparisons with previous estimates, with other types of volunteering captured separately so that they can be included or excluded as required from the volunteering rate. 

To ensure that the best information can be collected, it may be appropriate for the ABS to have more examples in the formal volunteering questions so that people include things they may not consider to be formal volunteering (like helping in the tuckshop or coaching the under 7s on the weekend). Even the inclusion of extra examples, however, will affect time series data, so we are interested in getting feedback on whether it might be more useful to change questions to better capture volunteering activities, which could detract from the ability to directly monitor changes over time; or keep the time series steady, with the potential downside that we may not be fully capturing the data we are trying to capture.

What can we do to improve collection?

The ABS is considering a range of options for boosting the collection of formal and informal volunteering data across Australia. These options could include new survey questions (which are likely to come at a cost of removing existing questions); supplementing existing questions to add more possible responses; integrating data from administrative collections; linking General Social Survey and Census data; and partnerships between the ABS, agencies and researchers for boosting existing collections or creating new ones. We are interested in any ideas you might have which could help!

What can you do?

The Family and Community Statistics team at the Australian Bureau of Statistics would love to hear your ideas on what are the right things to measure. If there are issues or trends that have not been identified in the discussion above that you think should be included, or if there are things that could help you understand individual parts of the sector better, please let us know. If you are already collecting data on any of the issues above, we would also like to know about that! 

Feedback can be sent directly to the Family and Community Statistics team, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Locked Bag 10, Belconnen ACT 2616; or via email to Please provide any comments by Friday, 12 May, 2017.


Appendix - volunteering data in ABS collections

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Previous catalogue number

This release previously used catalogue number 4159.0.55.004.

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