Volunteers billion-dollar efforts help keep NZ communities afloat

DEENA COSTER/Stuff.co.nz

A little bit of help goes a long way

One quarter of the country's population is helping keep community services and events viable.  Deena Coster reports on the state of volunteering in New Zealand.

Marie Riordan's life of service began as young girl.

The simple act of helping her mother polish the brass at their Catholic church set her on a career path of giving back to the community, something she has been doing for decades.

Marie Riordan, who co-ordinates volunteers in New Plymouth, say the sector is in good heart, with new people signing up ...
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax NZ

Marie Riordan, who co-ordinates volunteers in New Plymouth, say the sector is in good heart, with new people signing up every month to help out.

Riordan is the face of Volunteering New Plymouth, a service which matches willing helpers with agencies in need of people power.

She took up the post four months ago, after spending 23 years helping unemployed people get back into work, in addition to a long list of other charitable deeds.

Demand for volunteers still out-strips supply but she thinks, on the whole, the sector is in pretty good shape.  

About 600 people volunteer their time to help out at music festival Womad each year.
Robert Charles/FAIRFAX NZ

About 600 people volunteer their time to help out at music festival Womad each year.

Just as well really because it's a  life-line to towns and cities around the country.

"Our communities wouldn't survive without volunteers," Riordan says.

Stocking the food bank shelves, putting out fires, supporting crimes victims or rattling the buckets to raise money, volunteer labour is used for a myriad of jobs.

A shortage of volunteer firefighters has been recently highlighted in Taranaki.
Andy Jackson

A shortage of volunteer firefighters has been recently highlighted in Taranaki.

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About 1.2 million people - a quarter of New Zealand's population - give up their time to help out every year.

In fact, some events are completely reliant on voluntary assistance and its absence can threaten their very existence.

Christmas can be an especially busy time for volunteers.  Last year, Impact Movers helped deliver 1300 gift boxes to ...
Hannah Andrewes

Christmas can be an especially busy time for volunteers. Last year, Impact Movers helped deliver 1300 gift boxes to Taranaki children.

The future of Taranaki's elite swimming competition, the Flannagan Cup, is just one example, with the 2018 event at risk if volunteers don't step forward to organise it.

But Riordan says the numbers are not dwindling at her service and new people are signing up every month to give up their time.

"It's certainly not dropping off, I think there is a lot more interest." 

People power is worth about $3.5 billion in free labour to the New Zealand economy.
Supplied

People power is worth about $3.5 billion in free labour to the New Zealand economy.

One of the recent trends is the number of  recent arrivals to New Plymouth -  from Auckland, the South Island or overseas - who put their hands up to help out.

The majority were women and there was a mix of ages involved in volunteering in the city, all motivated by a desire to give back, she says.

Volunteers also benefited from the work they did, Riordan says. It gives people confidence, a chance to use or learn skills and it also looks good on the CV.

Keeping towns beautiful is usually thanks to the efforts of volunteers.  About 70 people got busy to help clean up  ...
SUPPLIED/MBTV

Keeping towns beautiful is usually thanks to the efforts of volunteers. About 70 people got busy to help clean up Mangere Bridge in South Auckland recently.

"There's not one thing I could say that it doesn't give people."

Volunteer recruitment website Seek Volunteer, says altruists are held in higher regard by employers because they seen as motivated, socially-responsible and trustworthy. 

It found 94 per cent of employers and recruiters regard volunteering as a great way to gain experience and skills used in paid work.

Sam Johnson founded the Student Volunteer Army at the age of 22.
Joseph Johnson

Sam Johnson founded the Student Volunteer Army at the age of 22.

Volunteering also provides a huge economic benefit to the New Zealand economy, namely a $3.5 billion boost to the nation's gross domestic product each year.

READ MORE:
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It also helps the country stack up in the international philanthropy stakes.

The work of the Student Volunteer Army continues, with a crew out planting on Anzac Day this year.  The student army, ...

The work of the Student Volunteer Army continues, with a crew out planting on Anzac Day this year. The student army, set up by Sam Johnson, was a key part of the clean up effort following the Christchurch earthquakes.

The 2016 World Giving Index rates New Zealand fourth best for its ability to donate money, volunteer time or help out a stranger.

The most altruistic country is Myanmar, a title it has held since 2015, and driven mainly by the fact between 80-90 per cent of the population is Buddhist, where giving carries religious meaning.

Last year, Volunteering New Zealand released its first State of Volunteering in New Zealand report, where the sector gave itself a rating of six out of ten.

While devastating, disaster can also bring out the best in people.  Residents and volunteers turned out to help clean up ...
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

While devastating, disaster can also bring out the best in people. Residents and volunteers turned out to help clean up Edgecumbe after parts of the town flooded this year.

Of 1260 groups who responded, 32 per cent had noticed a drop off in volunteering hours. Financial pressures, longer work days and busy lifestyles were all identified as factors for this.

For some, the consequences of decreasing assistance include stopping some of the services it offers, making do with fewer helpers or getting paid workers to pick up the slack.

The most common feedback was how the volunteer workforce was aging and there was a lack of  youth stepping up.

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Student Volunteer Army founder Sam Johnson to expand service
Why volunteering helps you

However, some wildly successful volunteering initiatives have come from the younger generation.

Sam Johnson was 22 when he set up the Student Volunteer Army in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, a movement supported by 11,000 university students who were tasked with helping clean up the city.

Almost seven years on from the September 2010 quake, the army is still growing, recruiting another 3500 volunteers this year alone.

"There's a huge rise in people wanting to make a social impact and volunteering is one way of doing it," he says.

"You don't need an organisation to make change anymore, you can do it yourself."

Johnson says people often don't define their good deeds as volunteering - they are just helping out or doing someone a good turn.

"I think it's just evidence of a strong voluntary culture in New Zealand," Johnson says. 

It's most often seen in the large numbers of people who pitch in after natural disaster, like the April 2017 flooding in the Bay of Plenty town of Edgecumbe.

Johnson says the key is turning that enthusiasm to help into a longer term commitment.

While thousands can turn out in a crisis, a more direct approach is needed to get people to turn up on a regular basis.

"The most effective way to get people involved is to ask," he says.

It's a request which needs to go beyond a newspaper ad or a Facebook post. A face to face approach is the best way to get people to say yes, he says.

"We often underestimate that everyone has the ability to contribute and everyone has a skill."

National Volunteer Week runs from June 18-26.

What is volunteering: it's work done of one's own free will, unpaid for the common good.

By the numbers:
1.2m:
New Zealanders who volunteer each year
$3.5b: yearly value of voluntary labour to economy 
4: New Zealand's ranking on World Giving Index
$6m: recent funding boost to voluntary sector

Five reasons to volunteer:
Live a longer and healthier life
Increase social connections
Help your career
Do something good for community
Provides you with a sense of purpose

Source: Psychology Today

 - Stuff

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