New definition of volunteering

A two-year review by Volunteering Australia and peak state bodies has resulted in a broader definition of volunteering that reflects the many and varied forms of activities undertaken in Australian society. It includes activism, recognises for the first time corporate volunteering by an entity — companies that organise employee volunteers — and provides explanatory notes on what is in and what is out. The new definition states that volunteering ‘is time willingly given for the common good without financial gain’.

The definition includes formal volunteering that takes place within organisations (including institutions and agencies) in a structured way and informal volunteering — acts that take place outside the context of a formal organisation. While the vast majority of volunteering is undertaken by individuals, entities also donate employee time, which is why this is now included within the definition.

In its explanatory notes to the definition, Volunteering Australia states that ‘without financial gain’ means:

  • Volunteers can receive reimbursement of out of pocket expenses.
  • Volunteers can be rewarded and recognised as part of good practice. While this process may introduce an element of financial or material benefit to the volunteer it does not exclude the activity from being considered volunteering.
  • Volunteers may receive an honorarium, stipend or similar payment as recognition for voluntary services or professional services voluntarily rendered, in accordance with Australian Taxation Office rulings. Based on the nature of such payments and the recipient’s circumstances, the receipt of this type of payment does not preclude the person from being considered a volunteer.

and ‘for the common good’ means:

  • This definition aligns with the United Nations view that volunteering ‘should be for the common good. It should directly or indirectly benefit people outside the family or household or else benefit a cause, even though the person volunteering normally benefits as well.’ Volunteering is often considered as contributing to community wellbeing and volunteering activities cover all sectors of society, leisure and hobby areas and include, but are not limited to:
    - animal-related including animal welfare
    - arts/heritage/culture
    - business/professional/union
    - education and training
    - emergency services
    - environment
    - faith-based
    health
    - international aid/development
    - law/justice/political
    - parenting, children and youth
    - sport and physical recreation
    welfare/community
  • Activism can be considered volunteering. This definition is aligned to the current UN position on volunteering that states: ‘When people participate in peaceful activism, for or against animal research or building of a dam, both sides seek what they consider to be beneficial outcomes. They are included in our definition. Activities involving or inciting violence that harm society and actions not corresponding to the values attributed to volunteerism are not included in our definition’.
  • Volunteers cannot be exploited for profit.
  • Volunteering can include the concept of reciprocity such as participating in groups where a reciprocal exchange of help/services is undertaken for the benefit of others as well as the volunteer.

More detailed information, including on programs that fall outside the definition, such as mandated court orders including community service and fines and any other mandatory government programs, can be found here.

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