Informal volunteering on the rise as regional towns form their own social groups to give back

At a time when volunteer memberships are declining, regional towns are taking charge by forming their own social groups to give back.

In the small town of Crows Nest, north of Toowoomba, a group of locals are campaigning for a Women’s Shed to be built, despite there already being established Queensland Country Women’s Association (QCWA), Lions, and nearby Rotary branches.

Organiser Sandy Anderson said many locals wanted to be part of a group that was not run by an outside body.

“We’re not independent enough … we want to work within the local community,” Ms Anderson said.

“We might want to learn maintenance on a car, how to change a tap … especially if ladies are living on their own.

“Other groups do some really great charity work which does come into our community, but they also go outside our community.”

It’s a trend being mirrored in other towns across Southern Queensland.

Jean Turner taught sewing to Indigenous communities for 16 years, before retiring to Toowoomba.

Eight years ago, she opened up a Women’s Shed that knitted and sewed anything from swimming bags to hospital blankets.

“I originally hooked up with [a charity organisation], and all of our stuff was going down to Brisbane and to the southern states basically,” she said.

“Then the ladies here said they wanted the stuff to go to local. And I agreed with them.”

The group has since grown from six members to 50 and expanded to more locations.

In June, another Women’s Shed opened in Pittsworth, a 30-minute drive from Toowoomba.

Volunteers call for flexibility
Volunteering Queensland’s Zac Reimers said while there had been a steady decline in volunteers in organisations, informal volunteering was on the way up.

A Volunteering Australia report released in February found the formal volunteering rate in Queensland dropped from 26.5 per cent in 2019 to 25.4 per cent in 2020.

“Volunteer numbers in true organisations have been in long-term decline. But it’s important we say ‘true’ organisations,” Mr Reimers said.

“People often volunteer in other ways, like neighbours helping neighbours, and that is increasing.”

The rate of informal volunteering rose in Queensland from 31.9 per cent in 2019 to 32.6 per cent in 2020.

Mr Reimers, however, said the data was difficult to record.

“If we look at modern-day life, a lot of things are on demand: jobs are on demand, entertainment, and even schooling,” Mr Reimers said.

“The number of people wanting flexible volunteering is growing.

“If they can’t get that from organisations in their area, they are finding their own way to contribute.”

Some organisations, such as the QCWA, have enjoyed consistent membership over the years.

“We’ve been there since 1922 and we were the only community group back then, unless you went to a church, to meet other women,” QCWA promoter Christine King said.

“There have been other groups with special interests popping up since forever. I think it’s great that women are stepping into that space.”

Ms King said she believed the structure of groups like QCWA was not an issue and something that was out of the hands of many branches.

She said formal groups that handled money were subject to regulation requiring minutes and accounts of finances, constitutions and workplace health and safety.

“We’re 100 years old and we have a great track record of making a difference in community,” Ms King said.

“There’s some marvellous funds that we have, and for us to do that as an association, the branches support those funds.

“If the members see a need, they send in a resolution or a recommendation about the sort of things they’re seeing on the ground.”

Charities moving with the times
According to the Australian Charities and Non-for-profits Commission (ACNC), there are approximately 60,000 registered charities nationwide.

Their research has found charity registrations are growing about 4 per cent each year.

Mr Reimers said although many groups would have to be wary of duplicating services, there could be benefits.

“We should focus on boosting volunteering efforts where we can,” he said.

“But overall, having diversity in organisations is a strength.”

The QCWA has also made progress in making its meetings more flexible.

A draft proposal will be presented at the organisation’s state forum later this year in Toowoomba to start teleconferences for women who are unable to attend meetings in person.

Ms King said it was a long time coming, and aimed at attracting new members.

“Especially in western Queensland, which has huge distances between towns,” she said.

“We have a lot of branches out there, but they’ve closed because the members just couldn’t put the time in and the petrol.

“We want to engage with those women because they’re the women that are going to bring the topics up for our advocacy.”