NCLS Research

Media Release (Mar 10) - Church volunteers a blessing to wider community

Breif radio interview between NCLS Director Ruth Powell and Neil Johnson, first aired on the 2020 program, 8th April 2010. Curteosy Vision Radio Network.

23rd March 2010

Far from being inward-looking and focused only on their own church group, church-going volunteers are part of society’s powerful, invisible safety net.

NCLS Research has found that church attenders are more likely to be volunteers than the general community (57% vs 35%). In addition, volunteering within the congregation is strongly related to volunteering beyond it, with many people volunteering in both the congregation and the community.

NCLS Research director Dr Ruth Powell said, “This is because of widely-known Christian messages about helping others in need, because church attenders are reminded of those messages and because most churches provide structured opportunities for volunteering, such as congregationbased activities in welfare and social justice.

“In fact, the middle-aged well-educated female churchgoer is very likely to be one of Australia’s many volunteer heroes.”

Information about the voluntary activities of church attenders across Australia was collected as part of NCLS Research’s National Church Life Surveys in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2006. An analysis of that data was published last year in the Australian Journal on Volunteering.

Associate Professor Rosemary Leonard from Social Justice and Social Change Research and Associate Professor Richard Ollerton, School of Computing and Mathematics from the University of Western Sydney are working with Dr John Bellamy from NCLS Research on a project funded by the Australian Research Council to examine the contribution of church goers within their congregations and the wider community.

The findings showed that church-goers not only contribute to their own groups, but also to communities generally. As well as the fact that overall rates of volunteering were higher amongst Christian church attendees than for the general population, these rates were relatively stable across the years.

The strongest finding in their paper “Volunteering among Christian church attenders 1991–2006” was the positive relationship between volunteering within and beyond the congregation for all denominations and all years. It suggests that volunteering within the congregation is not an obstacle to volunteering in the community, indeed quite the contrary.

Examining denominational differences in volunteering within and beyond the congregation, they found that, after demographic differences were taken into account, Pentecostals volunteered more hours within the congregation and Catholics (on average) volunteered fewer. Mainstream Protestants had much higher rates of involvement in community groups.

Dr Powell said the significant contribution of church-goers to Australia’s volunteer workforce meant church leaders should pay close attention to references to volunteering in the Productivity Commission’ report on the not-for-profit sector.

“The implications of the Productivity Commission’s comments about recruiting, managing, training and retaining volunteers will be important for those who depend on volunteers within churches and those who rely on volunteers for mission in the wider community,” she said.

The Productivity Commission report, released in February, found that 4.6 million volunteers worked with not for profits (NFPs) with a wage equivalent value of nearly $15 billion.

NFPs had reported rising costs of recruiting, managing and training volunteers. Minimum qualifications, occupational health and safety, food safety, security checks, and public liability insurance added to those costs.

Increasing professionalisation was thought to be crowding out voluntary effort in community services and education.

The Productivity Commission found that values such as the belief in the importance of helping others and the belief in “what goes around comes around” were important motivators of volunteering, making recognition and continual reinforcement of the contribution of volunteer valuable in retention.

It said that although 80% of volunteers in a recent survey reported that “knowing that my contribution would make a difference” was the most important factor in the decision to volunteer, 36% had not received any recognition for their work in the past month, suggesting an avenue for organisations to improve retention of volunteers.

Volunteers who understand and believe in the mission of an organisation were more likely to continue volunteering.

The Productivity Commission referred to research that found that young volunteers were more likely to volunteer as a way of building their own skills for future job opportunities, to support organisations with a clear mission that is attractive to them, and in roles supporting young people.

As older volunteers contribute more hours, population ageing is projected to increase volunteering. However, NFPs will have to accommodate the changing desires of the baby boomer generation (looking for flexibility and roles related to their skills or interests) to access these resources.

Dr Powell said church volunteering would again be measured by questions in the next National Church Life Survey, scheduled for the second half of 2011. She said it would be interesting to see how churches were responding to trends identified in the Productivity Commission’s report.

All Australian churches have been invited to take part in the 2011 survey of churchgoers, which will provide evidence-based results to help churches connect with the wider community.

For more information, contact Dr Ruth Powell, 02 8267 4394, or Associate Professor Rosemary Leonard, 0417 689.838.

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