National Volunteer Conference 2018: A Retrospective from the guy who live-tweeted the conference

By Vincent X. Feng from Communiteer

Last week I had the honour of attending the biennial National Volunteering Conference 2018 where I live-tweeted (#nvc2018) some insightful sessions, as well as help, operate our Communiteer stall, explaining to people the benefits of virtual volunteering. The following is a summary of my key learnings, followed by a more in-depth account of the conference from my perspective.

Major themes

The following are some of the key themes discussed at NVC2018.

Volunteering is changing

Demographic trends and technology advancements are just some of the main areas of change that are affecting volunteering and the community sector. As traditional formal/organisation-based volunteering declines, Volunteer-Involving Organisations (VIOs) need to look for other ways to engage, train and retain volunteers in ways that better meet the needs of the volunteers. Examples include providing more flexibility, more ways to develop skills and more opportunities to engage socially with staff and volunteers.

More cross-sector collaboration is needed

VIOs need to rethink the way they work with different sectors of society and not only rely on the government for funding and compliance. They must also reach out to the private sector to form more partnerships, academia to build greater recognition for the efforts of the sector and the general public volunteers to increase their capability to pursue their mission. This presents an interesting challenge for VIOs as they must balance the pace of progress towards their mission and meeting the needs of their diverse set of collaborators.

Innovation is already here and need to be considered

Thankfully, many VIOs are already trying innovative ways to adapt and overcome the previously mentioned challenges. Technology-supported volunteering, especially virtual volunteering, is still in its infancy but there is enough potential for organisations to consider utilising more volunteers in a virtual capacity beyond “micro-volunteering” tasks via email and social media. Likewise, VIOs partnering with for-profit companies have reported some success in their endeavours, but note that there is still more to do in persuading companies and their employee volunteers to doing more than just low-skill volunteering such as manual labour and basic administration work.

Our thoughts

From Communiteer’s perspective, these issues and challenges can be addressed, in part or in whole, by technologies and organisational practices that are already used in the private sector. Volunteer demographics, such as higher education students, younger professionals, new families and older professionals looking to retire, all share a few core needs:

  • Have demanding schedules that requires more flexibility in how they volunteer;
  • The desire to use their skills, experience and expertise to feel like their are contributing the most value; and
  • Wanting to meet other volunteers who also share their desire to do good and contribute towards worthy causes.

Communiteer can address the needs of these volunteers utilising a combination of:

  • An online platform that can be accessed on any digital device;
  • Real-time communications to allow quick collaboration between volunteer teams; and
  • A crowdsourcing model for volunteer recruitment and engagement to efficiently find the right volunteer with the necessary skills and value-alignment.

This makes it easier for volunteers to connect with VIOs on our platform, collaborate with each other on interesting projects and see what they are contributing towards at the VIO level as well as at the global level through the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Bringing more volunteers into the sector can help create further awareness of the importance of the causes they champion and their skills and contributions.

Looking forward

The event was managed flawlessly by Volunteering Australia and Volunteering and Contact ACT. Looking forward to the next National Volunteering Conference in 2020, I’d like to leave you with the following questions that I found myself thinking about and, perhaps, you may also find interesting:

  1. How can the community and private sector better work together using skilled employee volunteers?
  2. How might volunteering look if it was predominantly virtual?
  3. What more can the sector do if they could rely on more grassroots funding from the 6 million volunteers nationwide?
  4. How might volunteers play a more prominent role in realising measurable social impact guided by the UN SDGs?
  5. How will the community sector be affected in an increasingly automated and AI-driven economy/society?

If you would like to have a chat about our thoughts on the above or the future of technology-supported volunteering, you can reach out to us at getintouch@communiteer.org.

Conference Details

The National Volunteering Conference 2018 (#NVC2018) is the Australia-wide industry / sector conference for the community sector to come together and share the latest industry best practices and academic insights. This year the conference was held at the International Convention Centre Sydney, near Darling Harbour, from 20th June to 22nd June, 2018 and was organised by Volunteering Australia and Volunteering ACT. Alternating with the state-based volunteering conferences held in the odd-years, NVC2018 attracted organisation representatives from a cross-section of society, including:

  • Volunteer-Involving Organisations (VIOs) such as Not-For-Profits, charities and social ventures who need volunteers;
  • Volunteer-Providing Organisations (VPOs) such as for-profit businesses, universities and professional associations who source volunteers;
  • Volunteer Support Services (VSS) such as Volunteer Resource Centres (VRCs) and volunteering peak bodies who represent the interests of volunteers, VIOs and VPOs.;
  • Individuals relevant to the sector, such as notable consultants, academics and celebrities;
  • Service providers looking to attract potential clients and partners; and
  • Individual volunteers looking to be more involved in the sector.

Below is a longer summary of the entire conference.

Ignite: A rallying cry for volunteering

From the opening address, Adrienne Picone, CEO of Volunteering Australia, and Joe Buffone, Asst. Secretary of Home Affairs from Emergency Management Australia reaffirmed the importance and impact of volunteering and the need to continue to strengthen the sector in light of cuts in public funding and demographic shifts away from traditional volunteer engagement. Dr Susan Alberti AC brought the audience on a captivating and inspirational journey of the joys and woes of her life and the three causes she has been fighting for with great passion: women in business, type 1 diabetes research and women in sport.

Both the Partnerships and Starting a Movement breakout sessions focused on the necessity of cross-sector collaboration, of working together with people and organisations who are value-aligned but not necessarily in the community sector. Brianna Casey from Foodbank and Alecia Hancock from Hancock Creative spoke on the importance of working together with corporate partners at the executive level and the employee volunteer level, and both emphasised the need to create and demonstrate genuine connections and meaningful impact with volunteers and audiences instead of just working from a checklist. Sally Rugg, the Executive Director of Change.org, and Alison Gibbins, Deputy National Director of Amnesty International Australia, urged attendees to see volunteers as more than unpaid staff, and to empower them to act on behalf of the attendees’ organisations to bring greater impact to their causes, campaigns and movements.

Invigorate: Exploring innovation in volunteering

The second day of the conference was spent exploring insightful aspects of volunteering. Chris Jarvis, from Realised Worth, spoke on the ability of volunteering to generate empathy when volunteers engage with people outside their normal social circles. At the morning panel on volunteering and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Dr Peter Devereux reiterated the idea that volunteering connects people from different sectors, especially with guidance from the UN SDGs, and more cross-sector collaboration and concrete, measurable action gives the sector more support from the government and the general public.

Internationally and nationally, volunteering in a long distance capacity has an incremental but significant effect. As presented by Paul Bird, the CEO of Australian Volunteers International and Evelyn O’Loughlin, CEO of Volunteering South Australian and Northern Territory, their partnership on the Aboriginal Volunteer Program (AVP) in the Oodnadatta community yielded impressive results in the literacy of students. In addition to these results, framing such partnerships in terms of the UN SDGs provided Paul and Evelyn a common language with which to communicate their work to the government, private sector partners and, ultimately, the volunteers involved.

In the academic stream, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, from Flinders University, and Professor Kirsten Holmes, from Curtin University, presented, on behalf of their project team, research insights on the dimensions of volunteer recruitment and retention: easy/hard to join, easy/hard to recruit (eg. need skills), flexibility (volunteer’s time vs organisation’s time), onsite/offsite, high/low risk, volunteer manager involved or not, low/high satisfaction/benefit to volunteers and cost to volunteers. Their online recruitability tool, which uses these dimensions to measure an organisation’s ability to recruit and retain volunteers, can be found at https://curtinic.github.io/cbs-volunteer-survey/#!/. Also, Dr Megan Paull from Murdoch University reported on insights from the Jacaranda Project, a collaborative investigation of volunteering in aged care settings. Key findings include the need for VIOs to keep advertising for roles due to their low volunteer retention rate, making sure volunteers form “friendships” with aged clients instead of work or family relationships, and that volunteers appreciate “being appreciated”, and that may not always be in the form of an onsite event held in their honour (such as a morning tea).

Finally, another panel (Sarah Davies, Philanthropy Australia, Peter Gordon, Hands Across Canberra, Alison Lai, Volunteering Tasmania, George Liacos, Spark Strategy) focused on resourcing the sector urged the audience to look beyond the funding from external sources, such as philanthropy, government grants and corporate sponsorships, and look within to generate revenue, such as fund-raising from existing volunteer bases, exploiting under-utilised technology and informational assets and involving more Australians in the efforts of the sector to grow the overall pool of funding.

Inspire: Moving forward with volunteering 

Having spent the first two days soaking in the information from all the speakers and panellists, it was nice to conclude the event with a series of cross-sector speakers who all reaffirmed the need for volunteering in the present and the future. Both sides of the political landscape were present and presented their vision for the future of volunteering from a funding and policy perspective, and a panel talking about volunteering in the context of the gig economy suggested the need to change existing volunteering opportunities in three key ways: breaking them up to smaller chunks, using those smaller opportunities to bring in more time-poor volunteers and giving them a good experience so they are more likely to come back. The final hours of the event involved an in-depth masterclass on measuring social impact and a lighthearted look at volunteering from the perspective of a few familiar faces on the Australian cultural landscape.

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