There has been a large decline in the number of people volunteering to work with people with disability.

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One reason is the uncertainty that support agencies are facing about their funding under the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The other is the fact that many people who might volunteer now assume the NDIS will be all-encompassing and that their help is no longer required. 

A shortage of volunteers is likely to have a flow-on negative effect on working carers who rely on volunteering services to help bridge the gaps not covered by paid support arrangements.

More volunteers could help carers return to work, or increase their work hours.

Interviewed by The Guardian Australia online, Interchange Incorporated executive officer Kerry Uren recently warned that a shortfall in volunteer numbers could have a catastrophic effect.

Interchange is a non-profit organisation that supports volunteer agencies in the disability sector in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

Ms Uren said that the uncertainty about funding was ‘a major barrier’ to agency planning: “Some of the agencies that are currently transitioning are unable to strategically plan for what they’re doing with their volunteer programs. There are so many organisations that use volunteers.

“We really are at risk of losing thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of hours of support.”

Also speaking to the ABC on the issue of volunteering, Ms Uren said that Interchange had more than 1,000 families on its waiting list and some of them had been waiting for up to three years. The need for volunteers was growing but agencies were finding it harder and harder to get volunteers.

“Interchange has been running these volunteer programs for 37 years now and there is a definite change in the number of people applying to volunteer,” Ms Uren said.

“What we’re finding is that the number of people in the community who are inquiring about volunteering has plateaued. We suspect it might be because of the NDIS transition. The community thinks people with disability are now fully supported by the NDIS. But that’s not the case.”   

Campaign to encourage more volunteers

Interchange is proposing a campaign to encourage volunteers in the disability sector on the basis that the connections made through volunteer support are of benefit to the volunteers as well as to the families they’re helping in that long-lasting relationships are formed which help break down barriers and promote inclusion.

“It’s a proven model and it works,” Ms Uren said. “I just can’t imagine what would happen without it.”

How well it can work was demonstrated in a recent ABC story. Eleven years ago, a volunteer named Kathleen Horan was matched with seven-year-old Chiara Casalaz, who has Down Syndrome.

Ever since, Chiara has spent one day a month with the Horans and she’s become part of the family, growing up with the Horans’ three kids, staying over on Saturday nights now and then, attending their birthday parties and they attend her special occasions.                

Because Chiara’s father died last year, she had to choose someone to attend a Father’s Day breakfast with her at school: she chose her big ‘brother’, 21-year-old Seamus Horan.    

Chiara’s mum, Pia Casalaz was thrilled. “How do you put a price on that? She had someone special to go with. That was just beautiful.”

To people considering applying to volunteer, she says: “Go for it. Step outside your comfort zone. Make a difference in somebody else’s life.” 

APC expresses concern over lack of volunteering clarity

The Australian Productivity Commission (APC) has also expressed concern that volunteer organisations are in the dark as to how they are supposed to function under the NDIS.

The APC recommended that the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) should consider funding agencies for the initial costs of connecting NDIS clients with volunteers and for the ongoing costs of volunteer management.

The APC has also recommended trialling the use of volunteers to provide participant supports. (Source: based on Productivity Commission data, National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Costs.)

The peak body for volunteer agencies, Volunteering Australia, also recently issued a statement criticising the lack of investment in volunteering infrastructure under the NDIS to assist in recruiting, training and managing volunteers.

Quoted in The Guardian Australia online, a Volunteering Australia spokeswoman said: “There is a common misconception that the voluntary contribution happens on its own, but it comes at a considerable cost to volunteer organisations.

“There is an entire infrastructure to support volunteers, including appropriate training and management. All of this requires funding, and many services funded under the NDIS may lack the resources, both human and financial, to engage and support volunteers.” (Source: Volunteers Australia, State of Volunteering in Australia Report PWC.)

The volunteer shortfall is only one of the workforce problems the disability sector is facing as the NDIS transition lumbers on. It’s estimated that the scheme will require a workforce of 162,000 people. That means 80,000 additional disability support workers have to be found in the next two years.

The Australian Government is trying to achieve this with an injection of $109 million through a number of projects such as the Innovative Workforce Fund, ProjectABLE and Care Careers (see article in this edition ‘Work in disability, community and aged care’).

Read the full Guardian story here:

Read the full ABC story here: