Volunteering in Australia

on a remarkable rise

Essential for the success of any non-profit organisation is an ability to find and utilize volunteers. It is therefore exciting news that volunteering is on the rise with the 2016 census reporting a large increase in the last five years (especially given the previous five years saw falling volunteer rates). Most impressive of all is that is it young people that are the driving force behind this increase. We can look forward to a hope filled volunteering future.

Pleasing results alone are not enough however. It is vital that organisations have strategies to find those people most likely to volunteer and likewise match their availability and skills to that tasks at hand. Drilling into this census data is a great place to start. There are clear and defined segments with high rates of volunteering. When this intelligence is applied to an organisational contact and prospect list it sets up a strong foundation to initiate recruitment drives. This also allows intelligent recognition on how you can engage your supporters most effectively, be it with their finances, advocacy and, of course, their time.

The 2016 Census volunteering highlights:

  • The 2016 Census reports there are 3.62 million people (over 15 years old) engaging in volunteering.

  • This is 20.7% of the population (excluding those who gave no response).  This is up from 19.4% in 2011.  The rate drops to 19.0% if all 'Not Stated' results are deemed to be negative.

  • Much of the increase was due to increased volunteering among younger people.  Volunteering rates for those aged 15 to 19 increased from 18.6% in 2011 to 21.9% in 2016.  Those aged 40 to 49 increased from 22.8% to 25.2% - this group has the highest volunteering rates.

  • Females are more willing volunteers with a rate of 22.6% compared to 18.7% for males.

  • Religious groups dominate the highest volunteer segments. Judaism has the highest volunteer rate of all religions at 31.1% followed by Christianity at 23.0%. Many Christian denominations surpass Judaism however, especially Brethren at a massive 63.1%.

  • Those of higher wealth and socio-economic status are more likely to volunteer.

The 2016 Census asked the question to the right. Before going further it should be noted this is not a perfect measure of volunteering. It is self reported and does not give any information on the time and effort committed (a one hour job and a two week full commitment are reporting identically by the individual). Furthermore the nature of volunteering is changing with a lot of voluntary work done on an informal basis and also in the workplace - so responses may overlook these. A final point to note is the first bullet point (Include ...) was not included in the 2011 question. It is possible this clarification increased affirmative response although this is unlikely to be significant. Despite these limitations this is the best data available of the volunteer sector and the depth of insight it holds is of enormous value when smartly used.

The great news is of course that volunteer rates are on the rise. 20.7% of those over 15 years old who answered the question saying they are indeed a volunteer. This totals 3.62 million people and is a big increase from 19.4% in 2011.


Age continues to be an important factor. The age profile of volunteers follows an unusual pattern as there are three clear peaks. The first are those under 20 years old - this is where the biggest increase since 2011 has occurred. A lot of this may be due to reduced employment opportunities but nonetheless encouraging. Part-time students in particular have high rates of volunteering. There is also are peak in the forties age group (the group of the highest volunteer engagement) and again immediately post retirement. It is encouraging to see volunteer rates increase among the oldest groups as people have longer and healthier retirements.

Females are significantly higher volunteers than males at a rate of 22.6%.  Males are at 18.7%.  That means 5 out of 9 volunteers are female.  Over the age of 80 years however males are more prominent volunteers than females (although the longer life expectancy of females means even for this age group there are more female volunteers by count).

It is religion however that is the most significant attribute in identifying volunteers. Judasim is the top of these religions with a rate of 31.1% although this segment accounts for only 22.7k volunteers. Christianity follows at 23.0% but it is Christian denominations that have the most prolific groups. A massive 63.1% of Brethren classify themselves as volunteers. This is again a small group and it should be noted Brethren is very much a volunteer-centred denomination. Of the larger denominations the Jehovah's Witnesses have 57.7% and Pentecostal 47.8%. Catholic has the lowest percentage of the large denominations at 19.3% although this is still above No Religion at 18.3%. Islam ranks bottom among religions although it is important to note this group contains large numbers of new arrivals and those of lower income - two groups which typically have low levels of volunteers (see the interactive profiling tool towards the bottom of this report). 

We can not tell among the religion data how much volunteering is done for the church, and of that, how much was done within the church (e.g., setting up the church) or outside the church (e.g., running a food bank). 

Prosperity and income are also important in identifying volunteers. Using the SEIFA Social Disadvantage figures (note these are the 2011 profiles applied to 2016 volunteer data) it can be seen more wealthy areas have higher volunteer rates.

This relationship can also be seen when we look at polling booth data from the 2016 Federal Election. This matches volunteer rates to the closest polling booth and the winning party in that location. Labour areas have lower rates of volunteering. This can also be seen on the interactive maps below - particularly in Melbourne where the Labour dominant West has low volunteer rates while the Coalition dominant East has higher rates.  It is hard to tell if low Labour percentage is due mostly to income or political alignment. It is impossible to fully remove the income impact, although attempts to do this do see the volunteer rate differences reduced markedly (suggesting income is the dominant driver).

Below is a tool to profile volunteer rates by a number of variables. These include income, ancestry, students, language and assistance needs. Some interesting relationships form. Other key attributes of high volunteering include:

  • Being from the ACT (the top state/territory)

  • Those born in North America (and Australia)

  • Those of Irish ancestry

  • Longer term Australia residents

  • Strong English speakers

  • Married people

  • Those who do a lot of unpaid domestic work

  • Part-time students

The maps below that pinpoint geographical areas of high and low volunteer rates. What is notable is that cities have considerably lower levels of volunteers than rural areas. In fact the more remote you get the higher the volunteer rate becomes. Hover over the dots for full details.

The top local government area is Mount Marshall in rural Western Australia with a volunteer rate of 55.7%.  Mount Marshall has a heavily Australian born population, high Christianity and relatively high income. At the other extreme is Doomadgee in Queensland has a volunteer rate of 5.1%.


Using this information we can get very good ideas of who the top volunteers are. It should be noted that all the profiles shown are two-dimensional.  If we do some statistical modelling and combine variables are can get some defined segments of very high volunteer penetration.  For instance if we filter Australian-born Pentecostal females aged between 20 and 50 we have a volunteer rate of over 52% for a group of 32,000 volunteers.

With this insight we can start planning strategies to recruit more volunteers. At Deep White we are specialists in helping with that process. This is not only finding volunteers, but planning strategies to have services in place which not only meet needs but can also provide an abundance of well-suited facilitators. It also means you can engage with your supporters in an effective way and identify how they can make their best difference to achieving your mission.

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