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Volunteering: Highly valued, but in decline

New Zealand is currently celebrating National Volunteer Week—Te Wiki Tūao ā-Motu. In the first of two articles on volunteering in Wairarapa, reporter LUCY COOPER explores the positive impact volunteers have on our communities.

The community’s backbone

Ask Vic Ross, manager of the Masterton-based food rescue and distribution charity WaiWaste, how important volunteers are to her organisation, and she is unequivocal: “They are the backbone of our organisation. We couldn’t run without them. We just couldn’t function.”

WaiWaste’s 24 volunteers and two paid part-time staff members pick up food from the charity’s 26 donating businesses and then sort and box it for distribution to over 30 recipient organisations.

Since WaiWaste started in 2015, this volunteer effort has rescued more than 500,000 kg of food from going to landfill.

While the charity hasn’t formally quantified the financial value of its volunteer pool, Ross is certain that “if we had to pay all of our volunteers, we’d shut down”.

“And WaiWaste wouldn’t run nearly as effectively because we’d have to run on a quarter of the number of workers to be able to afford to pay them, and then we just wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”

Volunteer New Zealand [VNZ], an association of volunteer organisations, estimates the country’s one million formal volunteers – that’s people giving unpaid help through groups, clubs, or charities – supply 159 million hours of labour and contribute the equivalent labour value of about $4 billion a year.

But as VNZ’s communications manager Margaret McLachlan explained, a dollar figure doesn’t fully describe the “hard to measure but deeply, deeply valuable” contributions volunteers make to society.

“Over two million people are giving their time either formally or informally [unpaid, voluntary work that is not coordinated by an organisation or institution] somewhere across the country, and it’s often not seen or recognised, even amongst people giving their time,” McLachlan said.

“They see it as an act of service. But all of those acts collectively weave our country and communities together.”

Acts of service

While membership in service clubs has been in decline since the 1980s, Wairarapa still boasts four Rotary Clubs and five Lions Clubs, with an estimated combined membership of about 200.

A guest speaker at a recent South Wairarapa Rotary Club asked outgoing president Glenn Todd and fellow Rotarians, “Why do people join service clubs?”

“The group of us sitting at the top table sort of all looked at each other. It was a very good question,” Todd said.

Paul Harris, a Chicago attorney who founded Rotary in 1905, “wanted to make some changes to the community, but he couldn’t do it by himself”, and so formed a collective, Todd explained.

That combination of fellowship and collaboration still holds true today, he said.

“I suppose that’s what makes a service club – fellowship and the ability to pull in people with a wide variety of skills and knowledge to do some good for the community.”

South Wairarapa Rotary’s “claim to fame” – the 500-stall Martinborough Fair that attracts over 25,000 visitors a year – relies not only on a 45-strong team of Rotarians but also on “Friends of Rotary”, a pool of non-member volunteers who “are willing to come and help us out in times of need”, Todd said.

“One of the reasons why we have had to start looking at this extra volunteer pool is the fact that the average age of our members is 78. I think a lot of service clubs are facing the same issue.”

Environmental volunteering
on the rise

According to VNZ research, “there’s been a massive uptick and participation in environmental volunteering”, McLachlan said – from 6.9 per cent in 2016 to 11.1 per cent in 2021.

New Zealanders “have always had a green thumb and have always deeply cared about their environment”, Sarah-Jane Jensen, Kaitohutohu Rerenga Rauropi [biodiversity advisor] with Greater Wellington Regional Council [GWRC], told Times-Age.

“We’ve got a long history of that going back into the 1970s. And so many of these volunteer groups have existed since then.”

A 10-year citizen science kākahi [native freshwater mussel] count at Wairarapa Moana Wetlands – a collaborative restoration project between GWRC, the Department of Conservation, South Wairarapa District Council, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, and Rangitāne o Wairarapa – has demonstrated to Jensen the power and value of community-driven volunteer effort.

“The community has driven that whole research, and we simply couldn’t do it without them,” Jensen said.

“We might have been able to pay for someone to do a one-year study, but that would have been that.

Instead, we’ve been able to look at changes over 10 years, which is just invaluable science.”

Part two will look at some of the challenges facing the volunteer sector and some of the measures to tackle them.

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