27 Dec 2018

NZ Volunteers - Katie Bruce

From Summer Times, 9:35 am on 27 December 2018

The whole model of volunteering is changing, Volunteering NZ chief executive Dr Katie Bruce says, as she helps us kick off the Summer Times series featuring 15 members of New Zealand's essential volunteer workforce. 

Dr Katie Bruce

Dr Katie Bruce Photo: Mava Enoka / The Wireless

They are all over the country: from rural firestations and wildlife sanctuaries through to netball courts and gliding clubs and essential services like Search And Rescue and Civil Defence groups.

Without them the country simply would not function, so every day on Summer Times we'll be meeting one of Aotearoa New Zealand's hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

Dr Bruce sets the scene for our 15-part series, and tells Summer Times' Lynn Freeman about the huge scale and invisible nature of volunteering. 

"I mean, nearly half of us volunteer, it’s quite incredible, really incredible," she says. 

"So much of what we do we don’t even think of as volunteering - like, for example, helping out my son who’s on a school trip right now as we speak, and there are lots of other parents who have given up a bit of their work day and gone along or time from home and gone along to support them. 

"[There is] a lot of that invisible stuff that we don’t see and we don’t recognise or value.

"Search and Rescue as an example, 94 percent of people in Search And Rescue are volunteers." 

Police and volunteer search and rescue staff preparing to search for missing Auckland woman Kim Bambus.

Search and Rescue Photo: RNZ / Eva Corlett

"All of our search and rescue and emergency services are hugely, hugely supported by volunteers and would completely grind to a halt - and I think that’s one of the things that we would notice first if volunteering stopped in New Zealand." 

There are concerns a low unemployment rate and a growing population of retirement-age workers could mean a fall in volunteering. 

Dr Bruce says the statistics do show something of a paradigm shift. 

"More people are getting involved as volunteers, but people are generally putting in less time.

"The whole model is shifting because so many of us are working, people in retirement are often also looking after grandchildren and people say when they’re asked about, you know, ‘what are the things that stop you volunteering or get in the way of your volunteering’ the number one [response] is 'work'." 

She says conservation and sport remain popular voluntary pursuits, but others are struggling. 

"I think the areas that struggle more are where we have more traditional kinds of volunteering ... traditional op shops or volunteering for social services.

She says young people might see themselves wanting to engage in different ways.

"Having run a youth movement organisation called Just Speak ... often, young people are really impatient for more systemic change. 

"The zero carbon bill that’s going through Parliament at the moment - that was designed by young people at Generation Zero years ago, and that kind of invisible activism is core to who we are and really important to be supporting young people to engage in ways that are meaningful to them rather than getting them to fit them into the models that we think are right for them as adults." 

She says there are a lot of opportunities for people to help out that they may not be aware of. 

"There are so many opportunities now for people to use their skills and volunteer, so if you’re a communications expert or you work in that area you can volunteer for the Community Comms Collective … share your skills with an NGO who needs a bit of support in that area. 

"You need support for people to get involved ... I think people really relish the opportunity to take on leadership roles, because that’s essentially what you’re doing." 

However, she notes that like the younger generation, older retirees or those working into retirement age are also changing the ways they volunteer. 

"They don’t necessarily want to engage in that really long term volunteering just  for one organisation, and often now people want to get involved in different project-based things around their own time and what suits them and the other things that they have going on in their lives. 

"I think often people don’t really know the options or the opportunities that are available to them, and I think that’s why it’s great getting people involved through their working life and to then continue that on.

"We see so much of this loneliness in older people and actually [when they stop working] a lot of that connection is lost and the sense that you’re valued - and of value - in your community.

"Volunteering is one way in which some people like … to contribute beyond work."

Indeed, there's two factors that drive people to volunteer: skills and endorphins.

A soccer ball in the foreground, with a team of student players in the background.

Photo: 123RF

"The kind of skills that you can get from volunteering in sport and other things are really quite incredible and [are] things that will help you in the kind of work you want to do as well," she says.

"And the same way that we get from eating food or having sex - those endorphins are actually the same as we get from volunteering. That feel-good factor, there’s real science behind that."