Volunteers needed – you, you and you!

One of Glengallan’s automatic mowers doing its autonomous thing – photo by Jonno Colfs

Friday on My Mind – We need volunteers – you, you and you!

March 31, 2023

By Bob Wilson

Last time I wrote about volunteering in Australia (2019), I confessed to having not done much of it at all. A lot can change in four years. I became re-acquainted with a former journalist colleague, Donna Fraser, who just happens to be chair of the Glengallan Homestead Trust. I had been to visit the partially restored sandstone homestead several times and could well remember what it looked like in the 1990s. Falling down, unoccupied and unloved.

“Why doesn’t someone save that old building?” we’d all say, and then forget about it until next time.

Donna suggested I might like to volunteer as a tour guide. I tagged along on a couple of tours with one of the long-term volunteers. A few weeks later, I was on my own – and enjoying it. I was at that stage still reading from a cheat sheet, put together by Donna from historical information. Glengallan Homestead was restored after the Trust received a $2 million Centenary of Federation grant in 2001. A new Heritage Centre was built, including a cafeteria, a gift shop and administration rooms. The restoration included replacing the old shingle roof and the rotting verandas, which had collapsed during the 70 years the homestead was neglected.

Glengallan is now one of the popular tourist destinations on the Southern Downs, with visitors and locals calling in from Wednesday to Sunday. General manager Jonno Colfs, who took over the job in September 2021, has introduced some innovations. The Trust recently purchased four automatic mowers, which quietly potter around the 5 acre Homestead block from 6am till nightfall, guided by GPS and smart enough to return to the recharging station at night. The mowers were bought with proceeds of a grant; and not only that, bought locally (from the Killarney Co-operative). Jonno says the mowers have become something of an attraction on their own. They are constantly on the move and the rule for visitors is – give way to mowers.

He also increased the cost of admission to $15 (it had been $10 since the Homestead was opened). He brought cafeteria prices more in line with what visitors would expect to pay In Warwick or Toowoomba.

Since taking on the job of General Manager, Jonno has been busy writing grant applications. One grant paid for upgraded signage, spotlights and a garden makeover. He’s also been promoting the seasonal market, which hit a new record in March, with 67 stalls registered. The next market day is the first Sunday in June- 4th of June.

I never tire of visiting Glengallan and its 5 acres of park-like grounds. If you have any sense of history at all it’s not hard to imagine this as the grand edifice at the heart of a 44,000 acre station. There were golden years in the 1800s, but when entrepreneur John Deuchar began building Glengallan in 1867, a drought and rural downturn was on the cards. Deuchar went broke and even though subsequent owners had some good years on the land, no money was invested in the house, which was left vacant and fell into disrepair.

As if being on a roster of volunteer tour guides was not enough, I joined a local refugee support group in 2020 and in late 2021 was asked if I’d stand as chairman.

“How am I going to do this? I asked a friend who has served on many boards as director and/or chair.

You’ll be fine,’ my learned friend said, after a few probing questions. He emailed me a link to ‘your responsibilities as chair of a not-for-profit’.  I also borrowed a book on meeting procedures from the library .

In 2021 I joined the University of the Third Age (U3A) committee as a ‘spare’. Over time, that morphed into newsletter editor, website editor and now publicity officer. In the corporate world they call it ‘mission creep’ which basically means, well, doing more than you signed up for.

If you volunteer for anything you have to accept you will be seconded on to sub-committees and working groups. That’s how it works.

Volunteering Australia’s definition of volunteering is “time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain”. The word ‘willingly’ stands out.

Much has been written about volunteer burnout. This is a state of mind very much like workplace stress, except you are not pulling in the big bucks to tolerate similar issues and hassles.

Like other community-minded people in this town who have ideas and energy, I have somehow managed to get a bit over-committed. I was so busy in March I found myself double-booked when asked to take a tour around Glengallan.

I do have a succession plan to scale down my volunteering in 2024. Apparently I am not alone. Volunteering Australia last month launched a Strategic Plan to avert the decade-long decline in volunteer numbers.

The size of the volunteer workforce has dwindled from more than 5 million people in 2019 to a low point of just under 3 million (according to the 2021 Census).

But that’s still a lot of people contributing selflessly to a cause they believe in. People aged 40-54 years are more likely to volunteer (30.5%) than other age group, which is interesting, given that most of them would have day jobs. For the 70+ group, the number is 28.0%.

The most common types of organisations for which people volunteered related to sport and physical recreation (30.7%), religious groups (23.1%) and education and training (18.8%).

The majority (66.4%) volunteered for one organisation only, 23.0% for two and 10.4% for three or more.

I realise the latter puts me in a minority and might also prompt accusations of ‘virtue signalling’ which is how young people describe making yourself look good or ‘skiting’ as we used to call it.

The onset of Covid-19 in March 2020 tore a huge hole in the framework of national volunteering. A study conducted by the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods found that the proportion of adult Australians engaging in formal voluntary work, which is done through an organisation or group, fell from 36% in late 2019 to 24.2% in April 2021. In the 12 months leading up to April 2021, only 54.4% of those who had stopped volunteering had resumed, exacerbating a decline in the national rate of volunteering from 36% in 2010 to 29% in 2019.


More recent research by the Institute of Community Directors reveals that 58% of charities reported a decline in volunteering. The report speculates about generational change as one reason, citing a YouGov Consumer Sentiment Survey. This survey found that 23% of Baby Boomers volunteer several times a week, compared with 14% of Gen Xers, 11% of Millennials and 9% of Gen Z (those aged 12 to 24). Those are scary statistics when you realise that 51% of Australian charities are wholly dependent upon volunteers.


As I write this, three U3A volunteers are reviewing my spelling, grammar and syntax before we email the Term Two newsletter out. That will be the easy part, unlike the First Term newsletter, 160 copies of which were printed, folded, labelled and mailed to members by a small army of volunteers. Nothing wrong with signalling other people’s virtues. They know who they are.

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