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Volunteers: the lifeblood of Australian Red Cross

Speech to Volunteering Australia 2006 Conference
by Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross

Melbourne, 8 March 2006

Ladies and gentlemen,

I assume that I was invited to speak to you here today because you understand that Australian Red Cross is Australia's largest volunteer organisation.

But I wonder if you realise that volunteer action was at the heart of the concept of the Red Cross when it was founded.

At the battle of Solferino back in 1859, a young Swiss businessman called Henry Dunant was so horrified by the suffering he saw on the battlefield that he organised women from a nearby village to assist the wounded and dying who lay deserted by their own forces. He returned home to write the book A Memory of Solferino, which led several years later to the founding of the Red Cross.

'Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet,' he wrote, 'to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers.'

'For work of this kind, paid help is not what is wanted ...There is need therefore, for voluntary orderlies and volunteer nurses, zealous, trained and experienced, whose position would be recognised by the commanders or armies in the field, and their mission facilitated and supported.'

From those words, the whole Red Cross/Red Crescent movement grew, spreading from country to country as local people came together, founded a society, elected a volunteer governance board and started to recruit volunteers.

The world has changed a lot since 1859.

There have been many great changes in the way society manages itself, and in the way government has sought to provide social and other services.

But voluntary service still stands as one of the 7 Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, motivating all our work.

That Principle states: 'It is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain'. Indeed the core driving objective of the Australian Red Cross is to mobilise the power of humanity to improve the lives of vulnerable people.

What we see now, nearly everywhere, is National Red Cross Societies working with the skills and dedication of some 97 million volunteers worldwide, providing services every day to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in their communities.

Volunteers, who both come from and work within communities, know the people they assist, their culture and their language and are extremely effective in contributing to the eradication of poverty, hunger, disease and intolerance.

They are at the core of Red Cross programs to provide life-saving first aid services, to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to implement disaster management programs to mitigate the effect of natural disasters and disease on populations.

This makes us by far the world's largest volunteer network, but we also know that this number, 97 million, is much lower than the number of people associated with our work at different times or in different kinds of emergency or social service situations.

Following the devastating Boxing Day earthquakes and Tsunami just over twelve months ago, thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers gave their time and energy selflessly to assist others.

Well-trained and organised volunteers were quick to respond under extremely difficult and challenging circumstances, not least because many had lost family, friends and colleagues.

They carried out many different tasks to support the victims of the tsunami--the saddest of all was retrieving dead bodies from fields and beneath debris.

Working in teams of thirty or forty, these volunteers helped retrieve tens of thousands of corpses, toiling long hours in the terrible heat and humidity.

Volunteers, not much older than Australian year 12 students, spent their days walking round to locate bodies, then placing them in body bags, and loading them into a truck or Red Cross ambulance.

They also saved lives through first aid, distributed relief supplies, helped purify drinking water, assisted people to trace missing relatives and helped families clean up the rubble that used to be their homes.They were a true inspiration and the real heroes of this humanitarian operation.

For their part, National Red Cross societies like ours, provide the training and the skills base required for volunteers to offer the most suitable services to those in need, and not only those affected by some unexpected calamity like a tsunami or an earthquake or a mudslide.

As governments around the world find new ways of reducing deficits and reshaping their budget structures, there are more and more people left behind who need looking after...the poor, the marginalised and the most vulnerable are often reliant on the support of our volunteer network.

In Australian Red Cross, thousands of volunteers deliver essential Red Cross services and activities around the country.They serve breakfasts every day to kids who would otherwise go to school hungry, they make a telephone call to someone who is old or isolated and lives alone, they teach first aid or they provide a cup of tea and a sympathetic ear to people caught up in natural disasters like bushfires or floods.

Ralph Ford is one of our volunteers.

Because he's the first to admit he likes a chat, Ralph joined our Telecross program in 1999 and started ringing Shelagh Robinson every day to make sure she was OK.

Shelagh obviously found the contact reassuring--it meant she could continue to live independently in her own home, knowing that if she had a fall or an accident or got sick, someone would notice and get her help.

Ralph's friendship with Shelagh developed as they chatted, debated and shared family news, but did not end when she finally and reluctantly, entered an aged care facility.

Although support from family and friends has made Shelagh's transition to full time care at the Freemason's Hospital in Melbourne a little easier, Ralph still makes his calls--in person now--and armed with the occasional bunch of flowers and more regularly, a bottle of red to share with his now very good friend.

Ralph's one of our 30,000 regular volunteers, but we know the number is probably closer to 150,000 if we count in those who help out on a one-off activity like collecting for our annual Red Cross Calling appeal.We also have almost 500,000 Australians who are voluntary blood donors.

It is essential however that all organisations which rely on volunteers for the success of their work have an obligation to adopt best practice in recruiting, training, and working with volunteers.

Australian Red Cross had this vast army of volunteers, yet imagine my surprise to discover shortly after I started in this job just over a year ago, that we had no national policy on how to manage them!

I went round to all our eight state and territory divisions and came away with volumes of volunteer policy manuals, handbooks and materials I collected from enthusiastic staff members. Each office appeared to have developed its own approach, some more sophisticated than others.

I concluded that one of the most pressing and essential tasks for Australian Red Cross was to develop a unified national approach to volunteering. We needed to be able to support and manage these thousands of wonderful people with a caring, but more consistent and professional approach.

And it seemed to me the best way to achieve that aim was to start with the development of national volunteering policies, code of conduct and practices.

I'm proud to be able to tell you that after an intense 8 months of consultation, we have already completed that task and at our inaugural National Conference here in Melbourne last November after 91 years of our existence, we were able to launch our National Volunteer Handbook and a suite of National Volunteer policies.

They do more than outline policy, practice and rights. They symbolise the progress being made to unify the Australian Red Cross, the efforts to support and recognise the invaluable contribution made by volunteers and the ongoing development of professional expertise in volunteer management.

It was an important first step, but there is still a long way to go.

These reforms are part of a sweeping internal reform agenda which is being pursued throughout Australian Red Cross where for the first time in over 90 years this great organisation is being driven and coordinated on a truly national basis in such key areas as financial management, fundraising, marketing and communications and human resource management.

Underpinning these reforms is a commitment to 'cultural change within Australian Red Cross which will encourage an entrepreneurial, outward looking and inclusive Australian Red Cross with a culture of collaboration and community engagement'.

One of the areas where we are particularly focussed on reform and innovation in Australian Red Cross is the area of emergency management.

We already play a pivotal role in the development and implementation of Australia's emergency management arrangements, through activities including the National Registration and Inquiry System, conduct of public appeals and a range of personal support services for people directly affected.

But in a world where emergencies and disasters seem to be ever more common, Red Cross is determined to take a more strategic, national approach, which will foster the movement's capacity and expertise to further support communities in the preparation, response and recovery from disasters.

Why am I telling you this?

Because central to our success as an emergency services organisation is our volunteers! Our strategic initiatives start and finish with volunteers; it is through an enhanced volunteer capacity that we will be able to deliver on our vision.

When most people hear the words Red Cross, they immediately think about disaster response and blood services.

Let me first of all remind you that the blood supply which each and every one of us will rely on, should we have a medical emergency, is that delivered and underpinned by the most simple but wonderful humanitarian gift given by the people who are Australian Red Cross voluntary blood donors.

There is considerable opportunity for Australian Red Cross to further develop our disaster response role within Australia through an expansion of our emergency service volunteer base.

Over the coming three years, we have set ourselves an ambitious agenda to identify new roles for the organisation in supporting emergency service responses in Australia. This will include disaster preparedness, response and recovery roles.To undertake these functions we recognise the diversity, geographic spread and skills of our volunteers will need to be significantly ramped up.

We already have an exciting pilot project in our Victorian Division where we have partnered with the Australian Psychological Society to deliver personal support services.

We are also working with several large corporate organisations to tap the expertise of their staff as a large pool of volunteers.

And we're undertaking a volunteer recruitment project aimed at increasing the diversity of our volunteers

Another exciting challenge for Australian Red Cross is the establishment of an Emergency Response Unit capacity to enable the Society to better respond to major disasters within our region.

Following the Boxing Day Tsunamis, one of the most critical interventions which saved tens of thousands of lives was the airlifting and deployment of Red Cross and Red Crescent Emergency Response Units to the affected areas, but only one came from this region. Almost all of those field hospitals, water sanitation units and emergency communication units came from Northern Europe. This is a situation we want to rectify, so that this capacity exists within our region to serve our region.

In addition to the purchase of new and necessary equipment, this also provides an opportunity to engage more volunteers in our international response work. Australian Red Cross is mindful of the considerable expertise that exists among emergency service volunteers in Australia and we are keen to utilise this in our overseas disaster response.

There is no shortage of goodwill and highly skilled people willing to step forward in an hour of need.

Indeed, one of the lessons for us following the Boxing Day Tsunamis is that we need to develop ways of dealing more effectively with the significant groundswell of support that comes from our community in response to major disasters.

Colloquially we refer to this as 'spontaneous volunteering'--where people who have not previously volunteered for our organisation, offer their often considerable expertise to help people in need.

Until now we have not responded well to these offers, and we have incurred many obstacles including training and screening challenges.

Australian Red Cross is not alone in this. Many other organisations and governments receive the same offers of assistance, with most unable to be taken up.

We recognise that we need to play a lead role in this area and have already started developing practical arrangements that can better facilitate the use of spontaneous volunteers, while also addressing the very real need to screen people properly and provide them with the skills and training necessary to ensure there is no harm done to those we aim to serve.

It is clear that most people volunteer because they want to give something back to their community and particularly to help those who are especially vulnerable.

We recognise that while volunteers willingly provide their time and expertise, there are often other contributions they make which go unrecognised.

I'm talking here about the cost of volunteering, and in particular the financial impact volunteering can have on those donating their time. This can include many expenses such as transport costs, meals, lost wages, and telephone calls.

Australian Red Cross is currently participating in a project through the Australian Emergency Management Volunteer Forum, which is researching the hidden costs of volunteering.

Projects such as this one, which is being implemented by Anglicare, are critical if we are to support volunteers and maximise their capacity to contribute.

While it is too soon to talk about the outcomes of this project, clearly there will be a need to engage in dialogue with government about the cost of volunteering and to explore opportunities to minimise any negative impact on those who give their time so generously to help others.

Recruiting and retaining volunteers is always an issue. The population has many segments and each has its own way of viewing the world, and its own expectations regarding the volunteer experience. No one strategy fits all any more.We need to understand the motivations of each of the segments.

A significant section of Australian Red Cross's volunteer base is an older group of people who have contributed for many years, some for decades. While this group is still very important to us, we realise that we need to attract and retain a more diverse volunteer base.

Short term, the baby boomers who are nearing retirement or who are scaling down their work, may be available, however there is also evidence that many are supporting their grandchildren with childcare and/or supporting frail, elderly parents and may simply not be available.

We need more young people, like Sam Reed.

Sam is a 23 year old International studies student, who became involved with Red Cross after developing a strong interest in the prosecution of war crimes.

He wanted a group of people to talk to about it and felt Red Cross gave him that opportunity through its International Humanitarian Law program.

Then, after seeing several of his friends 'trash themselves and destroy their lives' due to drug abuse--those are his words--he became interested in the save-a-mate program.

Sam now regularly volunteers his time with the Red Cross save-a-mate program which aims to minimise youth drug and alcohol harm. He works as part of a team of young volunteers who provide first aid and peer support at nightclubs, rave parties, 'Schoolies Week', dance parties and other youth-oriented events.

But Sam's commitment to Red Cross doesn't stop there.He is the Youth Representative on the National Board; Vice Chairman of the National Disaster Services Advisory Committee (he has also worked as a volunteer in disaster services) and Chairman of the National Youth Advisory Committee.

Sam might be an extraordinary young man in many respects, but in general, younger people do seem to be expressing a greater interest in volunteering, especially in extending their volunteer experience to other countries in the region.

Increasingly they see volunteering as a much more global activity, and Red Cross may need to consider how we can capitalise on this.

We are however already looking for ways to increase participation by younger people and to advance this objective, I have commissioned a national review of the Australain Red Cross Youth and Education Service.

Australian Red Cross runs a program called Yconnect? in Victoria which seeks to re-examine approaches to volunteering in the young adult population by addressing some of the barriers that prevent their engagement.

The program recognises that there's evidence to suggest generation Y, as it's called, is donating more of its time to charitable causes than perhaps any generation in history.

However, this enthusiasm for volunteering has yet to be matched by the necessary cultural change within the community sector, and the development of appropriate volunteering opportunities and support. Because of a lack of cultural change, many young adults still report feeling either alienated from traditional volunteering opportunities or involved 'in a tokenistic fashion', 'their contributions are sometimes overlooked or undervalued, resulting in young adults feeling they have fewer real opportunities to be involved'.

Yconnect? tries to turn that around.

Working both in Melbourne and throughout regional Victoria, Yconnect? develops, coordinates and volunteers in programs that provide a range of community support services, as well as offering a variety of relevant and interesting voluntary work for young people who may be in full-time study or work.

It is flexible, and responsive to the needs and aspirations of the young volunteers and the communities it serves. It also provides amazing services such as a homework club where volunteers help primary school students with literacy, numeracy and other work: especially kids from non-English speaking backgrounds who might not have homework support from their parents.

There's also a holiday program for refugees and asylum seekers, a sports program specifically for young people caught up in the juvenile justice system and a food rescue program that coordinates the collection of unused perishable foods from a number of food wholesalers, restaurants and markets, and the cooking of meals that can be distributed to other organisations that work with the homeless or hungry.

However while Yconnect? is working incredibly well in Victoria, we are also looking at other ways of engaging young people as volunteers, particularly in emergency services.

With funding from the Commonwealth Government, we are about to undertake a research project that tackles this very issue.

We expect this project to be completed in early 2007 and will of course, share the findings with organisations across the sector. This is a great opportunity to look at how we can best support young people who want to contribute to their community but may be experiencing obstacles that we are unaware of.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a growing recognition of the value of volunteering and the labour contribution it makes to the community. This has its own positive and negative outcomes.

Governments around Australia are taking more notice.Some in turn have established departments to regulate and coordinate the sector. However, all the States vary in their policies, which can create some difficulties for an organisation such as ours which is moving away from a state based model to a more cohesive national organisation where the adoption of a best practice national policy is a key objective.

Let me give you an example.

After all the intense public debate which has ensued in the aftermath of child abuse scandals, I think that the Australian community has a right to expect that the Australian, state and territory governments would by now be implementing a consistent national framework for child protection, and in particular would have introduced a nationally consistent policy for the requirements for police checking of volunteers working with children and one which did not impose significant costs on the no for profit sector.

Sadly, the reality is quite different and the government practices range from a compulsory requirement for police checks for volunteers working with children which is a free service for not for profits in a number of states to another state where the current State Child Protection legislation does not require volunteers working with children to undergo specific checking.

This of course, is entirely unacceptable, given that most other states and territories require any person working with children, paid or unpaid, and even those with access to their records, to be properly screened at least every three years.

At another level, I can also tell you that within Government Departments even within the one government there is inconsistent policy on the critical policy question of when police checks are required when volunteers are dealing with young people.

I think that most reasonable people would argue that Australia needs a national system with uniform requirements to protect young people, and affordable screening for both volunteers and paid staff. To advance that objective Australian Red Cross will be directly taking up these issues with governments, urging that governments work together to find ways to meet this objective.

Moving forward, we must look to change or modify our internal practices, but also the way we work with others.

There is an expectation that volunteers will not only bring skills into our organisation but will often want to develop and build on their skills through volunteer experience. This expectation, combined with compliance, legislative and safety requirements, means that effective training for our volunteers is paramount.

But this comes at a price.

It may be in the interests of volunteer organisations to talk with governments about ways of sharing activities--after all it is the community that benefits overall.

We in the not-for-profit sector should also be talking far more to each other, not only do we share common goals and common problems, we also frequently share volunteers, who often work with a number of different organisations.We need to develop a more flexible workforce planning approach.

May I conclude by reminding you that the world is changing, the workforce is changing and we at Australian Red Cross are changing too. We are driving a reform agenda increasingly embraced by our whole organisation which involves understanding what the younger generations want out of volunteering, to coming to terms with new policies such the need to tackle huge community problems like Mental Health and Indigenous health and well-being.

In Australian Red Cross we need to work at constantly espousing our vision which is inclusive of a new look volunteer, and never again see volunteering primarily providing low-level support rather than looking to empower volunteers to deliver quite complicated services.

One thing that hasn't changed though is our core belief system.

Our motivation in the Red Cross is our seven fundamental principles--Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Unity, Universality and Voluntary Service. And at the heart of them all--Humanity.

Humanity is the prime motivation of all our volunteers. And that is why we have an obligation to respect them, find them meaningful, relevant work and appreciate their efforts.

As I reminded you at the beginning, the Red Cross mission statement is all about mobilising the power of humanity, and I can't think of a better way of doing that, than by encouraging, motivating and celebrating our magnificent volunteers.

Thank you for the opportunity of sharing these ideas with you today.