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Dunne Speaks: It's All About The Volunteers

While much of the focus this week has understandably been on our forthcoming inaugural Matariki Day, it is also National Volunteer Week. This is the time we recognise the contribution volunteers make to so many aspects of our communities. In many ways, the coincidence of its timing with Matariki is appropriate – both are about acknowledging people, what has been happening, and looking forward to the future.

Volunteering is a long-standing aspect of our national character. It has often been joked that when a group of New Zealanders gets together the first thing they do is form a committee to undertake some local project or other. The community working bee is a legendary example.

A recent report prepared by the Department of Internal Affairs has highlighted the contribution and depth of volunteering in New Zealand. According to the report, just under half the population – 49.8% to be precise – are regular volunteers with organisations in their local communities. It is estimated around 115,000 not-for-profit organisations benefit from, or rely on, the services of volunteers, and the estimated economic value of their contributions is around $4 billion annually.

As chair of the Board of the United Fire Brigades Association, the organisation which represents volunteer firefighters, I know first-hand of the contribution volunteers make to the operation of emergency services in New Zealand. Our emergency services simply could not operate without them. There are more than 690 Volunteer Fire Brigades throughout New Zealand, comprising around 85% of the total national firefighting force, and covering more than 90% of our landmass. The Department of Internal Affairs report assesses the contribution of volunteer firefighters being worth around $660 million a year – slightly more than the annual budget for Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

The sacrifices volunteer firefighters make to their family lives and their work to keep their communities safe are extraordinary and the service they provide extensive and varied. The wider impact that has on their personal lives and their families is too often overlooked and unacknowledged. National Volunteer Week is an occasion to recognise those sacrifices and to thank them – and their families – for being willing to serve their communities.

Attending structure fires is a smaller part of firefighters’ work these days – more likely, they will be providing first responder services at motor vehicle accidents or undertaking wider emergency services work. For example, volunteer firefighters were at the forefront of search and rescue efforts after major civil emergencies like the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes. Volunteers from the Picton and Blenheim Fire Brigades were prominent in the response to last weekend’s horrific road crash in their area.

The important thing about all our volunteers is the selfless nature of their contributions. Their dedication to the task at hand is their primary consideration, whatever the circumstances. From volunteer firefighters to those working in community facilities, the theme of service to the community

is constant. So much so, that much of what we take for granted in our local communities would not happen, were it not for the input and contribution of volunteers.

Yet our volunteers seek little by way of recognition in return. Some years ago, when Minister of Revenue, I tried to introduce a small tax rebate to recognise voluntary time contributions. My rationale was that those who donate money to charitable organisations can claim a tax rebate on their donations, so why not apply that same approach to those who donate their time to serving the community? My plan failed, not because of any political opposition, but because volunteers objected, saying that such a scheme would compromise the spirit of volunteerism. They were insistent service should remain its own reward.

Although I understand that, I nevertheless remain firmly of the view that we do not do enough to recognise the contribution volunteers make to our communities. When I was an MP, I set up the annual North Wellington Voluntary Service Awards to recognise voluntary service in that part of Wellington which I represented. That awards scheme is still in place, and to date we have presented 187 awards, marking several thousand hours of voluntary service to the local community. They are a small, but significant, way of recognising our local volunteers and thanking them for their efforts.

While the Department of Internal Affairs’ report highlighted the varied contributions of volunteers to many aspects of the lives of our communities, it also drew attention to some looming challenges. Although volunteer involvement remains at a high level, for a variety of reasons, the number of people coming forward as new volunteers is shrinking, posing future challenges for services heavily reliant on volunteers.

The United Fire Brigades Association has been working with Fire and Emergency New Zealand on various ways to attract the next generation of volunteer firefighters, and to inculcate the spirit of volunteerism more widely in school leavers and young people generally. We continue to encourage young men and women, urban and rural, who have an interest in serving their communities to think about joining their local volunteer fire brigade.

The strong commitment to volunteerism across so many strands of New Zealand’s activity speaks volumes as to the type of people we are. National Volunteer Week is an opportunity to acknowledge that variety of contribution across the country, to thank our volunteers for their quietly determined efforts on our behalf, and to encourage them for the future.

Whatever they do, and wherever they do it, our volunteers are our national lifeblood. We should all take the opportunity this National Volunteer Week to thank them, whenever we can, for the unstinting service they provide.

READ MY SECOND WEEKLY COLUMN ON FRIDAYS ON NEWSROOM.CO.NZ

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