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Collection of volunteering data in the ABS

Image: Volunteering Australia.

Information Paper: Collection of Volunteering data in the ABS, March 2018


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on volunteering and unpaid work is available from three collections:

  • the General Social Survey (GSS),
  • the Census of Population and Housing (Census) and
  • the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC).

The national prevalence rate for volunteering, that is, the official number of volunteers in Australia, is collected in the GSS. This survey has been conducted every four years since 2002, and is designed to produce reliable national, state and territory estimates. A primary focus of the GSS is to contribute to our understanding of the multi-dimensional nature of relative advantage and disadvantage across the population, and the interplay of access and barriers to social participation. It provides this data by a range of demographics and personal, social and economic characteristics. The GSS has a large set of questions to collect characteristics of volunteers and volunteering, from who does it, to what they do, how often and when they do it, and what skills they use. Prior to the commencement of the GSS, data on volunteering rates and characteristics was collected in the Voluntary Work, Australia survey in 1995 and 2000. The most recent GSS was conducted in 2014.

While the Census gathers data from the whole population of Australia and is also available longitudinally from the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset (ACLD), the information is self-reported in a single question on whether the person did any voluntary work for an organisation or group in the last 12 months, and as such is not as well-defined a measure as the GSS data. Census data is particularly useful for looking at small populations such as migrants or rural volunteers, or small areas, such as towns or shires.

Volunteering data in the SDAC is asked of people living in households who are aged 5 years or older with a disability or aged 65 years and over, and primary carers aged 15 years and over. Data is collected on whether they undertook voluntary or community service activities in the last three months, and whether they accessed the internet for volunteering or participating in community groups in the last three months. Employed people aged 15 years and over (living in households) are asked whether any of the work they do is unpaid voluntary work.

ABS data on giving is available in two surveys: whether people make charitable donations is asked in the GSS, and the amount people donate is collected in the Household Expenditure Survey (HES).


In late 2016, the ABS and the Department of Social Services (DSS) met with representatives from the National Disability Insurance Agency, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of the Environment and Energy, the Department of Education and Training, the Department of Health, the Australian Sports Commission, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Communication and the Arts, the Attorney General’s Department, the Australian Tax Office, and the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission, to define current and emerging needs for volunteering data.

A range of policy relevant topics and research questions were identified during the discussion. Of particular note was the importance of ensuring that future data collections capture the changing nature of volunteering, which is increasingly being done in a more informal manner, is more cause based, more spontaneous and one-off, and often needs to fit around people’s busy lifestyles. In summary, the agencies all agreed there is a continuing need to:

    • understand the evolving nature of volunteering and giving
    • understand the economic impact of volunteering and giving
    • understand the motivations for and barriers to volunteering and giving
    • improve data literacy and access to data
    • broaden the scope of volunteering data items to capture the changing nature of volunteering activity (ie. online volunteering, informal volunteering)
    • preserve time series

More detail of key issues identified by the federal agencies can be found in the Discussion Paper: Information needs for Volunteering data, April 2017 (cat. no. 4159.0.55.004).

In April 2017, the ABS launched a national consultation on statistics for volunteering and giving, inviting the public to submit proposals on the future collection of volunteering and giving data. The ABS wishes to thank the Australian public for their response: the consultation process has supported a review of the current methods and scope of collecting volunteering and giving data, and will continue to help the ABS prioritise content for future data collection.

Feedback from both the government and national consultation identified common topics of importance and data gaps across Australia, which were incorporated into a review of the current methods and scope of volunteering and giving data collection, and will assist the ABS in prioritising content for the future. See the Information Paper: Collection of Volunteering data, Summary of Submissions chapter (cat. no. 4159.0.55.005) for more detail.

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