Volunteer organisations a key social network for regional and rural Australia

Community organisations have continued to support the vulnerable throughout COVID-19. Image: supplied by Rotary
Community organisations have continued to support the vulnerable throughout COVID-19. Image: supplied by Rotary

"Have you thought about joining a club?" If you've ever moved town and struggled to meet new people you've likely been on the receiving end of this type of advice. For newcomers to regional communities it can seem like everyone's known each other since childhood making it hard to integrate into community life.

This is, however, a bit of a misnomer according to recent figures released by the Regional Australia Institute. Using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, they show regional Australians are amongst the most mobile groups in Australia. In fact during 2011 and 2016 over 1 million Australians moved between regional locations with a net inflow of over 65,000 people.

Bearing this in mind, how important are community organisations in our society? According to Rotary International Director Elect Dr Jessie Harmon community groups such as View Club, the CWA, Lions or Rotary are the lifeblood of regional and rural communities, offering social cohesion through the support networks they provide.

It's certainly true that it's human nature to enjoy that sense of belonging, whether it's being a supporter of the local footy club, or a member of a book club or the rural fire service.

Clubs and community networks that have been around for upwards of a 100 years however can be seen as old fashioned and fuddy duddy by younger generations. Who doesn't think of baking when the Country Women's Association (CWA) is mentioned? Speaking to some of the innovators in these organisations however it's clear that these ideas are no longer relevant as organisations not only adapt to changing demographics and technology but also the demands on the time of members.

CWA branch president Sue-Ellen Hogan joined after relocating to Tamworth for work. Photo: Peter Hardin

CWA branch president Sue-Ellen Hogan joined after relocating to Tamworth for work. Photo: Peter Hardin

The CWA, formed in 1922, has evolved rapidly over the last few years, turning around declining membership and attracting new members in both metropolitan (Sydney has a number of branches) and regional Australia. The Tamworth region is home to 11 branches of the CWA, with every branch offering something different to members.

One of the newest branches, just five years old, formed to meet the changing needs of its members who wanted to get together in the evening. Sue-Ellen Hogan, President of the Tamworth CWA Evening Branch joined the group in its early stages after moving to the area for work.

For her, the ongoing meetings her branch have held online have provided a vital connection to her community during periods of isolation due to COVID-19. In fact, the online meetings have been so successful that her branch has made the decision to keep offering virtual access to the meetings even as they start to meet up in person again.

The CWA head office has also stepped in to support branches of the organisation to offer webinars to highlight to branches how to adapt their fundraising activities to move them to the digital space.

Other organisations have taken a different approach to dealing with change and ensuring they continue to remain relevant to their members and communities.

Rotary is another volunteer organisation who have moved with the times to support the needs and interests of members. Like the CWA, Rotary started (in Australia) in the early 1920s and has been advocating for and supporting their local communities ever since.

This is what Rotary is, we express community in a million different ways and this is just another new way for us to do so.

Rotarian Dr Jessie Harman

Like CWA branch president Ms Hogan, Rotarian Dr Harman was drawn to join Rotary for the same reasons. Having moved into the Ballarat area she wanted to not only improve her professional connections but also get involved in her community.

Dr Harman says that as well as providing her with opportunities and career development she may never have otherwise had, she argues that the importance of organisations such as Rotary, View Club or the CWA provide a sense of identity of self-worth and wellbeing that cannot be underestimated.

"They remind us we are part of something bigger than ourselves," Dr Harman said.

Taking an optimistic view of a possible positive to come out of the COVID-19 restrictions that Australians, and in particular Victorians have been placed under Dr Harman wonders if one of the consequences of COVID will be we have a much greater appreciation of the importance of community.

"I think there is some anecdotal evidence that we will see particularly younger people wanting to get involved in community based volunteering."

Not that young people haven't always wanted to volunteer. Statistics bear that out with the 2016 census showing that 19 per cent of Australians between 15 and 19 years old participated in some form of volunteering.

The importance of meeting the needs of changing social demographics is important for organisations as is allowing volunteers to focus on the issues that matter to them. To this end, some organisations have formed e-clubs, allowing members to meet in the digital sphere offering the opportunity for those who don't have time or the ability to attend meetings in person to continue to be engaged with their community.

It's been remarkable to see how a number of clubs have continued to meet via zoom, wih clubs with a more tech-savvy membership stepping in to help other organisations set up facilities to continue to meet online.

Rotary is looking to take some of the skills they've learnt from the restrictions put in place over the past months and to adapt some of the offerings the organisation can provide to encourage new membership and participation.

Highlighting how tight knit clubs can be, Dr Harman noticed a great sense of community in helping everyone staying connected.

"Individual Rotarians stepped in with a spirit of generosity and partnership to ensure fellow Rotarians from different clubs could continue to participate and stay connected," she said.

"Communication occurred however it needed to happen, and it was very much second nature because it is in a sense what Rotarians and Lions and these organisations are, they are the original social networks."

Looking forward to how communities can continue to thrive and survive when they are no longer able to participate in their core activities, a number of volunteer organisations have already switched focus to offering services online, as well as making equipment such as facemasks and other PPE or even arranging for mobile data to be donated to vulnerable community members so that they can continue to interact with the outside world from the safety of their own home.

Dr Harman believes that though the future is uncertain for grassroots organisations, the resourcefulness of volunteers ensures that community groups will continue to find ways to support their communities.

"It will look different, but we are responding because it's what we do and we can express community in lots of different ways.

"This is what Rotary is, we express community in a million different ways and this is just another new way for us to do so."

This story The original social networks - how volunteer organisations hold communities together first appeared on The Canberra Times.