Professor Melanie Oppenheimer gives J C Bannon Oration on “Volunteering for the Ages”

Australia’s leading historian of volunteering, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, recently gave a fascinating overview of the modern evolution of volunteering in Australia and issues facing volunteering today, in the J C Bannon Oration for 2022 at St Mark’s College.

The Bannon Oration is a major annual public lecture given in memory of Dr John Bannon AO, the seventh Master of St Mark’s College (2000-07) and the second-longest serving Premier of South Australia (1982-92).

In introducing Professor Oppenheimer, the Head of College, Professor Don Markwell, spoke of volunteering as one form of the community service which St Mark’s encourages in its students, as the College’s founders intended that it should. He spoke of John Bannon – a resident undergraduate student at St Mark’s in 1962-63 – as exemplifying the College’s ideal and tradition of service.

Now based at the Australian National University, Melanie Oppenheimer was previously Professor of History at Flinders University and has held positions in Australian history at the University of Western Sydney, the University of New England, and the University of Tokyo. A Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, she has recently completed a two-year term as President of the Australian Historical Association.

For over twenty-five years, Melanie Oppenheimer has been interested in exploring the role of voluntary organisations, volunteers and voluntary action in times of war and peace, and the history of volunteering, gender and humanitarianism, with a special interest in the Australian Red Cross and the Red Cross Movement.

Professor Oppenheimer’s J C Bannon Oration was entitled “Volunteering for the Ages”, drawing on Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man”, and she discussed how those many individuals who choose to volunteer often do so in different ways at different stages of their lives. She rejected the claim that young people do not volunteer, arguing instead that they often volunteer in different ways from their elders. She referred to experience in one’s own family as an important factor in determining if and how individuals will choose to volunteer.

Professor Oppenheimer drew attention to the evolution of concepts and definitions of volunteering so that it is now accepted as being “time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain”, be that in formal organisations or in informal contexts of unpaid support to non-family members. Volunteering had shifted from being seen to be a leisure activity to being seen as unpaid work. She highlighted that volunteering in Australia had only been formally measured since 1995, with the definition of volunteering and methods of gathering data on it changing over time.

Her overview of the evolution of volunteering in Australia drew attention to the defining characteristics of what she has called the “Australian way of volunteering”, the pivotal role of the 1970s in the growth and development of volunteering and not-for-profit organisations, the scepticism about volunteering that some (such as the British minister Richard Crossman) expressed at that time, the impact of the Sydney Olympics of 2000 and the United Nation’s International Year of Volunteers in 2001 in a resurgence of volunteering, the way that South Australia had often led the way in the governmental recognition and support of volunteering, the launch of a National Volunteering Strategy in 2011 and current work to develop a new National Strategy for Volunteering, and the challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen a considerable decline in formal volunteering, pandemic burnout for volunteers and for paid staff alike, and the voluntary sector under considerable stress, and in some cases in crisis.

Professor Oppenheimer referred to how volunteering necessarily changed with changes in patterns of paid work, such as are currently underway, and raised a number of issues for governments and others to consider for the promotion and support of volunteering in the changing realities of this third decade of the 21st century.

Professor Oppenheimer’s Oration will be published by St Mark’s College in coming months as a small book.

Further details of the 2022 J C Bannon Oration, and of Professor Oppenheimer, can be found here.

For Professor Markwell’s welcome and introduction at the 2022 Oration, click here.

Watch the full J C Bannon Oration here: