Michael Cox: Tireless community volunteers deserve a special place in heaven

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Last year St John received $20,000 from Hamilton Sky City Community Trust. Photo / NZPA
Last year St John received $20,000 from Hamilton Sky City Community Trust. Photo / NZPA

Thirty or so volunteers gather for a mid- year "thank you lunch". They had indeed earned it. Collectively they operate a community health shuttle running between a small Waikato town into the Hamilton hospitals and medical centres.

It is the ultimate in "voluntary power". The drivers make the trip in the shuttle van, together with the carers, for over a hundred people each week. The day begins with the early morning dialysis patients and frequently finishes, after three round trips, with those who have been in hospital for "day surgery". It is a door-to-door service and there is no charge. The whole operation, from fundraising to washing the vehicle, is gladly run by these wonderful volunteers.

And they come in all sizes. The fundraiser is a retired goat farmer, the van groomer a vintage car specialist, the chairman a former minister of the Crown whose politics always meant serving people. The van crews range from retired farmers to amateur pilots to former nurses, to real estate agents.

The community at large pitches in. It is unusual to be charged full price for anything. The rent on the garage is one bottle of good rum per year. The recent batch of brochures was discounted by over 30 per cent by the printer.

Our economy would be lost without these people. As chairman of one of the local funding groups, the Hamilton Sky City Community Trust, that annually gives away over $600,000, I find that it is mainly small amounts that count the most. Last year St John was the largest recipient at $20,000.

Frequently we trustees find that $2000 or $3000 gives a small voluntary organisation sufficient administration money for stamps and the like, to keep the volunteers going without having to dip into their own pockets. It is the grease that keeps the wheels turning.

Volunteering is big business. Over one million of us together contribute 270 million volunteer hours a year, amounting to 2.3 per cent of the New Zealand's gross domestic product. In dollar terms that is over $4.4 billion. When you add the 105,000 paid employees in the sector to this impressive number, the contribution rises to 4.9 per cent of GDP.* Then one has to understand that these volunteers go out and raise more money apart from the amounts contributed from outside.

Last year over $5.4 billion was raised by organisations such as the Sallies, and hospice shops, Rotary Clubs, Lions and Altrusa.

I was saddened when I attended a recent workshop instigated by the Charities Commission, when they rolled out some union organisers who berated the voluntary sector for paying their staff below union rates. Have they no shame? Have they no understanding that "honorariums" paid to key organisers are scrimped out of fundraising?

It's indeed strange that such thinking is still around and is the total reverse of the goodwill generated by volunteers.

So to all you volunteers, well done. Whether you are a member of a Lions or Rotary Club, or a driver on the shuttle, you deserve a place in the special heaven reserved for volunteers.

*Figures provided by the ministry for the voluntary and community sector.

Michael Cox is a former National MP

- NZ Herald

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