By Jess Wilson
In the last few weeks, we have seen the power of volunteering in action across the country. Many of you, I’m sure, have walked past people in an array of coloured t-shirts handing out how-to-vote cards on street corners, bus stops and shopping centres, wishing they would go away and the election would be over. But, without those volunteers, the democracy of Australia would look very different.
Face-to-face conversations with real people make a difference to how we view the world — whether that’s who we vote for, or whether we choose to learn something new like how to use a computer, tablet or the internet. Volunteering is about the power of people, the connections we make, and how we help each other to have a better life.
Who are volunteers?
Volunteers come from all different walks of life and according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 5.8 million Australians or 31 per cent of the population engage in formal volunteering activities and programs. That’s a lot of people power and those are the ones1 that we know of, not all small acts of volunteering and giving back to the community are included in formal figures.
With loneliness becoming a growing concern globally and 1 in 4 Australians indicating they are lonely, the rate of volunteering is something to celebrate. People volunteer to connect2 with others, to give back and to explore and develop personal interests outside of the workplace. In just our small Good Things Foundation team in Australia, we have volunteer experience in:
- Supporting older people
- Local sports coaching
- Working in the school canteen
- Foster care
- Teaching people English
- Delivering meals
- Environmental clean-ups and tree-planting
Volunteering covers so many different areas of the community, and anywhere where people come together you can generally find volunteers. So, on the 30th anniversary of National Volunteers Week, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about the power of volunteering to help people learn digital skills.
Volunteer Digital Mentors
The ability to use digital technology is an essential skill and enabler in our society today, and supporting someone to learn how to use a computer can empower them to change their lives. It helps people to connect with the people they love, to manage their money online or apply for a job using online search engines. In the Be Connected Network alone, two-thirds of digital mentors supporting people to learn new digital skills are volunteers.
So volunteer digital mentors are helping to reduce the digital divide in our country, but what do they actually do?
- They sit alongside people who have never used a computer before and help them discover which button turns it on.
- They make someone a cup of tea to ensure they feel comfortable and ready for learning.
- They reduce people’s fear by sitting with them as they create an email address and write their first email to a friend.
- They laugh with people when they try taking a selfie for the first time.
- They solve problems when someone comes in asking how to connect a wireless printer to their smartphone. They help people get a job by showing them how to search for job opportunities online.
They are people like Nan Bosler and Jenny Wilcox from Australian Seniors Computer Club Association (ASCCA), who have been supporting older Australians to learn digital skills for over 20 years. Nan is a pioneer, a tireless advocate, an engaging speaker, and a long-term volunteer. Nan is an inspiration and at 84 there are no signs of her slowing down. Together with Jenny, who we’ve collaborated closely with on their Be Connected Capacity Building projects in WA and NT, and many other volunteers, the ASCCA team have so much to be proud of.
Or Paul Webster, who serves as a volunteer Be Connected digital mentor at the Langwarrin Men's Shed after a long career of service in the Royal Australian Airforce. Although Paul himself has always been into computers, many other men and women his age don’t share the same digital skill set. After a few of his family and friends fell victim to online scams, Paul took the opportunity to educate them on how to be more diligent with their online safety.
Or Tracy Lewis from Lockyer Community Centre in rural Queensland, who has made a big impact on her local community through her digital literacy classes that help people in her community like Valerie and Lindsay Davies to learn how to better manage their health online.
So why do they do it?
Supporting people to learn a new skill is not always easy. Everyone learns in a different way, at a different pace, with different motivations and experience. They’re not necessarily in it for the challenge, but the reason people become volunteer mentors is because they get something out of it. Like Kerry Grace, a digital mentor from Darwin, who says, ”to see that sparkle of the smile in their eye and their face that they actually could do something that possibly they thought they were too old or too dumb or too slow to use. That's the buzz or satisfaction I got out of it - the satisfaction on people’s faces.”
At Good Things Foundation, we are focussed on improving people’s lives through digital technology. We want everyone to be digitally able, active and equal, but we can’t do that without the amazing network of community organisations and the digital mentors who are helping make this vision a reality.
So, during National Volunteers Week, I’d like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to all of our volunteer Digital Mentors across Australia who are helping to support people to engage with the digital world. The support you provide helps to ensure no one in our country gets left behind. I hope you know what a difference you are making, not just to the person in front of you today, but to the future of Australia.
1Australian Bureau of Statistics (2015), General Social Survey, Summary Results, Australia, 2014,
2Australian Psychological Society (2018) Australian Loneliness Report: A survey exploring the loneliness levels of Australians and the impact on their health and wellbeing