The importance of being a voluntary organisation

The importance of being a voluntary organisation

By Roger O’Halloran

It is becoming clearer that turning human services such as aged care; child care; ability services and employment services into “for-profit” ventures diminishes the care and service.  We can blame government neglect of responsibility and a belief in the unfettered market and the profit motive, but perhaps the approach is supported by acceptance of a cultural shift that puts a price on all things?

I’ve mentioned previously some of the large payments being made by other agencies to engage Australians in international volunteering.  I suspect this is further evidence of the shift.  This seems to be coinciding with more enquirers to Palms Australia expecting a transactional business style relationship where battle is done by each party to extract what they can for the lowest cost to themselves.   

What makes Palms Australia a Voluntary Organisation?

I make a distinction between the noun “Volunteer” and the verb “to volunteer”.  Some enquirers can be put off by the idea of being a volunteer, understood as one who offers service without expecting payment.  They might volunteer with partner communities for challenging assignments, but need financial support to do so.  So, I am not the noun because I do the verb.  Palms has some of each.

The answer can also depend on how one characterises Palms Australia.  I am perplexed when I see communication that represents ‘the office’ as Palms Australia.  If the beginning and end of Palms is the administrative and support hub then we’re not a voluntary organisation.  Despite enormous dedication, with some staff giving more than paid time, we are remunerated.

Office staff Kevin, Cassandra & Louise with 2020 volunteer intern Emily in polka dots

Do people volunteering in the field make us a voluntary organisation?

When on assignment I found being referred to as a volunteer somewhat embarrassing given my income was similar to local teachers with whom I worked.  Palms program participants are paid the smallest of living allowances, which certainly presents a challenge for Australians coming off an income that provides more discretionary spending.  So, there is no question that they volunteer for a testing engagement, but is this what makes Palms Australia a voluntary organisation?

Rhoe Price and local teacher Jose with Year 9 English Class – Bedois, Timor Leste

Members, Donors and other Supporters

A Voluntary Organisation is generally about strengthening civil society.  Ultimately the members are the owners, but unlike owners of for-profit companies they take responsibility for programs to meet a social need that produces no financial dividend for them.  In Palms case they truly are volunteers, who along with our donors enable us to reach beyond to build strong relationships globally and so advance sustainable mutual development.

There are a number of others engaged with Palms who also do this as volunteers.  The many who have worked in the office without remuneration; those in every State who assist us to coordinate activities and represent Palms to build support networks; returnees from the field who share their experience at gatherings of new enquirers; experts sharing valuable knowledge with those preparing for assignments, and many who offer time to steering groups and committees to provide feedback, or to assist organize events such as Palms60. None of these people can be thanked enough and I hope they appreciate that no matter how many steps removed from the coalface, they are indispensable to the impact of the program.

Dr Paul Kelly volunteer presenter of the health session at the January 2020 Orientation Course


Despite recent regulations requiring our banks to identify them as beneficial owners, the Directors receive no payment for taking on the significant legal responsibility of governing the organisation.  This is as clear an indication as any of Palms Australia’s status as a volunteer organisation.

As we approach our AGM a dedicated group [including current chair, Marea Nicholson; Brendan Joyce; Peter Smyth; and Kristina Gunawan, all who have generously given Palms two terms of three years (2014-20) and Jane Woolford; Alex Varley and Bishop Vincent Long who have served one three-year term (2017-20)] deserve our thanks for bringing their special talent to guiding us into and through the first phase of Palms long-term sustainability plan.  Their guidance through COVID-19 in the last eight months has been especially important.

Have I missed anyone? 

Our constitution rules that “… a Director shall not be eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms of office.”  However, under a provision whereby elected directors can nominate three others to the board, in 2018 Dr. Antony Faa accepted nomination for a third term.  To his nine years’ service 2011-20 (three as Chair) he brought more than the experience of over two years with his family in PNG (2002-04) on a Palms assignment. 

Antony, Elia, Marian, Louis & Joseph – PNG 2002

On return to Australia Antony continued and continues to volunteer medical service in remote Australian communities.  In 2017 he was winner of the Roy Boylan (Palms founder) Solidarity Award ‘for long-term commitment to justice and peace at home and abroad’ because he epitomizes the dynamic of voluntary membership and donor contribution to civil society. 

Antony drawing the raffle at the Palms Australia 60th luncheon 2016

I am always reluctant to identify individuals above the collective effort to achieve Palms Vision and Mission.  All mentioned above have volunteered to inspire others to its achievement and our Annual Report will confirm amazingly effective adjustments in this difficult year to make it one of the most fruitful in recent times.  What I want to recognize in Antony Faa is many years of humbly volunteering his steady shoulders to stand on, thus enabling Palms Australia to hold our heads high in a changing cultural environment that is testing the respect for voluntary organisations.

Featured image: Focus Group Volunteers offering thoughts on a Palms rebrand 2017