Volunteers 'the back bone' of NZ charities, but some roles prove hard to fill

Each Wednesday, the volunteers for the SPCA Auckland all receive the same email. It's a call for help - for the charity's unpaid workers to step up.

"Sunday PM - No volunteers - who will feed the baby rabbits!?" said a recent email asking for help.

Each week it's the same story - staff shortages, shifts gone unfilled, and more help desperately needed.

Non-paid staff at the SPCA outnumber paid staff 10 to one across nearly every part of the organisation, and if it's running low on volunteers, the results can be potentially disastrous.

"When we are low on volunteers, staff are put under a huge amount of pressure. Every day, you never know what might happen," SPCA CEO Andrea Midgen told Newshub.

“A litter of very young puppies might be brought in without their mum, or a severely abused dog might be rescued by an SPCA inspector. Having the support of our volunteers means we can tend to these unexpected, special cases, while ensuring everything else run as normal.”

Canine volunteer Alan Wooley says he finds the work rewarding and he knows the importance of his role in the organisation.

"The SPCA relies on volunteers quite a lot to do the work that they need to do," he said.

"We need volunteers, we need the commitment that the volunteers provide, we need the help that the volunteers can provide in terms of assisting what is a very worthwhile charitable cause."

The SPCA isn't the only organisation depending on a volunteer workforce. St John and the Department of Conservation both utilise volunteers to keep running.

DoC has relied on volunteers for nearly as long as the organisation has existed. They help with tree plantings, hosting campsites and pest control.

St John uses 9200 volunteers and they're not just riding in the ambulance.

Volunteers work as caring callers, running CPR courses, coordinating the youth programme and running free health shuttles to appointments.

A dog being walked by a volunteer at the SPCA.
A dog being walked by a volunteer at the SPCA. Photo credit: Newshub.

Many ways to help

The SPCA and St John together run a joint outreach therapy pets programme, which allows volunteer Jasmine Hweh and her dog Peachy to visit mental health wards, rest homes and even university students to give them a chance to relax and pet the animals.

Ms Hweh says it's great to see those who may need a break interacting with Peachy and the chance to see the animals clearly makes a big difference in some people's lives.

"Animals bring you so much happiness and it just makes me really happy to see other people enjoy [Peachey's] personality and that it can make a difference," she said.

But not all roles are created equal and there are some the charities are finding particularly hard to fill.

St John spokesperson Elliot Steel told Newshub that it can be hard for people to see past the "fast-paced" ambulance roles everybody imagines.

"St John are always looking for new volunteers in all of our community programmes," the spokesperson said.

"Currently we are undertaking a volunteer recruitment drive for the St John youth programme, looking for divisional youth managers and youth leaders around the country."

The SPCA experiences a similar problem as positions that may not involve close contact with cats and dogs can often prove challenging to fill.

"The one exception is small animals (specifically rabbits) volunteers, perhaps because the role is a little more specialised and requires some experience," Ms Midgen said.

"We also find that volunteers for our op shops can be quite difficult to find – our volunteers at the shops are so important, and although they don’t have direct animal contact, they are invaluable."

It's also often on the lookout for foster parents like Jody Kelly, who in five years has helped seven rabbits and 84 cats prepare for adoption.

"It’s a really good way to volunteer and give something back without having to spend lot of time out of your house," she told Newshub.

"I work from home so it's great for me - I've always got kittens on my desk or under my desk or on my printer or whatever."

One of the cats at the SPCA.
One of the cats at the SPCA. Photo credit: Newshub.

Outside of charities, even some for profit companies use a volunteer workforce further their impact.

Auckland social enterprise Eat My Lunch has had over 10,000 volunteers through the door in the past 2.5 years helping to prepare lunches for kids in need.

Spokesperson Chet Patel told Newshub using the volunteers means they can increase the number of lunches they're able to give away.

"The volunteers allow us to scale the number of lunches and increase our impact. We want to ensure no school child goes to school without lunch," the spokesperson said.

However for the charities the impact of volunteers goes far further than just allowing the organisation to scale up.

"We rely so heavily on our volunteers in all areas of the organisation,” Ms Midgen said.

"They are the backbone of the organisation. We truly wouldn’t be able to run the SPCA without them."

Newshub.