In 1911, during the second annual Rotary convention, a conversation between Rotary founder Paul Harris and Seattle Rotarian J.E. Pinkham would ultimately inspire the service organisation’s principle motto – Service Above Self. The motto was later formally approved at the 1950 International Convention and, to this day, inspires generations of Rotarians to a life of service and selfless giving. The best of politics is also centred around these same ideals – serving your community, helping others, advocating for those without a voice, and doing what is right and honourable.
Locally, Australians are, by very nature, generous individuals who help others in need. We’ve seen incredible acts of generosity and heroism during floods, fires and national emergencies. Australians are also generous in their everyday lives, with volunteerism infused in our ethos. Volunteering Australia has previously reported that approximately ‘5.8 million Australians formally volunteer, providing an estimated annual economic and social contribution of $290 billion’. For context, Australia’s export of resources and energy in the 2018-19 financial year was valued at approximately $250 billion.
The value of volunteering cannot be understated. Volunteers provide invaluable support to individuals and communities; meeting needs that private organisations & government sectors simply cannot. Within the volunteering space, service organisations such as Rotary, Lions, Quota and Soroptimists deliver grassroots, focussed support in direct response to individual need. These organisations understand the requirements of local communities intimately because they are integrally involved in the community they serve. As a result, they are often best placed to identify need and provide immediate relief during times of crisis.
Despite the essential role they play in our community, service clubs are facing a multitude of challenges, not least of which is an ageing membership base. Service club membership numbers (both within Australia and globally) have also been on the decline for many years. For example, Rotary in Australia reports that 73% of its members are over the age of 70, with less than 900 members currently under the age of 40. If these membership challenges are not addressed shortly, the community support provided by these organisations will instead have to be met by government – an extra burden on the already stretched budgets of state and federal governments alike.
There are a number of ways governments could continue to support service organisations, in recognition of the invaluable service provided by members. As a starting point, I would personally advocate for the membership fees of recognised service clubs to be tax-deductible. Currently, as service clubs do not directly relate to an ordinary member’s assessable income, membership fees cannot be claimed as a deduction for ‘membership of a business or professional association’. Additionally, while these organisations hold DGR status (meaning they can receive tax-deductible donations), membership fees are viewed as providing a ‘benefit’ to members, and are not a donation – therefore, fees cannot be claimed on tax. In reality, membership fees are only the beginning of an individual’s involvement in a service organisation, and predominately only cover costs associated with insurance and room hire.
If the legislation were changed to allow service club membership fees to be tax-deductible, it would provide immediate relief to current members, as well as providing an additional incentive for much-needed new members to join (particularly young Australians). There are many ways service clubs could be further supported; however, this change would be a fitting and well-deserved gesture in recognition of the immense community service provided by these individuals and organisations.
In the immediate future, the Morrison Government and Minister for Families and Social Services Senator Anne Ruston have recently announced an additional $9 million in funding to local community groups and volunteer organisations, coinciding with National Volunteer Week this week (May 18 to 24). This is in addition to $100 million in funding delivered last month to more than 300 charities, with plans to inject an additional $100 million over the next six months in response to the current health crisis.
Volunteers embody the spirit of ‘Service Above Self’, which we should all seek to emulate, and National Volunteer Week provides a unique opportunity to thank and recognise all volunteers who selflessly serve our communities. This week also gives Australians the chance to consider volunteering themselves. Now more than ever, young volunteers are particularly needed, with services strained by elderly volunteers unable to participate due to the risk of COVID-19. If you are in a position to do so, consider volunteering with your local service club or community organisation. It is truly an enriching, life-changing experience.
Taylor Birtchnell is Secretary of the Young LNP.
The views and opinions expressed in article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Young Liberal Movement of Australia.