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Future of Volunteering under an ever-changing NDIS landscape?

Updated: Nov 8, 2023


If we look back in time, historically most not-for-profit Organizations supporting and providing services to people with disabilities in Australia had programs that were run/led by volunteers. Such Programs were developed, organised or run by full volunteer support and/or supplemented with the assistance of a very few paid staff. Yes, that's correct more volunteers versus paid staff. You may think were they successful in running and operationalising such programs? Yes, they were.


One such program I worked with was providing social support to people in need, particularly those from CALD backgrounds, those with disabilities and people who were aged. This was back in the year 2010 and we won multiple awards running it successfully. So, despite being run with the help of more volunteers than paid staff, we had huge success in terms of the outcomes we achieved for our clients. Even today such programs may exist but for the purpose of this article let's keep our focus on what changed since the coming of NDIS, especially the frontline service delivery.


Talking about volunteer programs - Surely there were reasons why such volunteering arrangements worked well in the pre-NIS era. One reason was there was a clear need for such a program to exist and this need had to do with the financial aspect of course. In those days the funding available from governments for such community service programs was limited and the block funding model prevalent at that time meant there were limited options and choices for the person with a disability and longer wait times for a person in need to access such support services. We had long waitlists.


But In those days, for Organisations and clients alike - volunteer-run programs not only made it possible and affordable to provide services to clients with little funding but also the best part about those models was the rich culture - friendships, and companionships, it was very different feeling that I liked so much about working with. Such a Volunteering culture as a whole contributed greatly to the positive outcomes for all including the clients, volunteers and other little-paid staff (if any) who managed such programs - by fostering relationship-building, friendships, and meaningful engagements.


Since NDIS started in the year 2016, it changed the entire disability sector. Surely more funding became available in fact 10 times more than compared to what it used to be. So this was a good change in terms of shorter or no wait times for clients to access support, more choice and control for clients to choose their own service providers etc.


This new NDIS funding model was referred to as an Insurance scheme. Clients were named as participants of the scheme and Organisations providing services were referred to as service providers.


Fundamentally, the main reason for the introduction of NDIS to Australians with a disability was to provide the much-needed choice and control with a view that People with disabilities will be given equal opportunity to integrate into the mainstream community with support - by funding made available through this scheme named NDIS and eventually as the scheme grows people with disability would have more opportunities to work and can contribute to the wider economy of Australia; at the same time reaping social and cultural benefits as a person without disability in the mainstream would do, in terms of the engagement by making friends, having workmates, doing meaningful activities in life what matters them the most. Hence, the concept was based on an insurance scheme model.


But this change pushed all Organisations including not-for-profit organisations to embrace the business-like approach for most services they provided to people with disabilities - who were eligible for the NDIS funding. It simply meant no more block funding and no more volunteer services but all services and activities to people with disabilities would be billed per hour and costs claimed from the NDIS plans of the clients (if they had got one); not sure where someone with a disability goes if they were denied the access to NDIS (which we are seeing very often nowadays in the year 2023 - later part of this blog explains the current day scenario) as Organisations were moving from the traditional block funding or volunteer-run program models to full fledge reliance on NDIS that means if you are a participant there is a service if not please find your own way.


Not saying that Organisations could not have had a mixed type of approach to providing services i.e. having some programs still continuing that were volunteer-based; however the former was a much more contemporary fit and an alignment to the future of disability services and during the transition phase most organisations probably were not prepared to the huge administrative change NDIS would have expected from an organisation so the entire focus was on to transition to this new scheme and all other concepts were at the back burner or completely disregarded. So this was the year 2014.


Ongoing from the Year 2016 and onwards NDIS promised an improvement in funding availability; in fact, enormous funding in general was made available from NDIS based on needs assessment - to every eligible person with a disability as a participant of the scheme. This led to many new businesses flourishing and the market started seeing a rise in new startups, for-profit businesses, sole trader businesses etc.


Certainly, this shift of focus on consumer-directed care meant NDIS service providers can now claim for every service, provided to participants of the scheme. Definitely, the NDIS reforms aimed at fixing many fundamental elements in society as discussed earlier. Also, the change meant shifting the balance to the clients and as service providers, whether they are non-for-profits, for-profits or charities can now offer more services with no waiting periods for clients, and puts the client at the centre of decision-making to direct their care and services as long as it is reasonable and necessary.


Fast forward to date, since the full rollout of NDIS in the Year 2016; the scheme is still evolving. Changes are constant due to the unprecedented issues the scheme has stumbled upon. Minor reforms are a norm with NDIS. So far, in its 6th year of running, major reforms are anticipated, due to many reasons such as the governments receiving feedback on what's working and what's not - inputs from the Disability Royal Commission, and other peak bodies are constant, and a plethora of new changes are expected to come to the scheme - to a point that there is consideration given to change the very fundamental principles of the scheme and focussing more on the community-led programs, mainstream services, etc.

As the scheme is struggling to perform due to a number of internal and external issues, the process and policy change are obvious and critical in future.


So having said all of the above, where do we stand? Is Volunteering a lost concept?


The below piece of this article that I wrote in the year 2017 gives me a sense of direction today -

I often ponder on these changes that NDIS brought along and have led to making all Organisations realign their objectives and strategies; to be operating as a business, and the future of disability services.


Considering that the scheme undoubtedly provides an advantage of readily available funding for both participants of the scheme and the Organisations providing support, an important question that one may ask is – What will happen to front-line Volunteer support models in the NDIS era? Or do they even exist today? Are the Organisations particularly those providing disability services, completely forfeiting the volunteering model for front-line service delivery with a view that it is less likely to fit in this new model or is it not required at all anymore?


Most of us who volunteered in the sector are aware of the rich engagement and the connection the volunteering model brings along with it, making great life experiences, kinships and stories.


Undeniably, we may still be volunteering to some extent at some levels in our work, however, is it not true - that the Australian disability sector has shifted to a business model overall, especially for new professionals coming, there may be little to no concept of volunteering.


Some food for the brain -

  • Will it be a slowdown or complete disappearance of a rich volunteering culture in the Australian disability sector for front-line service delivery?

  • Are the Organisations still keen to support people with Disability with the help of volunteers in conjunction with paid staff?

or

  • Are the participants still encouraged to use any volunteer or community services available, if so, how prepared are the participants to use volunteers since they now have funds in their NDIS plans and can pay for the support services?

  • If so, what steps are taken by the governments, to nurture Volunteering in the Disability sector at all?

  • What if there is a slowdown in NDIS funding due to some unpredictable changes in Australian politics, - do we plan to revert to traditional models and volunteering again?

Announcements made by Mr Bill Shorten at the start of this year 2023, outlined 6 priorities for the scheme, which are as follows –

  1. Increasing staffing within NDIA offices to better handle the scheme.

  2. Planning of scheme that is more focused on long-term solutions than short-term focus.

  3. Rising costs and how to address them.

  4. Fixing the Supported Independent Living model.

  5. Eliminating unethical practices.

  6. Increasing mainstream and community support.

So, as we foresee a plethora of changes coming within NDIS, time will tell how these changes will shape the landscape for support services within the disability sector.


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