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Vertical village “volunteers”

Dr Janette Corcoran

Australia is a nation of volunteers and in 2020, Volunteering Victoria claims that 42.1 per cent of Victorians aged over 15 volunteered in our state. 

But volunteering is a term often used loosely – so it is useful to know what counts. 

According to Volunteering Australia, volunteering is defined as “time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain”. It involves an offer of something that is not required nor is an obligation.

Volunteering can be formal, where assistance is given to a not-for-profit or other “for-good” organisation, or it can be informal, where there is no association with another entity, but actions still contribute to a community’s common good. 

The ascribed motivations for volunteering are many, including supporting communities in crisis (such as after fires), supporting a cause (such as adult literacy), growing one’s own social connections (meeting new people with similar values) and personal development (such as gaining confidence). 

And all these motivations can be seen in the different instances of volunteering in our vertical villages. In particular, COVID-19 saw many building-based groups come to life. Informal volunteering in the form of offers of dog walking, trips to shops and even home cooked meal drop-offs all took place within our vertical villages.  

But a note of caution has been sounded about some types of volunteering. For instance, offers by volunteers to “fix” common property (such as that annoying leak) can have far reaching insurance implications. And if injury occurs during or due to this work, then Pandora’s Box opens. 

There is, of course, another group of volunteers that feature in residential strata – namely, the owners’ corporation (OC). 

As most of us well know, an owners’ corporation is automatically created when a plan of subdivision containing common property is registered at Land Use Victoria. The resultant owners’ corporation is responsible for managing this common property. And, as stated by Consumer Affairs Victoria, if an owners’ corporation has 13 or more lots, a committee must be elected at each annual general meeting. For us high risers, this means that our vertical villages all have OC committees which have specific regulatory responsibilities related to managing common property. 

This raises an interesting point about the notion of our “volunteer” OC committees.  

Indeed, according to the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), the more formalised the volunteer arrangement, the greater the possibility that the role is not one of volunteer. One key characteristic of genuine volunteering identified by FWO is that the arrangement include that the volunteer is under no obligation to perform work.  

Is this the case with our OC committees? 

Our regulations require the existence of an owners’ corporation committee and tasks this group with specific responsibilities. Added to this is the question whether it can be said that these activities are undertaken are for “selfless purposes” or for “furthering a particular belief in the not-for-profit sector”? 

Indeed, is there mention of “volunteer committees” in our OC regulations? 

You may now be asking what is the point of raising this issue? And does it matter whether or not the OC committee are volunteers or have another legal status?

My opinion is that for such an important group – one that holds responsibility for managing common property worth many millions – clarity about the OC committee’s status is a needed starting point for the development of our high-rise residential sector •

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