Volunteers working at food bank

National Volunteer Week: Contributions missing from the GDP model

18 May 2023
The Mental Wealth metric calls for GDP overhaul
It's National Volunteer Week and despite extensive contributions made by Australians, when it comes to volunteering, this value is not reflected in the current gross domestic product (GDP) model.

In a recent paper, published in Nature Mental Health, the Mental Wealth Initiative and its international collaborators expanded on previously published works calling for an overhaul of GDP to add a social production dimension. 

The social production dimension would include quantifying unpaid work such as volunteering and taking care of children. 

Incorporating the value of these contributions into the top-line national indicator of progress (GDP) can help governments prioritise policies that better contribute to their nation’s productivity, prosperity, unity, and resilience.
A/Professor Jo-An Occhipinti, Co-Director, Mental Wealth Initiative

Recent efforts to value social production in Australia revealed that the largest contributors are those generally undervalued in the formal economy; women, those 65 years and over, and the unemployed. Volunteer work was a large part of this social production. 

Collectively, contributions to Australia’s social prosperity were valued at $287.86bn, equating to 14% of Australia’s GDP in 2021. The report also suggests that the true value of social production is likely to be much higher than estimated, given data gaps that currently exist.

The paper and report make a strong case for measuring the value of economic and social contributions people make to national prosperity (Mental Wealth), and for designing policies to enhance those contributions equally. By doing so, the Mental Wealth Initiative argues, it can create a stronger and more resilient well-being economy that better provides for the needs of citizens.

Professor Ian Hickie and A/Professor Jo-An Occhipinti

Professor Ian Hickie and A/Professor Jo-An Occhipinti

The current economic paradigm that prioritizes GDP growth, neglects social and environmental factors critical to well-being. The Mental Wealth Initiative's call for valuing social production alongside economic production represents a shift towards a more balanced, sustainable economic model that benefits all.
Professor Ian Hickie, Co-Director, Brain and Mind Centre

The Mental Wealth Metric


The Mental Wealth Initiative created the metric measurement that expands GDP to make the invisible visible, by quantifying aspects of life that are not so easily measured but contribute to humanity’s prosperity. 

Activity categories that contribute to estimating the social contribution of individuals to the Mental Wealth of nations: 

  • Unpaid time spent participating in emergency services (for example, lifesaving and firefighting).
  • Volunteering at community festivals and cultural events.
  • Fundraising undertaken in aid of a charity.
  • Community gardening. 
  • Participation in healthcare delivery and free clinics.
  • Working in a soup kitchen; distributing food, medical or material goods.
  • Providing legal advice/providing counselling support.
  • Making clothes for disadvantaged populations. 
  • Unpaid time spent providing education.
  • Active supervision and domestic care for a child or children aged under 18 years including own children and children of friends, neighbours and extended family.
  • Unpaid teaching at a school; providing tutoring or homework assistance.
  • Passing on cultural knowledge, customs and traditions (a matter of special importance to Indigenous communities).
  • Unpaid babysitting. 
  • Unpaid domestic support for older people and people with illnesses or disabilities. 
  • Time spent providing a ‘crowd service’ where no direct or indirect (for example, advertising) income is received. 
  • Unpaid time spent performing and creating works of art, music, dance, storytelling and drama. 

Declaration: This work was undertaken under the Mental Wealth Initiative supported by seed funding and philanthropic gifts provided to the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney, and additionally supported by Computer Simulation & Advanced Research Technologies. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.