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5 min read

The Cane Toad Effect

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I once was asked to speak at a conference on the topic of ‘Navigating the Brave New World’ of volunteerism.

In the room were a number of volunteer management professionals, Volunteer Centre personnel, volunteers and of course the obligatory elected members who enjoy being seen at such occasions.

I addressed these groups individually and suggested ways that each might learn from lessons of the past and focus on new strategies to ‘navigate’ the future.

When it came time to address the politicians in the room, I projected a photo of a big, fat and ugly cane toad – and explained that this offered the very best analogy I could think of to explain how governments, at all levels, too often tackle issues related to volunteering.

Yes – I did take my life into my own hands!!!

Overview of the Australia Cane Toad Problem

For those readers from overseas, let me give you a brief overview of the cane toad problem here in Australia.

In the 1930’s cane farmers throughout far north Queensland were faced with the problem of how to rid themselves of the cane beetle – a native bug that was destroying the cane crops so vital to that part of the country.

It was decided that the cane toad, a species native to both Central and South America, was the solution. With that, just over 100 toads were released in 1935 by the Queensland government of the day.

The cane toads bred prolifically and spread quickly across Queensland – and then New South Wales, the Northern Territory and now even Western Australia! In fact they breed so well that the it is estimated that they now number around 200 million!!!

While the introduction of the cane toad seemed like a good, quick and easy fix to the cane beetle problem, no one gave much thought to what the longer term effects may be. Today, Australia has a much larger environmental issue to deal with as we try everything to eradicate what was meant to be a quick and easy solution.

And there’s an even more disturbing point to this story.

Not only are there millions of cane toads across Australia, but these creatures excrete a toxic poison from glands located on the top of their head. This has proven fatal to so much of Australia’s wildlife with many snakes, lizards and other native and domestic fauna proving susceptible to this pest. In some instances, native species are simply being pushed to the point of extinction.

And finally – here’s the real kicker.

There is NO evidence that the cane toad had any effect on the cane beetle – the reason it was introduced in the first place!!!

Volunteering Sector seen as a 'Soft Target'

OK, so how does this all fit in with the politicians that were in the room that day?

Quite simple.

I believe when it comes to making decisions about volunteering and the voluntary sector, we are all too often seen as a ‘soft target’. We appear to be a part of society that ministers, bureaucrats, CEO’s and other (often ill informed) decision makers make ‘quick fix’ decisions about, without ever giving adequate thought to the longer term and often unintended impacts of those decisions.

Example 1:

Here’s one quick example. Let’s look at the current Australian federal government push to again re-vamp the ‘work-for-the-dole’ (WFTD) scheme here in Australia.

While many of us (myself included), don’t consider WFTD recipients to be volunteers in the strict sense of the word, the government, in introducing this scheme, simply announce that work for welfare recipients will be able to find a role in not for profit charities.


It’s a quick solution. We are an easy target.

But what might be the longer-term problems with this?

  • Has anyone in the government asked the not for profit sector if they actually need a huge influx of these so called ‘volunteers’?
  • Even if the answer was ‘yes’, has anyone considered what extra resources volunteering agencies might need to deal with these many new applicants?
  • Are volunteer agencies being offered additional resources (physical or monetary)?
  • How might the introduction of WFTD recipients, working alongside existing long-term volunteers, affect workplace culture?
  • Does the introduction of this WFTD group, with their associated reporting requirements, draw volunteer managers away from focusing on the core mission of the agency?
  • As a result, do volunteer programs become pseudo placement agencies for government?

And I could go on.

It’s a short-term fix that may indeed have long-term ramifications for volunteering – and I hope you get the point

Example 2:

Twenty years ago there was not a hospital in this country that did not have a ladies auxiliary. But through the late 80’s and the 90’s, risk averse decision makers (most who have never volunteered a day in their lives) decided that the way auxiliaries had self-managed for so many years was no longer good enough and posed some sort of incredible risk.


There was suddenly a raft of requirements expected of these groups including policy development and police checks. They were not even allowed to make cakes for the trading table any longer unless they were operating in certified kitchens and maintaining labeling regimes akin to commercial enterprises.

And in the end it all got too hard.

What seemed a sensible, quick fix solution to ensure hospitals were not being put at risk – has had a long term consequence of me today being able to count on just one hand the number of hospitals in Australia that still have a healthy functioning auxiliary group.

Corporate Creep

And finally, there is another way that this ‘cane toad creep’ continues to move into space traditionally operated by volunteer groups. Its what could best be referred to as ‘corporate creep’ – the act where these very same government decision makers are giving away social enterprise opportunities that have traditionally been operated by volunteer groups to large corporate multi-national companies. Hospital and museum cafes and gift shops are good examples of this.

Believe it or not I first wrote about this topic a decade ago and sadly my thoughts from that time have proven to be prophetic. In fact I have recently fallen victim to this myself, and understand how painful an experience it can be.

So, that’s why I think politicians are a little like cane toads! This incessant need to find a quick solution before giving due thought to what the long-term impacts for volunteering may be. And like the cane toad, sometimes the effects are completely irretrievable.


As a final point, after I delivered my address at that AGM I continued to think about this topic, and I realised I was being a little unfair to simply target politicians with this amphibian analogy.

I realised that many of us who directly lead volunteer programs are also guilty of taking the cane toad route of problem solving. Moving problem volunteers sideways instead or dealing with the root cause is just one simple example.

So let’s all take some responsibility for making well-informed decisions that have the least amount of fallout possible. We won’t always get it right, but by thinking through all the possible ramifications in our decision making, hopefully we get it right more often than we get it wrong!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this on the comments section below.

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