Charities veteran has great advice for good causes wanting to step up

Posted on 05 Sep 2023

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Sarah Davies with Walter pic
Alannah and Madeline Foundation CEO Sarah Davies, with a picture of Walter Mikac and daughters Alannah and Madeline who the organisation was founded in honour of.

As new chair of the recently revamped Australian Charities and not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) Advisory Board, charities veteran Sarah Davies isn’t afraid of offering an opinion on challenges facing the sector.

Alannah and Madeline Foundation CEO Sarah Davies was destined for a career in the charity and not-for-profit sector.

Even from a very young age, the former head of Philanthropy Australia has been imbued with a strong sense of social justice.

It’s a formational trait she attributes to her family upbringing, particularly her father’s influence.

“I was a bit of a ratbag kid and always saying ‘This is not fair, that’s not fair,” said Ms Davies.

“My father’s response was ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’

“My whole life I’ve had this sense of agency that if I think something’s not fair, I’d ask myself am I going to accept it, and walk past it, or am I going to have a crack at changing it?”

That lifelong drive to influence change for the better was granted another outlet recently when Ms Davies was announced as chair of a revamped Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) Advisory Board.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Community Advocate to mark the appointment, Ms Davies said:

  • despite a decline in the number of people donating to charity, Australia was “a very generous country” by overseas standards.
  • agreed the recently reported issues around falling donations and surging demand for services at Beyond Blue are a ‘canary in the coalmine’ for the rest of the sector experiencing similar pressure.
  • incentivising Australians to donate to charitable causes amid an historic transfer of intergenerational wealth will be crucial for the sector to succeed in the years ahead.
  • described the Pareto Phone cyber hack which has seen the details of more than 50,000 charity donors released on the dark web as a wake-up call to the sector to get their digital security house in order.
  • the sector fought long and hard to get a single national regulator in the form of the ACNC, which has proved to be a ‘gamechanger.’

Ms Davies admitted she was a “massive fan” of the charities regulator and said she looked forward to working more closely with her fellow Advisory Board members and Commissioner Sue Woodward.

“There’s a lot to do, but the ACNC are the right people to do it and they need to be resourced and skilled to do it, because the better and clearer and stronger they are, the better and clearer and stronger the sector will be.”

Ms Davies said she will be interested to hear from the Commissioner on what she sees as the Advisory Board’s role.

“Because it is a very particular role defined in the Act. It is an Advisory Board. The Commissioner reports to the minister; we are there to provide advice and support around the objects of the ACNC,” said Ms Davies.

“So, there’s an element of really needing clarity about what is our role and purpose, because there will inevitably be issues that come up that as the CEO of a charity or a nonprofit, we might want to take a particular position on or think about that actually isn’t appropriate for our role as an ACNC Advisory Board member.”

“It’s a long game and you can’t fix everything now, even though you may really, really want to."

As chair, Ms Davies said she saw her own role as a guiding hand, ensuring people felt comfortable to share diverse opinions aimed at solving often complex problems.

“Nothing good comes out of complex challenges unless you can wrestle in the grey for a while.

“So, [my role is] making sure that we have the language, the confidence, the respect and the time to wrestle with some of the thorny issues that are inevitably going to come up because this stuff matters and it’s difficult.”

Ms Davies said it was also important to hear from the Commissioner and her team on what their priorities are.

“So, for the next 12–18 months what are their ‘big rocks’? What do they really want to work through and what are they looking for from us to do? How we can help?”

Sarah Davies poster wall

Playing the long game

Ms Davies said decades in the sector had taught her that it’s not possible to solve problems overnight.

“It’s a long game and you can’t fix everything now, even though you may really, really want to.

“You’ve got to have the courage and the resilience sometimes to bite your tongue and bide your time and wait for the environment to be conducive.

“For me, it was a really tough lesson to learn.”

Ms Davies said one of the things she loves about her role as CEO of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation is that it allows her to work across all levels of the sector.

“We do the direct service provision, we do the direct need, we do the individual capability and the community capacity building, but we also work in those areas at policy and system change,” she said.

“It feels like five seconds, but I’ve been here two and a half years. Not long enough! And the people here are just exhilarating. They are so good.”

Delicate dance

When asked what specific challenges she thought the sector was facing, Ms Davies used a nightclub analogy.

“It depends at what level you think about them. Do you think about them on the balcony [(strategic] or on the dance floor [at the coalface]?,” she said.

“I think there are challenges around the ongoing increase in demand [for services] because it is just so hard to keep up and be confident that you can meet that demand.

“I think we are [also] facing some chill winds in the economic environment from a giving perspective.”

She said many of her colleagues in the sector agreed that money was tight.

“For an organisation like ours [Alannah and Madeline Foundation] that relies 80 or 90 per cent every year on annual fundraising, that’s pretty scary when you’re a $15 million operation.”

Ms Davies said covid was still casting a long shadow on people’s sense of resilience and disrupting the natural development cycle of children and adolescents.

“That’s going to play out for a whole generation, and I think we don’t really understand that.”

She cited harrowing statistics contained in the recently released Australian Child Maltreatment Study which revealed up to 60 per cent of Australians had experienced sexual, physical, or emotional harm.

She said the report’s findings were like a slap in the face.

“We knew it was there and we knew it was significant and we feel that it’s growing because our demand is constantly growing, but to have it actually laid out that starkly was terrifying,” said Ms Davies.

“So, if you talk about those immediate dance floor challenges, this is crashing around us now.”

The view from the balcony

From a strategic or “balcony” perspective, Ms Davies said one of the biggest hurdles for the sector was that the gaps it is trying to fill are created by mainstream market or system failure.

“That means we’re working in between,” she said.

“We’re working in the cold spots, we’re working in the shadows, we’re working in the gaps, and that is a complex place to be and where those mainstream markets or mainstream systems either just don’t sit, don’t see people or ignore them.”

She said finding a way to ensure that the dance floor and balcony challenges intersected and engaged with stakeholders outside the sector, while still managing to deliver value and impact in a financially viable way, was highly complex.

“One of the reasons that I’m a big fan of the ACNC is that I think sunlight is the best disinfectant,” she said.

“I think that as a community nonprofit charity organisation, our obligations are to be transparent and accountable to the community, to our partners, to our beneficiaries, to our funders, to everybody – that’s who we serve.

“So, having the ACNC then as the scaffolding that allows us to do that in a way that is fit for purpose, that is not onerous but is consistent and clear and builds that transparency and accountability, I think is terrific.”

"I really believe that the community sector is the lifeblood of our society.”

Cyber crime

Ms Davies said the recent cyber security breach at Pareto Phone, which saw the personal details of more than 50,000 charity donors released onto the dark web, should act as a wake-up call for all charities and NFPs.

“When we think about which sector in Australia holds the most data on the most vulnerable people, it’s us.”

Ms Davies said while the federal government had announced support for small business to fight cyber crime, the not-for-profit sector needed to stand up for itself and demand the same level of assistance.

“We need resources to protect that data. There are malevolent actors out there and we’re not going to beat them at their own game on our own. We need help. We need resources to do this.”

Beyond Blue

Ms Davies commended the courage of Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman in recently going public to talk about the fall in donations coupled with surging demand for services being faced by the mental health charity.

“Hats off to Georgie for calling it and for having the courage to come out and say that, because I think that’s what everybody’s experiencing, without doubt.

“She’s kind of taken one on the chin for all of us in doing that. And she’s right. I think economically it’s looking pretty tough at the moment for the sector.”

Changing lives for the better

While there were plenty of challenges for the sector, Ms Davies said there was also much to celebrate.

“Fundamentally, every single day, we are making somebody’s life better.

“Fifty per cent of the nonprofits registered with the ACNC don’t employ any staff. They are people who get up every morning and want to participate in life and create that joy and vitality for the people and the environment around them.

“That is exhilarating. I really believe that the community sector is the lifeblood of our society.”

Sarah Davies Allanah and Madeline workers 2
Sarah Davies and colleagues at the Alannah and Madeline Foundation office in South Melbourne.

With challenges also come opportunities

While much has been said and written about declining levels of giving, Ms Davies said by international standards Australians were very generous.

“Yes, we have seen a decline over the past eight–10 years in the number of people giving money, and yes, we are seeing a decline in traditional volunteering patterns,” she said.

“There are other yardsticks though. The amount that people are giving is actually increasing and I think that there are opportunities to help people give in ways that are more meaningful and joyful for them.”

Tapping into the historically high transfer of intergenerational wealth the nation is undergoing was one such opportunity that has enormous potential, she said.

“I do think there is an opportunity to significantly grow philanthropy,” said Ms Davies, who acknowledged that the Productivity Commission inquiry into philanthropy is looking for ways to achieve this.

“So, whilst Australia generally is a very generous country, the evidence has shown that over a number of years now, that our high net wealth community is not as generous as its peers overseas.

“Now there’s an opportunity to step up.”

Ms Davies said more thought could be given to incentivising bequest giving.

“We know that the intergenerational transfer of wealth in this country, which is already underway, is staggering.

“If we could set some of that free, that would be phenomenal.”

Time for the sector to step up

Ms Davies said it is more important now than ever to find a way for people to see the true collective worth and importance of the not-for-profit sector.

“Because I think if people understood that, if they understood that as a sector, we’re about 8 per cent of GDP, we employ 11 per cent of working Australians, we have $240 billion worth of assets and are pumping away and working on the various elements of positive change we are focused on, I think that would shift a mindset and I think that would then influence giving levels, participation levels, volunteering, and it would certainly influence our elected representatives to not forget that we’re there.

“If we could get everybody to see the breadth and depth of what’s going on, the understanding would create an attitude change, the attitude change would create behaviour change, we’d get stronger participation, stronger community engagement…we’d all be better off.”

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