NFP peak says it’s time for leaders to take charge

Posted on 07 Feb 2024

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Protest Melbourne i Stock 523564597
Australia's not-for-profit leaders believe 2024 should be the year that organisations take determined action.

Australia’s not-for-profit peak body, the Community Council for Australia (CCA), says the sector can succeed in winning long overdue reforms and significant investment if leaders take a “determined collective” approach.

It’s a view that aims to reset political expectations for the sector in 2024.

CCA chief executive David Crosbie, in a commentary about the trends NFP need to know about, said he wanted organisations to use the opportunity to “assert our value”.

David Crosbie
CCA chief David Crosbie

He said the current political reality for Australia’s for-purpose community was that the public and politicians do not “genuinely value and invest in the capacity of charities and community groups that are working at the heart of our communities”.

He said organisations faced a mix of challenges including the climate emergency, the rising cost of living, growing demand for services, tight funding, coping with regulatory reforms and meeting high expectations about data privacy and cross-sector partnerships.

He said for these things to happen, governments must “make real investments and deliver the promised reforms”.

Mr Crosbie believed this would require strong advocacy by the sector’s leaders.

“The trend I want to see broken is the one where charities go quietly. All too often charities and community organisations gratefully accept breadcrumbs, don’t rock the boat, and fail to assert their value.

“I want to see more charities bring their leadership to a determined collective – like the leaders and leading charities I am fortunate enough to work with at CCA – to stand up for our sector’s value and the need to genuinely invest in its future and capacity.

“If we are not prepared to support advocacy for our sector now, when will be the right time? And if we are not investing in our own sector, why would we expect others to?’

Read more: It’s time for community leaders to rock the boat

Mr Crosbie’s comments come amid one of the most cooperative political and regulatory environments the sector has faced for several years, one that features a charities minister, Andrew Leigh, who professes to liking the sector and its leaders and who co-wrote Reconnected: A community builder’s handbook shortly before taking office.

One of his first acts as minister was to remove the unpopular Gary Johns as the sector’s top regulator. Johns’ tenure was marked by campaigns aimed at crimping the role of charities. His replacement, Sue Woodward, in contrast was widely praised by the sector, in part because of expectations she would continue her push for fundraising reform in office.

Sector reforms, reviews loom large in 2024

Andrew Leigh
Charities Minister Andrew Leigh

Fundraising reforms are among several substantial areas of work Mr Leigh nominated as priorities for the sector in 2024, alongside:

Final submissions to the philanthropy inquiry close on February 9, with a final report expected by June 2025. Hundreds of submissions have already been lodged.

“As part of our election commitment to put Australia on a path to double giving, the Government has asked the Productivity Commission to tell us how we could make it easier for Australians to give with confidence and trust to the causes they support,” said Mr Leigh.

“This is the most wide-ranging and comprehensive review of philanthropy since modern charity law was created.”

Already the inquiry had produced interim recommendations, and the government would be “listening closely to the commentary from charities, donors and volunteers”.

The minister expected the sector would be keenly interested in the Not-for-profit Sector Blueprint and its role in strengthening the capacity and capability of charities.

He said that project would bring together sector representatives and experts “to ensure Australia’s non-profit sector reaches its potential” and would examine leadership and staff development, sustainable funding, cyber security, outcomes measurement and social finance.

Reforms to improve the transparency of the activities of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) would also benefit the sector, by increasing the ability of the regulator to disclose allegations of misconduct.

“The risk of the current laws is that if the regulator is muzzled from speaking out under any circumstances, it undermines trust and confidence in the sector,” Mr Leigh said.

“To support the ACNC’s work in 2024 the Government will be commencing reform of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act 2012 to allow the charities commission to disclose whether it is investigating alleged misconduct by a charity, subject to a safeguard of a public harm test.”

The Commissioner already has a greater ability to comment on investigations, following law changes late last year.

Mr Leigh expected the reform would increase confidence in the sector by increasing the visibility of the regulator pursuing allegations, with the changes bringing the ACNC into line with regulators in other sectors, and with charity regulators in other countries.

Fundraising reform would also be an important ongoing task, he said.

We’re continuing to work with the state and territory governments to harmonise charitable fundraising laws. In 2023, treasurers agreed to a set of nationally consistent fundraising principles to give charities and donors a clear understanding of appropriate conduct. This includes things like always explaining the purpose of the charity, record keeping, privacy obligations and agreed times for door-to-door and telephone fundraising activities.

“The states and territories are now in the process of embedding those principles in legislation and we can expect to see progress on these important reforms in 2024.”

Sue Woodward
ACNC Commissioner Sue Woodard

The ACNC’s Commissioner Sue Woodward said fundraising was “vital to the survival of most charities and not-for-profit organisations”.

“It’s competitive out there, and I acknowledge the hard work that goes into doing it well. For me, this makes it even more important that government red tape doesn’t get in the way.”

“Having helped champion this law reform over many years before I became ACNC commissioner, I am honestly relieved and excited for the implementation of this reform in 2024.”

She said the national fundraising principles agreed by federal, state and territory governments this time last year would help create “a clear understanding of appropriate and ethical conduct”.

Regulators in some states were already “well advanced” in consultations and drafting changes to their regulations, and the ACNC would keep pushing to reduce the administrative burden on the sector.

Ms Woodward said the ACNC would also continue to promote good governance in the sector as a 2024 priority, including helping directors and organisation leaders to understand their obligations and how to meet them.

“To this end, we will continue to take part in a broad range of sector forums, and work with Our Community and others such as peak bodies, to boost understanding and awareness of our role and to listen to issues organisations face so we know how to best help with guidance, practical tools and templates.”

She said there were several obligations and duties the ACNC expected to focus on during the year, including managing conflicts of interest and disputes between board members.

Ms Woodward said the regulator would also be taking a close interest in the Productivity Commission inquiry and helping organisations address the sector cybersecurity threat.

Difficult climate persists for NFPs

Susan Pascoe
ICDA Community Directors Council chair Susan Pascoe

The chair of ICDA’s Community Directors Council, Susan Pascoe, is familiar with the workings of the ACNC, having served as commissioner from 2011 to 2017.

Now guiding the agenda of ICDA’s high-level advisory body, Ms Pascoe said that in 2024 she expected leaders in the for-purpose and community sectors would find a way to “step up and do good for others”.

But this mission for good faced challenges on many fronts.

On the political front, Ms Pascoe nominated the tragic impact of wars in Ukraine, Gaza, and Sudan, and the worrying global trend of attempts to silence critical media.

Economically, she said, there was a “continuing need for charities to offer direct material assistance for growing numbers of Australians due to cost-of-living pressures”, while the increase in homelessness meant interventions would be needed by both governments and charities.

Socially, the challenges facing NFPs included “diminishing levels of civility ranging from the polarising and dehumanising language used in political discourse, to the growing need to constantly remind people to be respectful to one another,” she said, along with “the threat of contagion from the polarising US elections where there is an undermining of electoral, civil, political and judicial institution and processes.”

On the technology front, Ms Pascoe nominated artificial intelligence as a significant field challenging the work of community organisations. She said organisations would need to find ways to “bridge the digital divide, whether is it large NFP hospitals needing electronic medical records, or small entities ensuring their capacity to function in the forthcoming cashless society.”

Legal issues important to the sector, Ms Pascoe suggested, could be addressed through “the perennial need for governance training and advice as new people take on board roles, and some assume leadership roles, underscoring the need for professional support provided by Our Community”.

Environmentally, Ms Pascoe said community organisations would face issues as a result of “the accelerating impact of climate change, including global warming and extreme weather events, and the differential impact on the world’s poorest”.

She said the environmental challenge would be “exacerbated by the seemingly intractable difficulty of getting many individuals to change their behaviours, and governments to change their policies and practices in a timely manner.”

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