NFP news blog: Latest developments in the sector

Posted on 13 Dec 2022

By Staff writers

Media stock

Stay in touch with news and information on the politics affecting the community sector.

Update: December 14, 2022

Minister offers more co-operation with the sector

Minister in charge of charities Andrew Leigh has flagged a new approach from the sector’s regulator, as new commissioner Sue Woodward takes the helm of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

Speaking to ABC Canberra recently, Mr Leigh said now that former commissioner Gary Johns – known as a strident critic of the sector– had left the service, he hoped to see the ACNC “work constructively … to see more charities and not-for-profits springing up”.

He said he believed the regulator had a role to play in arresting the worrying trend of “declining community engagement in Australia. Fewer people volunteering, fewer people joining, fewer people participating. I'm really worried about those social trends, and I think the charity and not-for-profit sector is at the heart of turning them around and creating a reconnected Australia.

“But it can only do that if it's working effectively and collaboratively with the community sector, providing them opportunities for partnerships with one another and with government.”

He said while he did not want to see the regulator be “the chief booster for the sector”, it should be involved in collaborating and solving some of the burdens facing charities and not-for-profits.

Advocates seek help with fundraising

Community sector advocates have used the recent Giving Tuesday event, November 29, to call for reforms to Australia’s messy fundraising regulations.

The Community Council for Australia (CCA) this year called on Australian politicians, businesses, philanthropists, communities and charities “to support Giving Tuesday in recognition of the positive difference our volunteers, staff, supporters and advocates make within our communities”.

The CCA chair, the Reverend Tim Costello, whose organisation is also a member of the Fix Fundraising coalition, said his biggest wish was for reduced red tape.

“This could be easily achieved with one agreed set of fundraising requirements for all Australian charities rather than the current overlapping yet entirely separate levels of time-consuming administration,” he said.

Our Community, through its fundraising platform GiveNow, has seeded interest in Giving Tuesday nationally in the past few years, and provides fundraising resources on a dedicated website. Globally, the event raises billions of dollars each year across 85 countries.

Organisations warned to watch for Christmas grinches

The charity regulator has urged caution with Christmas and end-of-year donations, amid a spate of fakes and data hacks.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) said hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost each year to charity fakes, and suggested donors use its charity register to check groups were bona fide.

Our Community’s affordable GiveNow donations platform verifies all causes before listing them, to protect donors and recipients against fraud.

Update: November 23, 2022

Sector hails new charities chief

The community sector has reacted with glee to the appointment of a self-confessed not-for-profit “nerd” to head the national charities regulator.

Prominent not-for-profit lawyer Sue Woodward AM has been appointed to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission for a five-year term from December 12, 2022.

Tellingly, her Twitter handle is @nfp_nerd.

Ms Woodward will succeed acting commissioner Deborah Jenkins, who held the fort after the resignation of Gary Johns.

Mr Johns’ appointment by the Coalition government caused uproar, given his history as a strident charities critic, while his moves to stymie advocacy efforts by activist groups during his tenure also proved divisive.

Charities minister Andrew Leigh had promised before the federal election to “end the war with charities”, and the appointment appeared designed to soothe the sector.

Read more

Update: November 17, 2022

Here's our quick snapshot of how federal funds will flow

Our Community’s Funding Centre, which hosts Australia’s most comprehensive grants search database, has summarised new federal budget spending which may flow to canny not-for-profits.

The spending reflects the new Albanese Government’s priorities in NDIS-related activities, aged care, local government, working with First Nations and CALD groups, rural and regional areas, sports, community development, climate action and schools.

The government has earmarked $560 million for community services over four years, and the Funding Centre will update subscribers with tailored updates as details are announced.

Read more of the Funding Centre summary now.

Study shows too few NFPs are ready for cyberthreats

A national survey reveals 54% of not-for-profits have no staff training in cybersecurity and 45% don't have a response plan in case of breaches.

Infoxchange's annual Digital Technology in the Not-for-Profit Sector study surveyed more than 600 not-for-profits across Australia and New Zealand.

Infoxchange CEO David Spriggs said the sector should make data protection a top priority in the wake of recent cyber attacks, and said groups could take simple steps to protect their systems.

Now in its seventh year, the report is available here.

Update: October 20, 2022

Volunteer, charities strategies take shape

In the wake of the fall in volunteering and continuing financial hits from the pandemic, economic conditions and long-term trends, the community sector is fighting back. The foremost thinkers in the field have analysed the state of play and are proposing strategies to redress a raft of issues.

Charities Minister Andrew Leigh, responding to the fifth report in the Partners in Recovery research series by the Centre for Social Impact (CSI), said his national tour of town hall meetings had revealed “a huge challenge of getting volunteers”. Partners in Recovery is the latest in a string of studies, including our own research, that highlight the impact of Covid-19 and other challenges on the sector.

Mr Leigh said his reading of the study highlighted the fact that the most “financially fragile” groups – identified in the report as aged care and income support charities – were also the ones that had suffered the most from a slump in volunteers.

“In that sense they’re being hit by the double whammy of having fewer people working with them and fewer dollars in the bank,” he told sector leaders last month.

The CSI report highlighted a divide between charities that were performing better than expected and those struggling to make ends meet.

It urged the government to fully fund charity work, simplify fundraising and philanthropy, engage charities in policy, better evaluate sector impact and ease the demand on charities by investing more in JobSeeker and early intervention services.

On Monday, leaders of the National Strategy for Volunteering released two new reports addressing the slump in volunteers from the perspective of both volunteers and their organisations. The reports follow in-depth surveys and papers, with leading academics commenting on their findings.

The national strategy will address issues such as the “great resignation” of volunteers, corporate volunteering, leadership development, issues at the grassroots level, participation across different cultural and ethnic groups, the volunteer experience and emergency response volunteering.

According to Volunteering Australia, formal volunteering has slumped from 36% in 2010 to just 24% last year, and 83% of organisations need more volunteers.

“The research reveals that more is needed to help volunteering recover from the impact of Covid-19 and to reverse the long-term decline,” Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce said.

But grounds for optimism included the chance to get more first timers involved, and changes to support the return of past volunteers, he said.

Mr Pearce said the new national strategy would “provide the roadmap”, and was expected to be released in February next year.

In the meantime, here’s a help sheet that lists practical steps for boosting your volunteer base.

Charity register recognition grows

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) says its Charity Register, which uses Our Community’s social sector classification system CLASSIE, continues to grow in importance.

Acting Commissioner Deborah Jenkins said in her latest sector update that the register had been searched five million times so far this year.

The register was upgraded earlier this year with the CLASSIE taxonomy, which is also used on Our Community’s SmartyGrants platform, to allow people to search by activity type, location, who each charity helps, and registration status.

Ms Jenkins said she had attended some of the recent “Building Community” town hall meetings hosted by the Assistant Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, in which “participants had observed that it would be wonderful if there was a register where they could look up all the registered charities in their area or who focused on a particular issue”.

“I was pleased to tell them that there is,” she said.

She said the register’s search functions “allow philanthropists, donors, grantmakers and volunteers to look up charity programs close to their heart, in their local area or a preferred location, anywhere in Australia.”

Ms Jenkins’ temporary tenure ends this month, although a new commissioner is yet to be announced.

Tax office deadlines you should know

Some not-for-profit directors will need to add a couple of items to the agenda this month, with deadlines fast approaching to meet Australian Tax Office rules.

About 15,000 NFPs will need to have applied for director IDs by the November 30, including groups structured as companies or Indigenous corporations, bodies registered with ASIC, and corporate trustees.

Most small not-for-profits will be exempt.

Separately, groups wanting to retain deductible gift recipient (DGR) status can apply for extra time to register as a charity.

New tax rules mean only registered charities can allow donors to claim a tax deduction on donations. There are 11 not-for-profit categories set to lose the benefit if they don’t register as charities by December.

The ATO says eligible NFPs have until December 14 to apply for a three-year extension while they seek to meet the new requirements.

Our Community has previously argued that all NFPs should be eligible to receive tax deductible donations.

Update: September 15, 2022

Charities Minister pledges to do more to build communities

Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh has been on a listening tour of the country to consider how the new Albanese government can “strengthen the sector”.

So far, the minister has held town hall “Building Community” forums in almost every capital of Australia. A forum is set for Darwin early next month, while regional areas are next.

Mr Leigh said in his most recent newsletter that the aim of the meetings was to “outline some of the troubling trends in civic disengagement, and to make clear that charities now have a federal government that’s on their side”.

He said the past “war on charities is over” and the government now has a goal to “double philanthropy by 2030” and to “harmonise” the existing mess of fundraising laws.

That stance appears consistent with the Minister’s attendance at a “charities roundtable” held a day before the national Jobs and Skills Summit.

The Community Council for Australia (CCA), which chaired the meeting of 70 sector leaders, described the gathering as a “full and frank discussion” of key challenges. Mr Leigh agreed to communicate views expressed in the session to Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

According to a CCA summary, the roundtable outlined a series of measures that would assist the sector to:

  • build productivity and wellbeing with better funding and new success measures, and by better valuing workers and volunteers
  • create a more diverse third sector workforce
  • address the housing shortage
  • improve third sector productivity with better government policies and less red tape
  • link migration to humanitarian goals.

The jobs summit sparked scores of “immediate actions”, some of which matched issues of concern from the sector.

In another indication of the eased tensions between the government and the sector, the Hands Off Our Charities lobby group is surveying members about a possible change of name to reflect a more “proactive” rather than defensive stance.

The Community Council for Australia will also wind up the Charities Crisis Cabinet, which was created at the height of the pandemic crisis and whose representatives include Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty. CCA CEO David Crosbie said the organisation would now focus on working with the government to reform and strengthen the sector.

ICDA leader helps in hunt for new top regulator chief

The chair of the Institute of Community Director Australia’s advisory panel, Susan Pascoe, has been appointed to a selection panel that will choose the replacement Commissioner for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

The Community Directors Council chair is well qualified for the process, having held the post herself for more than five years from 2012 as the inaugural ACNC Commissioner.

Now an adjunct professor at the University of Western Australia, Ms Pascoe also chairs the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), was a commissioner at the State Services Authority in Victoria and sat on the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. She was made a member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2007 for her contribution to education.

According to Pro Bono News, Ms Pascoe will be joined on the selection panel by the Secretary to the Australian Treasury, Dr Steven Kennedy, and the new Secretary to the Department of Finance, Jenny Wilkinson.

Donations pressure rises amid interest rate hikes

The Commonwealth Bank has suggested not-for-profits should consider seeking donors who aren’t under mortgage pressure as interest rate rises start to bite.

The comments come as Our Community’s own giving platform, GiveNow, registered a 10% slump in June donations year on year.

CBA senior economist Belinda Allen was speaking to not-for-profit leaders during a Not-for-profit Finance Week webinar on the state of the economy earlier this month when she was asked about the likely impact of rising interest rates on donations.

Ms Allen said the bank’s figures showed a small rise in charity donations in August, despite a fall in spending on eating and drinking out, and on household goods. July is historically a weak month for fundraisers, coming after the end-of-financial-year spike.

Donations did not fit the usual classification of “discretionary spending”, Ms Allen said, because “a charity donation may be essential for some people and may be something that they’re willing to dip into savings for”.

But she also said the effect of interest rates had not yet hit. “It might be later this year when we might start to see some impact,” she said.

Ms Allen stressed to organisations asking for support that only one-third of households had a mortgage.

“If we look at consumer sentiment for people who have a mortgage versus those who rent, or who own their home outright, it's very different.”

“Two thirds of households won't have these pressures of higher interest rates.”

While CommBank registered a bump in donations last month, figures from Our Community’s own giving platform, GiveNow, reveal a 10% slump in donations across the board since about April this year.

GiveNow executive director Cathy Truong said the drop was consistent across small to medium-sized community organisations, and the giving platform was working hard on ways to improve users’ experience and boost regular donor engagement.

She suggested organisations wanting to maintain donations should recognise that large one-off donations are often difficult for donors, but that lower-value monthly donations are rewarding in the longer term and help to provide financial certainty.

Ms Truong also suggested groups should “simplify the donations process on your website” and she pointed to the “embed feature” that makes it easier for donors to give.

“And don’t forget to say thank you to your existing donors, again, because saying ‘thank you’ in between campaigns improves conversion when you do ask.”

Update: August 4, 2022

Hunt begins for new sector regulator

The new federal minister for the charities sector, Andrew Leigh, has announced Deborah Jenkins will be the new acting Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

Ms Jenkins steps into the role vacated by controversial outgoing chief Dr Gary Johns, whose departure on July 31 was welcomed by sector advocates concerned about his critiques of the sector and his role in crimping political activism.

Ms Jenkins was already a deputy commissioner in the Australian Taxation Office, which shares office space with the ACNC in Melbourne’s Docklands.

At this stage, hers is a temporary position until October 31, while the search begins for a permanent replacement.

Sector leaders have penned open letters to the future commissioner in a Pro Bono News series headed “Dear Commissioner”.

Applications for the position are now open.

Advocates say it’s time to scrap ‘double standard’

Charities are set to press for further reforms to laws regulating charities and not-for-profits.

The current ACNC regulations are due to “sunset” or expire in April next year, prompting the federal treasury to consult about a set of “minimal changes”.

But charity groups, which pressed hard last year against attempts to give the ACNC additional powers to deregister charities for minor offences (including where those offences might occur), are expected to demand further reforms to futureproof charity advocacy.

During the election campaign, 50 charity signatories called on then Opposition charities spokesperson Andrew Leigh to commit to scrapping what’s known as ACNC Governance Standard 3, which states: “A charity must not commit a serious offence (such as fraud) under any Australian law …”.

Those groups pointed to the fact that a 2018 government review found the standard was “not appropriate as a governance standard”, since registered groups already need to comply with the law and it wasn’t up to the ACNC to police it. It recommended the standard be repealed.

It is understood that members of Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) and the Community Council for Australia (CCA) are likely to call for the standard to be ditched.

Public consultation about the regulation closes on August 15.

Charities report reveals state of the sector

The latest Australian Charities Report reflects the turbulence of covid-19, natural disasters and the changing priorities of nearly 50,000 registered charities.

Based on 2020 annual information statements, the report, produced by the ACNC, revealed that in the previous financial year:

  • the sector employed more than 10 per cent of the nation’s workforce, with fewer staff on casual arrangements
  • donations increased by 8% to $12.7 billion
  • 650 charities cited the effects of covid-19 as reasons for not operating during 2020
  • government revenue flowing into the sector increased by more than $10 billion, to nearly $90 billion, or half of charity revenues
  • total revenue was $176 billion, up $10 billion – in line with government support
  • expenses increased by $10.2 billion, likely because of pandemic related activities
  • volunteer numbers slumped, despite 3.4 million people having put their hands up to help
  • about half of all charities operated without paid staff
  • religious and educational programs comprised the biggest activities for charities.

The report employed Our Community’s social sector classification system CLASSIE for the first time to reveal the kinds of activities, programs and beneficiaries the sector helps.

The analysis showed the most common classifications were religion (17,000 programs), education (12,300 programs) and human services (11,900 programs).

Assets research study focused on better NFP accounting standards

Not-for-profit researchers at the University of Western Australia (UWA) need the sector’s help for a study aimed at setting better accounting standards and cutting compliance costs.

The Australian Non-profit Accounting Standards Research Program, which is conducting several projects to improve standards and audits, has funding from the Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA) and is led by the research group Not-for-Profits UWA.

Team leader Professor David Gilchrist, one of the country’s top experts in not-for-profit finances, said proper asset valuation was “critical” to the project, but the study needed the help of people who produce these financial reports for not-for-profits.

“We believe the project will inform policy, practice and standards surrounding both audits and the non-profit sector.”

He said the ethics-approved study had a strong prospect of creating a positive impact for not-for-profits and charities, including “proportionate” impacts on financial reporting, better accounting standards and greater transparency.

Take the 20-minute survey | More information

Most small NFPs won’t need director IDs

Most small not-for-profits don’t need to worry about the advent of director IDs, now required by the Australian Taxation Office for many organisations.

The directors of an estimated 15,000 not-for-profits in Australia are now required to have the IDs as part of a move to crack down on fraud; however, exemptions include officers of unincorporated associations, cooperatives and incorporated associations.

The NFPs required to use the new director IDs include those structured as companies or Indigenous corporations, bodies registered with ASIC, and corporate trustees.

The ID will be a unique 15-digit identifier for directors who have verified their identity with Australian Business Registry Services (ABRS).

Existing directors of those groups have until 30 November 2022 to apply, with new directors required to apply within 28 days of their appointment.

Affected directors can apply online with ABRS using the myGovID app or over the phone. Organisations unsure about their status or needing to apply should check the Australian government guidelines or call the ATO’s NFP Infoline: 1300 130 248.

Donations tax boost restricted to fewer groups

One way organisations win more donations is by making the most of their deductible gift recipient (DGR) status, which allows donors to claim a tax deduction on their donations.

But recent reforms to tax rules mean far fewer organisational types can now claim DGR status.

Laws introduced late last year mean organisations wanting DGR endorsement must fall into one of these categories:

  • registered charities
  • Australian government agencies
  • organisations operated by one of the above.

Organistions in eleven existing categories, from school building funds to research institutes, will no longer be able to claim the status unless they are also charities.

Transitional arrangements require eligible groups to register as charities by December 2022 or lose the benefit.

Justice Connect’s Not-for-profit Law service has created a useful tool to help groups understand the requirements of DGR status and assess their own status.

The ACNC is also reviewing selected public benevolent institutions (PBIs) to assess their DGR eligibility, targeting groups registered more than ten years ago.

GiveNow executive director Cathy Truong said all the DGR changes would have a “very significant” impact on fundraising for affected groups given the huge influence DGR status had on donor behaviour.

But she stressed affected groups using Our Community’s giving platform were in the minority, with most GiveNow users with DGR status already registered charities.

Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty last year proposed that all not-for-profits should automatically be eligible to receive tax-deductible donations.

Update: 26 June 2022

NFPs optimistic about leadership shakeup

Sector leaders have welcomed Dr Andrew Leigh as the new Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, and have urged him to follow through with promises to help the sector, including his support of the "Fix Fundraising" campaign to end a gag on political activists.

The Community Council for Australia (CCA) chair Tim Costello said Dr Leigh was "an ideal minister to drive positive reform", and the CCA would seek talks on the third sector's role in the economy, employment, equity, the environment, foreign aid, disaster preparedness, arts and recreation, education, health and wellbeing.

His elevation coincided with the announcement that Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission chief Dr Gary Johns would stand down from his role as Commissioner in July.

Dr Johns who has held the post since 2017, was an unpopular choice as Commissioner in some quarters for his history as a strident charities critic and for recent attemps to restrict the right of charities to advocate.

Dr Johns said he was most proud of his work to improve the ACNC's charity register (which uses Our Community's CLASSIE system to boost its data and search features) and for developing a new program to strengthen good charities governance.

Update: 11 May 2022

Swinging voters want a fundraising fix

A survey of 3,400 voters in Australia’s most marginal electorates shows electors want a future government to fix fundraising once and for all.

The results of the study commissioned by the Community Council for Australia found at least 74% and as many as 92% of electors in those seats wanted their local MPs to ease current fundraising red tape which compels charities, not-for-profits and community groups to wrangle different systems in every state.

“Charities continue to face an ongoing dog’s breakfast of outdated dysfunctional regulation that is strangling charitable fundraising in Australia,” said Community Council for Australia chief executive David Crosbie.

He said current regulations meant a small charity posting a “donate here” button on its website was required to register as a fundraising organisation in most states and territories, filling out multiple different forms. The council said the survey reinforced the need for charities and not-for-profits to focus on serving their communities, not filling in duplicate forms for numerous officials.

And Mr Crosbie said there had been a string of inquiries, commissions and recommendations highlighting the waste of resources.

“What has been delivered in response to all these reports and recommendations are numerous hollow commitments followed by recurring government committees who have wasted countless hours playing word salad footsies as they endlessly debate in-principle agreements and regulations,” he said.

Sector demands attention from future federal government

Updated: 4 April 2022

As the federal election campaign heats up, community advocates continue to press for a place at the decision-making table and for the right to speak out.

In the latest lobbying effort, a coalition of for-purpose organisation has written to both the Liberal minister in charge of charities, Michael Sukkar, and Labor’s charity spokesman, Andrew Leigh, seeking comprehensive reforms to the sector.

The letters were drafted by Australian Democracy Network, Human Rights Law Centre, ACOSS, Australian Conservation Foundation. Each were signed by more than fifty organisations, calling on any future government to halt moves to curtail community voices and instead enact reforms to protect the right to advocate.

The campaign seeks:

  • federal funding agreements that enable and encourage advocacy
  • actions to protect civil society participation in elections
  • tax and charity laws that “enshrine a right for civil society to speak out”
  • a guarantee of the independence of charities in how they pursue their purpose
  • restored funding to peak civil society voices.

The letters lay out the reform program in detail but urge action to protect “a vital part of a healthy democracy” and promise that the group stands “ready to engage constructively … to deliver the outlined reforms in the most effective way possible”.

Communities need more covid-19 backing

Separately, the Charities Crisis Cabinet – of which Our Community is a member – has written an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and to the National Cabinet seeking increased involvement by the sector in critical covid-19 responses.

The letter seeks acknowledgement of the work of the sector and a greater commitment from Australian governments to providing greater support, including:

  • making RATs freely available to charities
  • greater flexibility in federal flood support and emergency relief to include groups such as charities that are providing help on the ground
  • decentralised decision-making in government programs to enable more effective responses by charities
  • better integration of volunteers in workplace planning, including higher priority access to vaccines, tests and PPE
  • allowing overseas students to help for more hours without breaching visa conditions.

The February letter was signed by the group’s co-chairs, Adjunct Professor Susan Pascoe and the Reverend Tim Costello.

Ms Pascoe is the chair of the Community Directors Council, which advises the Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA) on policy and strategy matters.

Labor promises to remove community 'gag' in election pitch

Updated: 15 March 2022

The Labor Party has promised to reverse a crackdown on activist organisations that has seen the Coalition crimp the ability of organisations to campaign in politically sensitive arenas.

Those measures have included restrictions on election campaigning and a threat to deregister charities whose members or volunteers have committed minor legal infringements. The latter measure was scuttled by independent senators last year.

Now federal Labor politicians with the community and social justice portfolios have given guarantees that they won't be following the same path.

"We will end the Coalition’s attacks on the community sector, by scrapping gag clauses and restoring the freedom to advocate," the joint statement said in the lead-up to an expected May 2022 poll.

The release was issued by MPs Linda Burney and Andrew Leigh, along with Labor senator Jenny McAllister.

The group also said an Albanese Labor government would "support a stronger, more diverse and more independent community sector".

This support could include grants that "reflect the real cost of delivering quality services, ending the practice of competing on wages", while contract terms could be extended to allow for better planning.

And funding would go to "a greater diversity of not-for-profits", and prioritise partnering with organisations that had "strong local links".

"Labor will give the sector the voice and respect it deserves," the statement said.

The Community Council for Australia, in a message to members, described the policy as "welcome" and said it would build on an existing 10-point policy platform by Labor released in April 2021.

The not-for-profit and charity peak advocacy group said it was "seeking commitment from all parties and candidates to positive policy agendas that recognise and value the role and contribution of Australia’s charities and community groups."

"We want the next Australian Government to work with our sector to realise real benefits for our communities."

Advocates say it’s time for a better deal for the sector

Updated: Friday, December 17

The Community Council for Australia has urged community organisations to consider lodging pre-budget submissions to influence the political process, as major players continue to jostle for position in the sector in the lead-up to next year’s federal election.

Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar last week called for “submissions from individuals, businesses and community groups on their priorities for the 2022–23 Budget”.

He said the Government “places considerable importance on receiving submissions”, which close on January 28.

The Community Council for Australia’s David Crosbie put in an early claim for funding, saying, “as a sector that works at the heart of communities and employs more than 11% of Australia's workforce”, the country’s 55,000 charities and 500,000-plus not-for-profits could do much to achieve the budget’s goals of creating jobs, guaranteeing essential services and building a more secure and resilient country.

The Assistant Treasurer’s announcement came shortly before the National Cabinet again agreed to reduce unnecessary duplication across governments, including fundraising red tape.

While fundraising wasn’t specifically mentioned in Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s announcement on regulatory reform, a Fix Fundraising group spokesperson, Sue Woodward, welcomed the fact that fundraising reforms were now among the top 10 priorities for the Council on Federal Financial Relations.

“We are pleased to see all governments working together at the highest level to implement a simpler single national scheme for the regulation of charitable fundraising,” Ms Woodward said.

Current laws require organisations to seek separate fundraising licences in each state.

But the shadow Assistant Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, lashed the latest promises, given the Morrison government promised to fix the country’s outdated fundraising laws at the same time last year.

“In another demonstration that the Morrison government is all announcement and no delivery, a full year has gone by since the Treasurer’s empty promise,” Mr Leigh said.

And he said “nothing happened” in the wake of a 2018 bipartisan Senate recommendation to address the same issue within two years.

Groups concerned new laws will ‘scare’ charities off advocacy

UPDATED: Tuesday, December 7

More charities face new restrictions and reporting, after the federal government pushed through changes to existing political campaigning laws.

Groups, including charities, that spend more than $250,000 on advocacy and campaigns related to elections – or more than a third of revenue – must now register as campaigners, after the existing threshold was halved by amendments supported at the last minute by the Labor Party.

Labor charities spokesperson Andrew Leigh told community radio program The Wire that the support was a necessary compromise to avoid voter ID legislation.

Mr Leigh told the program that it had watered down the laws, including upping the threshold from a proposed $100,000 limit and changing the terminology of registered organisations from “political campaigners” to “significant third party”.

“If we hadn’t acted the government’s voter ID laws would have passed the Senate and the political campaigners threshold would have been reduced to $100,000.”

“It would have been a catastrophic outcome for charities and for disadvantaged Australians.”

He believed the latest laws were part of “an ongoing war on charities that the government has been waging on charities since 2015. They think that charities should be seen and not heard.”

Charity groups are not happy with the result.

Hands off Our Charities spokesperson Ray Yoshida said charities had lobbied hard against the "bad policy" and "poor process" which retrospectively broaden who is affected by the rules, and which were rushed through Parliament.

Changes mean that more charities will have restrictions on foreign donations and will have to abide by a much broader definition of what’s counted as electioneering.

Charities have concerns about the additional red tape, the effective spending cap on campaigns, the retrospective nature of laws that will hit environmental activists and those “holding the government to account”, and the vague definitions that are likely to require groups to seek more legal advice.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Alice Drury said in a Tweet, “This process has been brutal, and the outcome is a breath-takingly complex law that will scare charities off advocacy.”

Australian Conservation Foundation chief Kelly O'Shanassy told Australian Community Media that the law "unfairly and incorrectly conflates advocacy with running for political office".

"I have not seen another piece of legislation that has the potential to so severely muffle community voices as this one," she said.

Community Council for Australia chief David Crosbie said that the laws would stifle legitimate advocacy.

“Charities are not seeking political office or power over others, just a voice to power on behalf of those they serve. Charities are already regulated by the ACNC – these new laws will stop many smaller charities raising their issues – is this the Australia we want?”

Assistant Minister for Electoral Matters Ben Morton told Parliament that the laws aimed to “enhance public confidence in Australia's political processes by aligning transparency of political actors who seek to influence the outcome of an election to more closely resemble the disclosures of political parties, candidates, or members of the Australian parliament”.

He said the changes were not a significant change for those who met the new thresholds, since they were already required to submit reports, and that the amendments “simply change the type of return they lodge with the Australian Electoral Commission”.

He said the laws would help voters make “an informed choice” by placing equal requirements on “political actors seeking to influence election outcomes”.

Senate crunches charities crackdown

UPDATED: Friday, November 26

The Australian charities and not-for-profits sector has praised the intervention of federal senators who blocked proposed laws aimed at cracking down on activist groups.

The proposals would have given the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) the power to deregister charities for minor offences, even when it believed they were merely likely to occur.

More than 100 charities joined forces under the Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) banner to fight against the rules, which could have cost the sector $150 million in compliance costs.

But the laws have been scuttled in the Senate by senators led by South Australian independent Rex Patrick, who tabled a disallowance motion to comfortably defeat the changes with the support of other crossbenchers, the Labor Party, and the Greens.

Senator Patrick told the Senate that the regulations “amount to a prohibition of freedom of political communication and expression, and expose charities to the risk of deregistration for actions most Australians accept as a right … such as peaceful protests and sit-ins.

“Quite simply, the intent of these regulations is to stop charities engaging in lawful advocacy in pursuit of their charitable purpose.”

Notably, Senator Concetta Fioravanti-Wells, who chaired a Senate committee that previously unanimously recommended the laws be scrapped, voted with the Coalition in an attempt to stop the disallowance motion from succeeding.

HOOC spokesperson Ray Yoshida said charities and not-for-profits were relieved that “efforts to silence those who speak up” had failed in the face of collective opposition.

“This incredible result means that more than $150 million that would have been spent on administration costs can now be diverted back into essential services such as emergency food relief, family violence and mental health support,” Mr Yoshida said.

Fred Hollows Foundation CEO Ian Wishart summed up the feeling of many charity leaders when he described the Senate vote as a momentous win for democracy.

“Our charity sector works tirelessly to service the nation’s most disadvantaged people and cannot have its precious resources tied up in bureaucratic red tape,” Mr Wishart said.

Benevolent Society CEO Lin Hatfield Dodds said the decision would benefit vulnerable people and communities and that allowing people to be heard shouldn’t be discouraged.

“Efforts should be made to nurture this, not take it away.”

Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds said the changes would have given “an unprecedented amount of power to the Charities Commissioner (Gary Johns) to shut down a charity for advocating on vital social issues.”

“It struck us as totally outrageous that the Government would focus on trying to make life harder for charities in the midst of a global pandemic. Australia’s charities are the lifeblood of our country, and we thank those who sided with common sense today to stop these unfair and unjustified regulations from going ahead.”

The acting CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), Edwina MacDonald, said the decision was a common sense win for charities.

“Over the past 18 months, the community sector has been crucial in helping hundreds of thousands of people endure the pandemic,” she said.

“Community organisations everywhere can now focus on their core work without worrying about the negative impact of these changes.”

George Selvanera from the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) said the Morrison Government should be investing in not-for-profits instead of “trying to silence and control them through regulations.”

“As a not-for-profit community legal service for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, VALS must have the legal right to advocate for systemic change. It is essential to addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system.”

Oxfam Australia CEO Lyn Morgain said the changes would have wasted valuable public donations on unnecessary red tape.

Battle continues against regulator’s push to stymie charity activism

UPDATED: Tuesday, October 26

The future of regulations designed to pare back political activism by charities remains up in the air, after the Senate delayed a decision on the crucial matter.

The controversial change would give the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) powers to deregister charities where it believed a minor offence may occur.

The Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) coalition, comprising 100 leading charities, has strongly campaigned against the rules, and earlier this month released modelling that showed the rules would cost charities $150 million in compliance costs.

HOOC spokesperson Ray Yoshida said the regulations were unnecessary, would stifle free speech, and would affect vital services.

“This [modelling] outlines the extraordinary red-tape burden the Morrison government is imposing on charities that provide vital services to vulnerable people, including emergency food relief, family violence support and mental health assistance,” Mr Yoshida said.

HOOC’s call follows a cross-party recommendation from a Senate committee scrutinising new laws, chaired by Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, that the changes be scrapped.

The regulations are likely to be in the hands of crossbench senators, such as One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcom Roberts, with a vote now expected on the matter on November 25.

Ms Hanson told The Australian she was concerned about “careless wording” that could also harm religious charities and churches, but she did not object to moves to reduce the influence of activist groups.

Anti-poverty campaigner wins crucial status

In a related matter, anti-poverty charity and campaigner Global Citizen last month won a case against the ACNC after it was initially denied public benevolent institution (PBI) tax status over its political work.

The ACNC had refused to allow the organisation to become a PBI, which would enable the organisation to claim deductible gift recipient (DGR) tax status and apply for grants from a broader range of funders.

The ACNC had claimed that the organisation should not be a PBI because it did not provide direct aid, but instead was involved in lobbying, but the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) ruled it was satisfied Global Citizen’s role in promoting poverty relief was legitimate.

“The evidence clearly established that most large PBIs engage with the political process as a regular and indispensable part of their work,” the tribunal found.

The decision was hailed by Save the Children CEO Paul Ronalds and Community Council for Australia co-chair Tim Costello, both of whom made witness statements during the case.

The ACNC has decided not to appeal the decision by the AAT, but it would be “carefully considering the tribunal’s decision”, it said in a statement.

Full ruling | Read a summary of the decision here.

Charity regulator lodges report, faces more scrutiny

The ACNC this month lodged its annual report, which highlighted:

  • a sharp rise in searches on its site, up more than one million to 4.2 million
  • 2001 complaints about charities
  • 76 investigations completed
  • that major charities involved in 2020 bushfire support acted diligently
  • 13 charities had their registrations revoked over “serious non-compliance”
  • 2659 charities were registered.

ACNC Commissioner Gary Johns said the sector had shown great resilience through the pandemic and that new features in the popular register would soon allow would-be donors to much more easily find charities doing the work they were interested in supporting.

“In 2020–21 we implemented a new way for charities to provide information about their programs, and soon the register’s search features will be enhanced to allow donors and supporters to easily find organisations doing the type of work they are interested in supporting, and to allow charities to showcase their incredible work,” he said.

But CCA chief David Crosbie wrote in Pro Bono news that the report also showed the organisation had performed poorly, with a “diminishing level of … services across critical areas”. He highlighted indicators such as delays in wait times for phone calls, registrations and investigations, and a reluctance to address red tape issues raised by CCA members.

The ACNC is set to face scrutiny over its activities and performance during Senate estimates hearings scheduled for 3pm on Wednesday, October 27.

Senate report rejects charities crackdown

UPDATED: Thursday, September 30

Proposed laws that a coalition of charities say will muzzle advocates should be scrapped, a Parliamentary committee has found.

The committee scrutinising new laws, which is chaired by Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (pictured), unanimously recommended the Senate disallow the new regulations, which are opposed by an alliance of more than 100 charity groups.

The proposals would give the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission powers to deregister charities for minor offences, even if Commissioner Gary Johns only believes an offence may occur.

Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar has not yet responded to the recommendation but has previously said that the laws would curtail the activities of “activist organisations masquerading as charities”.

The recommendation was welcomed by sector advocates including the “Hands Off Our Charities” group and the Community Council for Australia (CCA).

CCA chief executive David Crosbie told members this week that “while this does not mean the proposal is defeated, it does give a lot more weight to the arguments against the proposed amendments and (will) delay any implementation”.

The committee cited “significant scrutiny concerns regarding the conferral of broad discretionary powers on the ACNC Commissioner and the impact of the instrument on the implied constitutional freedom of political communication” in recommending the Senate reject the changes.

Shadow charities minister Andrew Leigh welcomed the recommendation.

“The Morrison Government should listen to this unanimous, bipartisan report from a respected Senate Committee, and withdraw its anti-democratic attack on Australia’s charities,” Mr Leigh said.

Resistance grows over powers to clamp down on sector advocates

UPDATED: Thursday, July 22

Charities have welcomed the intervention of a Liberal senator who has raised concerns about proposed laws they claim will silence advocates, and have written to the UN seeking "urgent action".

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who chairs a Senate committee scrutinising new laws, has written to Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, the minister in charge of charity regulation, seeking answers about the changes.

Proposals would give the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission powers to deregister charities for minor offences, even if Commissioner Gary Johns only believes an offence may occur.

The senator said there were serious questions about whether the laws were unconstitutional and “infringe the implied freedom of political communication”.

Connie FW
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has asked the minister in charge of charities to explain the changes.

An alliance of 30 top Australian charities comprising the “Hands Off Our Charities” group welcomed the letter, with spokesperson and Community Council for Australia chair Tim Costello taking aim at the proposals, which could be introduced as early as August 2021.

“These anti-democratic regulations will silence legitimate advocacy by charities and the voices of the millions of people they represent, including the most vulnerable, undermining our freedom of speech.”

"Giving the charity commissioner power to shutter a charity for a minor offence by a member is the equivalent of the electoral commissioner having discretion to deregister the Liberal Party because a party member damages someone's lawn when putting up a sign," he said.

"It is heartening to see that this important committee shares the concerns of charities from across the sector, which have formed a broad alliance to condemn these egregious regulations."

Senator Fierravanti-Wells sought detailed advice for the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation about:

  • why it was necessary to expand the ACNC commissioner’s discretionary powers
  • eetails of those powers, including specifics about summary offences that could trigger actions
  • how the commissioner might determine potential future breaches
  • safeguards for those discretionary powers
  • how the changes complied with implied free political communication.

While Mr Sukkar has not publicly responded to the questions, he previously said when revealing the proposed changes: "The Morrison government is strengthening laws to ensure activist organisations, masquerading as charities, that promote and engage in unlawful behaviour will no longer be tolerated."

Read the Hands Off Our Charities release and a copy of Senator Fierravanti-Wells' letter

Groups call on United Nations to intervene

As the resistance to the measures continues to grow, a group of a dozen charities have written to the United Nations to seek "urgent action".

The charities have written to three UN Special Rapporteurs, urging an "intervention" to stop changes "which could shut charities down for speaking out".

The letter states that the new rules "would breach the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, which are protected under international human rights law.

"The UN Special Rapporteurs have been asked to call on the Australian government to refrain from introducing the regulations in parliament."

In a letter to the UN representatives, the group said it believed that "the proposed regulations breach articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights".

The UN petition is signed by 12 organisations including Amnesty International, Anglicare Australia, Baptist Care Australia, Oxfam, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, The Fred Hollows Foundation, St Vincent de Paul Society and UnitingCare.

In a media release issued by the Human Rights Law Centre, senior lawyer Alice Drury said: “These rules would silence charities at a time when their advocacy is more crucial than ever, as charities support Australian communities through unprecedented crises like catastrophic bushfires and the pandemic. These proposed laws are a case of extreme overreach, and have no place in a democracy.”

Read the media release from the Human Rights Law Centre | Read the letter to the United Nations

Sector study increases pressure to 'Fix Fundraising'

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 26

Australian charities say fundraising regulations are too complicated, with groups slugged compliance costs of more than $11,000 before they even start their fundraising campaigns. With 56,000 registered charities and thousands more not-for-profits, the impost represents hundreds of millions in lost donations.

A Piazza Research study quizzed 600 charities and not-for-profits on behalf of a sector coalition led by the Community Council for Australia (CCA). The study found:

  • Groups were stung an average $11,633 for registration and compliance
  • Queensland was the hardest state for fundraisers to deal with, while the NT and ACT caused the least bureaucratic problems
  • More than one in five groups (22%) said the red tape was a “barrier to fundraising”
  • 53% of groups faced "significant" fundraising issues
  • 39% were unaware they must dice with seven different jurisdictions
  • The vast majority of charities and NFPs (91%) support a single national regulation scheme for charitable fundraising

CCA CEO David Crosbie said the Queensland Government should “immediately dismantle its charity fundraising bureaucracy” to ease the burden on charities and not-for-profits, and other jurisdictions should follow the lead of the Northern Territory, which had simplified red tape by relying on existing consumer law and the oversight of the charities regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

Download the full study | CCA report - See how your state fares

Charities fight back over proposed crackdown

UPDATED: Friday, May 28

Australia's peak body for not-for-profits continues to lobby against proposals that would give the sector regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, much greater powers to deregister an organisation if it “reasonably believes” its members might commit an offence.

More than 200 charities are expected to lodge an open protest letter about the changes, which it believes will unfairly target activist organisations.

The Community Council for Australia chief executive David Crosbie recently spoke with ABC Sydney's Wendy Harmer about his concerns about the proposal in the wake of a detailed report raising serious concerns in The Saturday Paper ($). Community radio current affairs program The Wire also spoke to several sector representatives about their fears.

Labor outlines policy platform for not-for-profits

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 20

The peak body for not-for-profits says the next Federal election is shaping up to be an important one for the sector, after the Labor Party laid out a 10-point plan to strengthen charities and not-for-profits.

Community Council for Australia (CCA) chief executive David Crosbie said the decision at the recent ALP national conference would be a "game changer", with charity reform measures in line with those the CCA has pressed for in recent times.

Among those measures include:

  • Creating an expert body to strengthen communities
  • Improve the safety of vulnerable people with a national approach
  • Reforming fundraising rules, cutting red tape and increasing charity access to donors and philanthropy
  • Reforming funding models for contracts
  • Revisit the 2010 Productivity Commission recommendations into NFPs
  • Recognising the primary role of not-for-profits in delivering community services and ensuring fair wages and payments
  • Prioritising funding for specialist services catering for women, LGBTIQ groups, first nations, disability and CALD communities
  • Allow and protect the right of groups to freely advocate for their causes
  • Boost the help for volunteers
  • Help community groups "bridge the technological divide"

Mr Crosbie said the ALP's position put increased pressure on the Morrison Government to demonstrate its commitment to the sector.

Become a member of ICDA – it's free!