Background to the not-for-profit sector

Australian charities and other not-for-profits have a strong history of helping vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society. Charities and not-for-profits provided the majority of social services in Australia up until the Second World War, not government. These organisations were mainly religious institutions that worked towards relieving poverty and suffering.

Today, Australia's not-for-profit sector is large and diverse. It covers activities and services including health, social services, education, sport and recreation, arts and culture, environment, animal welfare, human rights and religious practices. It is hard to get an accurate snapshot of the activities and contribution of the sector because of its diversity and the lack of data collected. However, the ACNC is committed to using the data that it holds about registered charities to help increase understanding of this vital sector

Some facts and figures

The Productivity Commission's 2010 research report Contribution of the Not-for-profit Sector estimated that there were roughly 600 000 not-for-profits in Australia. Of these, nearly 60 000 are registered with the ACNC.

Charities are active all around Australia. Of charities currently registered with the ACNC:

  • 34% are endorsed in New South Wales
  • 24% are endorsed in Victoria
  • 18% are endorsed in Queensland.
  • 10% in Western Australia
  • 8% in South Australia
  • 3% in Tasmania
  • 1% in Northern Territory
  • 2% in the Australian Capital Territory.

Charities address a wide variety of needs in our society, including health, education and protecting the natural environment:

  • nearly half (43%) of registered charities have social and community welfare as their main purpose, with religious charities making up about 22% of these
  • a further 17% identify their main purpose as education.

Charities focus their activities on a range of groups in society, such as:

  • young people
  • the elderly
  • people living with disabilities
  • those experiencing poverty.

A number of different types of charities are endorsed in Australia:

  • about two thirds are charitable institutions
  • about 20% of Australian charities are either public benevolent institutions or health promotion charities.

A much smaller group, about 23 370 organisations, are able to receive tax deductible gifts. The majority of these organisations are charities (although not all).

The charity sector is constantly growing and changing. While 70% of charities have been active for over 10 years, the ACNC registered over 1 600 new charities in its first year. We’ve published a bit about these newest charities.

Traditional economic measures often don't capture some of the most important work undertaken by the sector. Even so, we do know that the not-for-profit sector makes a significant contribution to our community. An Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report estimates that the sector in 2006–7:

  • contributed about $43 billion to gross domestic product (GDP)
  • employed approximately 890 000 people
  • received $5.1 billion in donations and $25.5 billion in direct government funding.

In 2010, the ABS estimates there were 6.1 million Australians working as volunteers across Australia. The Productivity Commission's 2010 research report Contribution of the Not-for-profit Sector provides further insight into the contribution and the regulation of the charity and not-for-profit sector.