The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) recognises the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) controlled charities and the important role they play in the provision of culturally appropriate services addressing the social and economic disadvantage experienced by many Indigenous Australians.

The ACNC is committed to supporting measures to address the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The ATSI Communities Engagement Strategy aims to enhance the ACNC’s engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations by:

Strengthening the ACNC’s organisational capacity through:

  • building cultural competency within the ACNC staffing community
  • developing ACNC’s understanding of the demographics of ATSI charities and the multilayered complexity of the contexts in which they operate
  • developing culturally appropriate support, education and guidance materials

Working to support ATSI charities to meet their ACNC Act obligations in partnership with:

  • other regulators and funding agencies, to reduce red tape and coordinate engagement
  • ATSI communities and charities

The ACNC is also developing a Reconciliation Action Plan. The ATSI Community Engagement Strategy will form part of that plan.

Who is the strategy for?

This strategy is primarily intended for ACNC staff to understand the agency’s commitment to working well with ATSI communities and guide related activities.

It also provides a framework for the competencies required for engaging with ATSI charities and expectations of staff when engaging with ATSI communities in the course of their duties.

This strategy was developed in consultation with ATSI community controlled charities, peak bodies and other government agencies working with ATSI communities.

The strategy will be made available on the ACNC website and achievements against the action plan updated annually.

The ACNC ATSI Communities Engagement Strategy is grounded in the whole of government policy framework, Closing the Gap administered by the Department of Social Services (DSS) that aims to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[1]

The Closing the Gap strategy has been agreed through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and is a commitment by all Australian governments to improving the lives of ATSI Australians.

COAG recognises that overcoming ATSI disadvantage will require a sustained commitment from all levels of government to work together and with ATSI people, with major effort directed to seven action areas or ‘building blocks’.

One of these building blocks is Governance and Leadership. As the regulator of charities, the ACNC has a role in supporting a robust, vibrant, independent and innovative not-for-profit sector.

To achieve this object the ACNC works with charities to build on the organisation’s strengths and support them to be well run through the provision of a range of services and materials on good governance.

The services and materials also aim to facilitate charitable organisations to meet their legal obligations under the ACNC Act.

Closing the Gap also emphasises the role of self-determination as a critical element in addressing disadvantage experienced by ATSI Australians. ATSI communities need to be directly involved in the development and implementation of policies and programs to ensure positive and sustained outcomes.

Closing the Gap commits governments to building respectful and collaborative relationships with ATSI people, marked by a strengthening of the capacity of the public service, open dialogue and mutual respect and responsibility.

The ACNC’s engagement with ATSI controlled charities and individuals is underpinned by our values and by the Closing the Gap core principles for effective engagement.

ACNC Values:

  • Fairness
  • Accountability
  • Independence
  • Integrity
  • Respect

‘Closing the Gap’ Core Principles

  • Respectful
  • Informed
  • Ethical
  • Meaningful
  • Outcome-focused
  • Sustainable
  • Follow up/Feedback

[1] Closing the Gap, The Indigenous Reform Agenda, 2013, FaHCSIA, viewed 1 May 2013 <>

Australia’s ATSI communities experience a number of barriers to engaging with government and mainstream Australia. The barriers are a result of a complex combination of historical, geographical, cultural, socio-political and socio-economic factors and that government services and communications are often not accessible to diverse or remote communities.

ATSI communities are diverse: each community is different, often comprising numerous small scale, locally autonomous and sometimes fragmented organisations, each with unique historical and cultural characteristics. This means engaging with ATSI communities is always context dependent, a one size fits all approach to engagement is unlikely to work or be sustainable.

The diversity is demonstrated in the 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey figures.

Australia’s ATSI population represents 2.5 per cent of the total population of Australia (520,350 persons). Just over 68% of ATSI people live outside major cities. 24% of ATSI people live in remote or very remote areas, and of those almost 45% spoke an ATSI language (of which there are 145 spoken[1]) as their main language at home.

ATSI controlled charities

The current ACNC data does not identify which charities are ATSI controlled charities, however we estimate there are 2,000-3,000 ATSI controlled charities registered with the ACNC spread across Australia.

It is important to be aware of the history of ATSI controlled charities in understanding the challenges inherent with community self-management.

Organisations developed out of the need to provide ATSI communities with representation and services that were either inadequately or inappropriately provided by mainstream agencies, or were not accessible through the means available to the wider community.

These organisations continue to play a major role in the delivery of services to ATSI communities, as both community representative bodies and service providers in the areas of health and aged care, housing, child welfare, medical, employment, legal, education, art and cultural services.

ATSI Australians may be reluctant to access mainstream services that are less culturally appropriate.

ATSI controlled charities are often central gathering places for many community members, and provide a safe environment for community members to meet and participate in community decision-making; group or individual activities; as well as utilising their services.

Leadership and structure of ATSI controlled charities

ATSI controlled charities are an important part of contemporary ATSI society and their sustainability is a central factor in reducing ATSI disadvantage. It is important that they are supported to enable them to continue this role.

Whilst some ATSI leaders have a significant knowledge and experience of contemporary western governance practices, many ATSI people who hold positions on boards of management or governing committees of ATSI controlled charities have had little formal (western) education.

Appropriate support in fulfilling their obligations as a Board or Committee member is therefore essential to ensure office-holders understand and are able to comply with the legal requirements.

The development of appropriate engagement and support mechanisms requires that public servants who engage with ATSI communities have an awareness of significant cultural considerations that impact on policy delivery.

ATSI controlled charities provide a variety of services and range from small charities to very large organisations.

The inability of some ATSI organisations to achieve their desired outcomes has, been linked to a poor understanding of western governance systems.

As early as 1995 the report “The Financial Viability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Organisations” identified the key role of sound corporate management in supporting the viability of ATSI controlled charities and services to communities.[2]

This sentiment continues to be reflected in current policy with the focus on strengthening leadership among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a critical component of Closing the Gap including:

  • support and encourage good practice engagement
  • make sure ATSI controlled charities are well run
  • train leaders and encourage strong leadership in communities
  • build better relationships with ATSI communities
  • support ATSI strengths and ideas[3]

Management and accountability of ATSI organisations

The regulatory environment within which ATSI controlled charities operate is complex as there is a wide range of legal structures used each of which has different regulatory requirements.

Some are incorporated associations or cooperatives regulated by state governments. Others are Commonwealth-regulated under the Corporations Act 2001 or by the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act).

There are also trusts and foundations and some organisations established by statute, such as some land councils, which may have different legal requirements.

A picture emerges in some parts of Australia, particularly in remote areas, of ATSI leaders of organisations commonly trying to manage organisations in two worlds (that of government and that of traditional law and culture).

English may not be their first language and literacy and educational levels achieved may not enable understanding government requirements in the format in which they are usually presented.

Further, management and accountability of ATSI controlled charities is multi-layered, complex accountabilities, including:

  • government regulation of the particular legal structure,
  • ACNC regulation and reporting,
  • funding agreement contractual and acquittal requirements
  • community cultural expectations and
  • self-determination ideals

which can become intertwined adding a further layer of complexity for Directors and management.

ATSI groups and communities often have well established governance structures but they are not the same as the western governance model for compliance purposes. This distinction is important.

The common western model of regulation through corporate governance does not address the particular ATSI challenges raised above.

Culturally appropriate governance models need to be acknowledged to understand the wide range of circumstances in which ATSI controlled charities operate.

[1] Commonwealth of Australia, 2005, National Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005, Canberra, viewed 1 May 2013, <>

[2] Australian Department of Administrative Services & Walter & Turnbull & Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Housing, Infrastructure and Health Branch 1995, Review of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander housing organisations : the financial viability of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander housing organisations : final report, ATSIC, Housing, Infrastructure & Health Branch, [Canberra]

[3] Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2013, Australian Government, Canberra, viewed 1 October 2013, <>

The ACNC is unique in regulating all ATSI controlled charities, whatever legal structure they have. We recognise that some charities, such as trusts, have not been required to report to a regulator previously or have their governing documents and financial reports publicly available.

This is another reason why the ACNC’s regulatory approach must be supportive of charities understanding the new obligations.

The ACNC’s knowledge about its registered charities is limited due to incomplete data and as a new agency it is limited in its experience of working effectively with ATSI communities.

Strengthening the knowledge and capacity of the ACNC is a key focus of this strategy.

On 3 December 2012 the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) provided the ACNC with a record of approximately 56,000 newly registered charities. The data is not recorded in a way that enables easy identification of which charities are ATSI-controlled charities.

Of those records transferred from the ATO 7,020 had indicated that they had charitable activities related to ATSI persons.

A preliminary assessment of those records indicates that approximately 625 charities are registered with the Office for the Registration of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC) and an estimated 2-3,000 ATSI controlled charities are registered with a different legal structure.

These charities are widely dispersed across Australia from capital cities and regional centres to very remote communities.

ATSI Communities Engagement Strategy

The ATSI Communities Engagement Strategy has two key priorities.

One focused on strengthening the ACNC’s organisational capacity and the other aimed at supporting ATSI controlled charities to meet their ACNC Act obligations.

The actions and measures designed to achieve these priorities are outlined in ATSI Communities Engagement Strategy Action Plan below.

ATSI Communities Engagement Strategy Action Plan

1.1 Provide employment opportunities for ATSI staff

Achievements to May 2016
Achievements to February 2018

a. Participate in the Indigenous Employment programs managed by the ATO

b. Maintain minimum number (2) of Aboriginal Liaison Officer (ALO) positions and commit to ATSI staffing levels that reflect the proportion of registered charities that are ATSI-controlled (approximately 5%)

  • The ACNC currently has two ongoing Aboriginal Liaison Officer roles. A vacancy in one of these roles was recently filled and one of these officers has been promoted to a manager role
  • The ACNC takes part in the ATO Evergreen Aboriginal Advancement program (Indigenous staff advancement) and hosts at least one Evergreen cadet each year. The staff receive workplace training and work experience at the ACNC
  • In 2017 one of our ALOs was promoted to a manager role and one accepted a role in another agency
  • A staff member who undertook a placement through the Evergreen program was a successful applicant for an ALO role, the other ALO role is currently vacant
  • The ACNC has hosted three Indigenous staff through the Evergreen program since 2016

1.2 Building cultural competency within the ACNC staffing community

Achievements to May 2016
Achievements to February 2018

a. Establish an ATSI Communities Engagement Strategy working group that meets regularly to monitor and report on progress of action plan and priorities

b. Identify relevant training courses and providers and resources that will support staff to develop:

  • an understanding of their personal cultural biases and awareness of their values, beliefs and perceptions
  • an appreciation of cultural differences between and within ATSI and non-ATSI communities, and how culture impacts all aspects of life
  • an awareness of the diversity of ATSI cultures and some of the key aspects of ATSI culture including kinship and family, the role of elders, laws, customs and protocols
  • an ability to work effectively in ATSI contexts

c. Develop ACNC ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ statement and policy

Develop a reconciliation action plan (RAP)

  • A core committee was established to develop the ATSI Communities Engagement Strategy
  • The ACNC runs diversity training each year to ensure all new staff attend
  • Angus Frith, Barrister gave a presentation to all staff on “Native title corporations achieving capacity in both Aboriginal and Australian legal systems
  • Aboriginal Liaison staff developed an Acknowledgement of Country for information sessions and key forums.
  • The ACNC Advisory Board quarterly meetings include a acknowledgement of country
  • The ATSI Communities Working Group held a preliminary meeting with Reconciliation Australia regarding the development of a RAP
  • Advice Services staff attended a presentation from the CEO of a small Aboriginal health service charity on Indigenous governance
  • ACNC Evergreen program managers attend cultural training
  • Held NAIDOC celebrations (managed by ALOs and Evergreen staff)
  • Developing a list of traditional owners and Indigenous contacts for the whole of Australia
  • ALO completed a secondment to the ATO for a higher duties professional development opportunity for 3 months
  • Two ALOs participated in an Indigenous mentoring program in Brisbane
  • All staff attended Indigenous cross cultural training with Why Warriors in August 2015
  • ALOs organised NAIDOC week celebrations and completed a report on the event

The working group coordinated celebrations of NAIDOC week each year including:

  • Educational emails
  • Posters
  • Guest speakers
  • Activities (e.g. painting)

Our ALOs & Evergreen staff also attended NAIDOC week activities to promote the role of the ACNC

The ACNC runs cultural awareness training every year. All new staff must attend the introductory program and staff who have already attended this attend a more advanced program

The ACNC Advisory Board make an acknowledgement of country at all board meetings

1.3 Developing ACNC’s understanding of the demographics of ATSI charities and the multilayered complexity of the contexts in which they operate

Achievements to May 2016
Achievements to February 2018

a. Identify and map all ATSI controlled charities.

b. Identify key peak bodies and groups, understand their roles and identify opportunities to work with them to support ATSI charities

c. Provide staff training so they understand the legal frameworks (eg Native Title, ORIC) and cultural influences for ATSI governance

  • Optional questions about cultural and language diversity have been included on form 3A Change of responsible person to enable the ACNC to collect data to identify Aboriginal controlled charities
  • An ALO and lawyer attend most quarterly meetings of Native Title Rep bodies and Service Providers CEOs and CFOs to present on current issues for native title PBCs and NTRBCs who are or want to be charities
  • Two ALOs and a lawyer attend AIATSIS annual native title conference and present papers in different forums on registration of Indigenous charities
  • Presentation by teleconference to WA PBCs on registration as charities
  • Presentations were delivered at VACCHO members meeting (Victoria), the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Conference
  • ALO’s worked with Consumer Affairs Victoria to identify all Aboriginal Controlled charities registered in Victoria
  • ALOs delivered sessions at new staff inductions covering different legal structures of Aboriginal controlled charities
  • Obtained approval and data from ORIC to include reporting in 2016 Charities Report
  • Finalised ongoing ORIC data share activity

1.4 Developing relevant and culturally appropriate support, education and guidance materials

Achievements to May 2016
Achievements to February 2018

a. Increase awareness of the role ALOs within the ACNC to ensure staff consult them as appropriate

b. Promote awareness of ACNC ALOs by customers through automated telephone greeting, social media, networks and other avenues

c. Ensure ATSI representation on ACNC user groups and relevant reference groups

d. Ensure an ALO attends relevant community presentations and makes contact with ATSI charities to invite to events

e. Use plain English, or interpreters where necessary

  • 13 22 62 helpline and published materials identify how to speak to an ALO
  • A video Meet the team: Victor Lovett, Indigenous Liaison Officer was completed and published on the ACNC website

  • Commissioners Interpretation Statement: Indigenous Charities addresses some particular legal issues faced by Indigenous charities
  • ALOs attended community presentations in Victoria, NSW, QLD, NT and WA during the year, some of which were specifically for Aboriginal controlled charities. They also arranged meetings with Aboriginal controlled charities and peak bodies in QLD, NT and WA.
  • Development of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-controlled charities resource page on the ACNC website at
  • Development of a section on the ACNC for the Indigenous Governance Toolkit
  • Development of a governance training package for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-controlled charities
  • Development of guidance for ORIC-registered charities
  • Two breakout sessions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-controlled charities held in Perth and Alice Springs as part of the Ask ACNC community education program in 2014
  • Used interpreters when working with charities where English was not the first language
  • Invited representative from Indigenous Governance Institute to join the ACNC Professional Users Group
  • Aboriginal Liaison Officers provided assistance to applicants regarding the registration process and provision of documents
  • ALOs provide assistance to Registration in supporting Indigenous groups applying for charity registration to ensure they understand the process
  • ALOs work with Compliance and charities at risk of receiving penalties by contacting the charities directly and explaining why they may receive penalties. This approach reduces non-compliance and the likelihood of these charities receiving penalties
  • The ACNC Advisory Board hosted a round table at Three Sistas, an Indigenous charity in Cairns providing support to the displaced and homeless through social housing. The Advisory Board also toured the facilities and heard from the charity directly about its work
  • While in Cairns, the ACNC hosted an information session with around 50 representatives from a range of charities including ATSI organisations

2.1 Work with other Regulators and funding agencies to reduce red tape and coordinate engagement

Achievements to May 2016
Achievements to February 2018

a. Enhance relationship with ORIC, ASIC and state Regulators of ATSI charities re:

  • Agreements developed to streamline reporting
  • work agency ATSI Liaison teams where appropriate
  • Joint education and/or compliance activities undertaken

b. Identify barriers to compliance and work with stakeholders to address barriers

  • The ACNC signed an MOU with ORIC that facilitates cooperation and sharing of information that means ORIC registered Corporations that are charities continue to only report once to ORIC. ORIC registered charities do not have any mandatory reporting to the ACNC
  • Assistant Commissioner General Counsel was a member of Treasury Working Group: Taxation of native title and traditional owner benefits and governance working group, which reported to Commonwealth government on 1 July 2013
  • Discussions with CAV, ORIC and other government agencies who work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-controlled charities to talk about guidance and education collaboration opportunities
  • Made contact with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to discuss red tape in Indigenous grants imposed by the requirement for entities to be incorporated under Commonwealth legislation. Opportunities exist for a streamlined exemption process for registered charities
  • ACNC and ORIC met in December 2016 to discuss customer service, complaints handling, registration, reporting and other matters of common interest
  • The ACNC-ORIC MOU was renewed in 2017
  • ACNC and ORIC exchange date monthly so that ORIC registered charities only report once to both regulators
  • ACNC made a submission to the review of the CATSI Act and are engaged in ongoing discussion about proposals
  • Compliance developed an MOU with PMC to improve coordination on compliance matters relating to Indigenous charities
  • Compliance worked with a number of charities to improve their governance practices

2.2 Work in partnership with ATSI charities and communities

Achievements to May 2016
Achievements to February 2018

a. Build relationships with peak ATSI organisations, seek their input and feedback on ACNC initiatives and work in partnership with them where appropriate

b. Identify barriers to ATSI charities to meeting their regulatory obligations and inform development of support materials and programs

c. Identify and respect local protocols and issues when visiting ATSI communities or organising meetings

  • Extensive external consultation during development of Indigenous Charities Commissioners Interpretation Statement and the ATSI Strategy
  • ALO worked with compliance in liaising with Indigenous charities
ACNC undertook planning to develop a series of roundtable events for Indigenous controlled organisations. The plan was to work with ORIC toward improving understanding of regulatory obligations and gain feedback on how to better work with Indigenous organisations. The work was not delivered due to funding constraints