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External Conduct Standard 4 requires charities to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of vulnerable individuals overseas. It applies where individuals are:

  • being provided with services or accessing benefits under programs provided by the charity (whether directly or through collaboration with a third party)
  • engaged by the charity, or a third party in collaboration with the charity, to provide services or benefits on behalf of the charity or third party.

‘Vulnerable individuals’ are defined as people under the age of 18, or those who may be:

  • unable to take care of themselves, or
  • unable to protect themselves against harm or exploitation.

This could be due - but not limited to - their age, an illness, trauma, disability, or some other form of disadvantage.

The vulnerability may be permanent (for example, an aged-related vulnerability) or temporary (for example, a person forced to move to a shelter due to personal circumstances).

Purpose of this standard

The purpose of this standard is to ensure that a charity’s operations outside Australia are undertaken in a way that minimises the risk of harm, exploitation or abuse of a vulnerable person.

This is consistent with the community’s expectations of charities.

Reasonable steps to meet this standard

The ACNC does not prescribe what a charity must do to meet this standard. Based on its own circumstances, each charity must decide the appropriate action required.

The ACNC expects a charity to have considered the risks to vulnerable people associated with its overseas activities, including those carried out in collaboration with a third party.

The reasonable steps that a charity must take, and the reasonable procedures it must maintain, will depend on its particular circumstances and the associated risks. These considerations will be different for each charity.

To decide what these steps should be, a charity should consider:

  • the nature and degree of the vulnerability of the people it works with
  • its size and the number of staff and volunteers it has
  • its level of knowledge, and how experienced its people are in working with vulnerable people
  • the nature, scale, complexity and location of its overseas activities
  • the effectiveness of the current policies and procedures governing its activities
  • the working and living conditions of staff and volunteers overseas
  • how disasters or conflict could affect the vulnerability of people in the area
  • cultural issues and local practices
  • its work with third parties.

By not taking the appropriate steps to protect vulnerable people, a charity risks:

  • abuse or harm to vulnerable beneficiaries
  • health and safety issues, including injury to beneficiaries, staff and volunteers
  • compensation claims and legal action due to stress or harassment
  • damage to its reputation, as well as the reputation of the wider charity sector.

Ways to meet this standard

The actions a charity takes to meet this standard will depend on its individual circumstances.

As a first step, a charity should identify and assess the risks to vulnerable people associated with its activities overseas.

It should pay special attention to high-risk activities linked to children and vulnerable people, such as overseas volunteering and child sponsorship. Refer to the case studies on this page for more detailed guidance and information focusing on these high-risk activities.

Once a charity has identified and assessed the risks, it should develop a plan to manage those risks.

Some things that a charity can do to manage risks include:

  • developing a policy that commits the charity's staff, volunteers, third parties and visitors to protecting vulnerable individuals
  • ensuring the safety of vulnerable people an important criterion when selecting third parties
  • developing a code of conduct outlining appropriate behaviour when working with vulnerable people
  • ensuring staff, volunteers and visitors are aware they must report suspected abuse within the charity
  • ensuring the privacy of vulnerable people is always protected
  • establishing thorough staff and volunteer recruitment processes, including adequate background checks
  • ensuring staff and volunteers are suitably qualified in safeguarding vulnerable people and properly supervised when working with them
  • having a procedure for confidential complaints that is accessible for all vulnerable people, staff, volunteers and third parties
  • dealing with complaints appropriately, sensitively and promptly
  • ensuring staff and volunteers working overseas have access to suitable housing, food, insurance, medical services and communications
  • establishing an emergency exit plan for staff and volunteers working in conflict zones or other dangerous locations
  • thoroughly checking the legal status, reputation and procedures of third parties
  • ensuring third parties have the appropriate registrations and licenses to conduct activities with vulnerable people, and that they meet required standards
  • having written agreements that clearly set out roles and responsibilities of third parties, and monitor third parties’ activities through regular reporting and checks.

A charity must meet safeguarding requirements, or relevant minimum standards, as set out in both Australian law and the laws of the host country.

Most of these actions are simple and, where appropriate, most charities will be able to do them. But if you think your charity doesn’t have anyone available with enough knowledge and experience, it is a good idea to seek expert help or advice.

Case studies: Supporting vulnerable children overseas

Working to support vulnerable children overseas comes with risk and it is important that a charity has the governance practices to mitigate and manage these risks.

To help a charity consider its governance for supporting vulnerable children overseas, we have developed two case studies that show how other charities have approached the issue.

Charity A was registered with the ACNC in 2021 with its main activity being to fundraise to support an orphanage in Thailand.

Before establishing a formal agreement with the orphanage for regular funding, Charity A checked that the orphanage had suitable governance policies and processes to protect its vulnerable beneficiaries and to manage its finances responsibly.

Charity A found that the orphanage was well governed. It had reasonable policies and procedures to protect children in its care and had reasonable financial management processes to ensure its funds were used for its charitable purpose.

In establishing the formal agreement for regular funding, Charity A made sure it would receive a regular report detailing the use of the funds it provided to support the children at the orphanage.

After several months of providing funds, the charity was to send several of its Responsible People and volunteers to visit the orphanage to see the impact of its funding. 

In preparing for the visit, Charity A realised that it would need its own policies to manage the risks associated with a visit to the orphanage. The charity wrote a policy that established guidelines for interactions with vulnerable children and outlined screening processes it would carry out for visitors. It also included procedures to safeguard its own Responsible People and volunteers from any risks that could compromise their safety. 

Charity A used publicly available resources to help write its policy. It identified risks associated with ‘voluntourism’ and took extra steps to ensure that its regular funding and any visits to the orphanage in Thailand did not unintentionally exploit the vulnerable children. 

Charity A's board worked with the orphanage to strengthen its policies, and develop new practices, that ensured children are not trafficked or removed from family, and the orphanage is having a positive effect in the local community.

Charity B provides education for disadvantaged children in Indonesia. It is a small charity and raises about $20,000 each year for a partner organisation in Indonesia that runs the education project to support disadvantaged children.

Charity B was established after its founding members travelled to Indonesia and saw the disadvantage faced by the local communities they visited. On their trip, the founding members met the director of the partner organisation and were impressed by the work it was doing to support children in the local community.   

We reviewed Charity B and asked it to demonstrate the reasonable steps it had taken to ensure there is appropriate governance and oversight for the funds it sends overseas. 

Because Charity B was not delivering the project, it relied on the overseas partner to have appropriate policies and processes for its use of the funds. Charity B’s arrangement with the overseas partner was mainly based on trust that it was using the funds for the right purposes. It had not taken reasonable steps itself to ensure there were appropriate standards of governance and oversight for the way the partner organisation was using its funds.

In response to our review, Charity B made some changes to its arrangements with its partner organisation in Indonesia. It looked at its obligations under the External Conduct Standards and established an agreement with its partner organisation to:

  • regularly review the policies for safeguarding people and for financial management
  • receive regular project reports with evidence of how the partner organisation was using the funds
  • review plans for upcoming projects that it had planned to fund.

The changes allowed Charity B to strengthen the relationship with the partner organisation in Indonesia and ensure it was doing the right things to comply with obligations in Australia and protect the beneficiaries of its charitable purpose in Indonesia.

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