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As everyone would be aware, there has been a lot of discussion and debate in recent weeks surrounding the activities of charities in the lead-up to this month’s Federal election.

Much of that discussion has centred on what is or isn’t allowed in situations where charities, politics and elections intersect. It has also made clear how important it is that charities are absolutely clear on how their activities must be linked to the purpose.

A charity’s activities must be carried out in aid of, or to support, its charitable purpose. This purpose is the reason it operates and the reason it is granted charitable status (and may receive benefits like charitable tax concessions).

A charity’s activities may include advocacy and campaigning. Of that there is no doubt.

As I have said a few times in interviews with the media over the past month, charities are free to advocate or campaign for or against a position or an issue – for example, around a change to the law or a policy debate.

They can sing and shout from the rooftops about it, even in the lead-up to a federal election. But that singing and shouting – that activity – must be in line with the charity’s work, and must further its charitable purpose.

And that activity must not cross the line into areas of concern, a consideration that is especially important in the lead-up to a federal election.

As I wrote in this column in February, a charity cannot promote or oppose a political party or a candidate for political office. This is one type of disqualifying purpose, and the ACNC will pursue a range of compliance actions against charities if their purposes are not charitable.

Being seen as partisan can damage charities’ community standing

But it is not just ACNC rules that a charity and its people should be aware of; there are issues beyond ACNC compliance that can have an impact.

Generally, there is strong community and public interest in the area where charities and politics intersect. But during an election period that interest is even greater, and there is greater scrutiny from the community, in the media and on social media.

A charity whose activities are perceived as crossing the line (such as a representative of a charity using their charity name to endorse a political candidate on promotional material), or that veer far from the purpose for which it was established, runs the risk of alienating supporters. If the wider community – including donors, supporters and volunteers – see a charity’s actions, and the charity itself, as partisan, it may damage the charity’s reputation or result in a loss of support from donors and volunteers.

It can be hard for a charity to regain lost reputation, especially if it has worked to build its reputation and community standing over a long period of time. It can have a significant or prolonged impact on a charity, and reduce public trust in the sector as a whole.

Stop, reflect and have safeguards

I would urge any charity undertaking advocacy or campaigning to stop and ask themselves some questions before they do so.

  • Is this activity in aid of, or to support, our charity’s purpose?
  • Could this advocacy or campaigning be seen as partisan, with no clear link to furthering our purpose? Or could the activity even be linked to a disqualifying purpose?
  • Could this advocacy damage our reputation or community standing? Could it alienate sections of the community or even parts of our existing supporter base?

A charity’s Responsible People should always keep at the front of their minds the purpose for which the charity has been registered and reason it has been granted charitable status.

And charities should have clear procedures, checks and processes for approval of material, comments or actions that might sail close to the wind. This should be the case at all times, but especially around election times where risks can increase.

Finally, I again direct charities to the great guide on the ACNC website - Charities, elections and advocacy.

It clearly explains the difference between a charity’s activities and its charitable purpose, as well as providing a useful summary of issues surrounding advocacy and campaigning – particularly during an election period.

Best wishes,
The Hon Dr Gary Johns