In 2020, momentous challenges tested Australia’s charity sector and placed significant demands on the ACNC as the regulator. Chief among them were the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating summer bushfires. As the year draws to a close, it is encouraging to reflect and acknowledge that charities have been extremely innovative, and have shown great resilience. Yet challenges remain as the demands on many charities are only increasing at a time when, for many, money is tight and restrictions still impact their use of volunteers.
In difficult times, it is important that we strike a balance between supporting charities and ensuring that the public is protected. In recognition of the uncertainty and challenges brought by COVID-19, we changed our compliance approach temporarily and we also focused on providing information that would help charities meet their obligations and access support to manage in this changing environment.
Concerns raised about bushfire appeals run earlier this year prompted the ACNC to undertake special reviews and publish a landmark report, Bushfire Response 2019-20 – Reviews of three Australian charities. It examined how charities managed a huge influx of donations for the summer bushfires, focusing on three charities that received in excess of $420m between them through bushfire appeals – the Australian Red Cross Society, the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Services & Brigades Donations Fund and NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service Incorporated.
During the disaster, charities faced pressure from donors, the public and media to use donations in a range of ways – some of which they were legally not allowed to do. Despite that criticism, we found the charities acted appropriately.
For the wider charity sector, the report demonstrates the importance of managing funds carefully and responsibly, and in doing so, emphasises the need for charities to be open and transparent about their plans. When charities stick to their purpose, and are open about how they are spending funds, they promote donor and public trust in their organisation and confidence in the sector as a whole.
The latest edition of the Australian Charities Report, published this year, showed an economically significant and robust sector, based on pre-COVID data. Key findings were that donations totalled $10.5 billion across the sector; revenue (from all sources) grew more than 6% — three times the rate of the Australian economy in the same period; charities provided employment to over one million people; and 3.7 million volunteers contributed to charities, giving time and labour.
Charities are now dealing with a global pandemic that has seen demand for their services rise while charities themselves struggle to stay afloat.
Recently, I announced an excellent opportunity for charities to showcase their work. The Annual Information Statement 2020 enables each charity to provide details about their programs. The aim is to transform the ACNC Charity Register into a more effective tool for charities and those who seek to work with and support them. The general public, donors, philanthropists, grant-makers and volunteers will be able to search for charities doing work they want to support, in the location of their choice, in what we have envisioned as a ‘charity marketplace’. It will improve transparency and, as a result, increase public trust and confidence in charities.
We continued our work with all state and territory governments to bring about meaningful reductions in red tape for charities. Follow our progress on reducing red tape and see updated requirements in each state and territory here.
Finally, the effectiveness of the ACNC’s regulation of charities received a tick. We welcomed the Australian National Audit Office finding that the ACNC has been largely effective in delivering our regulatory responsibilities for registered charities.
Ultimately it is people – from stakeholders, to people working in charities, to staff – who make the difference. We are here to help charities deliver for the benefit of Australians.
Without the expert input of our Adviser and Sector Forums we wouldn’t be able to do our work. We greatly appreciate the contributions made by members of both those groups, who are a vital sounding board, along with our experienced Advisory Board.
Throughout the year I met regularly with charities from around Australia. The effort and creativity that is brought to bear by charities to solve problems and help the Australian community inspires and impresses me.
Deservedly, we dedicated our final campaign of the year to promoting giving and highlighting the contribution of Australian charities. A timely reminder in a difficult year.
Thank-you to everyone for their continued support throughout 2020. I hope you enjoy a relaxing festive season and a Happy New Year.
The Hon Dr Gary Johns