Four years ago, we started a journey by asking a simple question: “What is useful information?”
We asked this question because the ACNC Act asks the Commission to “provide information to help the public understand the work of the sector”.
This is not as simple as it may first appear. For example, “useful information for whom?”
The ‘public’, like the ‘charity sector’, is made up of an extraordinary range of individuals and entities - donors, researchers, service users, volunteers, and charities.
We aim to inspire giving, to facilitate collaboration and innovation, to foster partnerships and learning, and provide a more detailed view into the charity world to support informed decision-making.
So our next question became: “How best to capture useful information and provide that more detailed view into the charity world?”
The ACNC Register provides a surety of a charity’s integrity, but in consulting it, you cannot readily determine what a charity does.
We have visited a great many charities in the last four years, but especially in the early period it seemed that whenever we sat down and spoke to their Responsible People, they always talked of the programs they were delivering to their beneficiaries.
And that’s it - the work of the sector is best described by the programs charities run for their beneficiaries.
And that meant we had to look at how to gather information about those programs.
Our key reporting instrument is the Annual Information Statement, so the information had to be caught through the AIS. We spied our friends at Our Community using a taxonomy of not-for-profit and charitable causes: familiar words to describe charitable causes.
We refined the taxonomy to suit charitable purposes and with the definition of each of approximately 800 charitable purposes are thousands of words and synonyms that will help you navigate your way to your preferences among the array of programs offered by Australian charities to their beneficiaries.
To the two elements, ‘programs’ and the ‘charitable taxonomy’ was added a much finer offering of geographic locations for program services, down to, in some cases, suburbs.
With this in place, we had to solve the information issue within the bounds of our powers. We invited charities to use the system, conscious that we could not ask more than the question we had asked for many years in the AIS about their “main activity”. We asked instead for “main program”.
And we provided the option of placing up to 10 programs into the AIS.
Some of the very large charities thought that would be too much of a burden because they had hundreds of programs. But when they thought about it, they had only a handful of programs but delivered these at many locations.
We are pleased that large charities have used the AIS to provide information about their programs at multiple locations. For small charities, many of which run one program, there was little extra work at all.
So now, in addition to 60,000 charities on the Register, we have about 80,000 programs listed.
These are specific as to who they assist and where the service is delivered, including online. Soon we will incorporate all the international locations where Australian charities deliver programs.
And charities will soon be able to update programs in real time – particularly useful when disasters strike, and charities add a program to support recovery.
Which programs and charities people decide to support, using the information provided on the Charity Register, is up to them.
Most people donate or volunteer based on life experience. A register does not substitute for that experience, but it can enhance it, or lead to further options in giving and volunteering.
Philanthropists, grant makers, trusts, and governments, groups such as Workplace Giving, will find the marketplace a powerful tool.
And, of course, if it is not giving, it is volunteering. A volunteer might be looking for a charity in their suburb or region. They may be new to town, looking for a way to get involved.
Individuals who might need a charitable service will find it especially useful. Charities will use it for collaboration.
And of course, there are those who advise philanthropy, as well as academic researchers and journalists.
We are enormously proud of what we have built: a searchable register that can help you find a cause close to your heart.
The Hon Dr Gary Johns
* This is an edited version of the address Dr Gary Johns gave at the launch of the ACNC’s enhanced Charity Register in Melbourne on 1 March 2022. Watch a recording of the full launch.