Key points:

  • Like many organisations, charities can be the subject of complaints. These complaints might be from people external to the charity, other organisations, or can involve internal stakeholders – volunteers, staff or the board.
  • Charities should have a clear set of steps outlining how they will handle complaints. How they handle external complaints may differ from their handling of internal complaints, but having a procedure around which to base their complaints handling is vital.
  • Think about how easy it is for people to make complaints to your organisation. And develop a culture which ensures complaints are treated seriously, and that, as an organisation, you are committed to fair and effective complaints handling.
  • Competently handling complaints can help charities improve their performance, build better relationships, offer better services and foster increased public trust and confidence.

What is complaints handling?

At some point, most charities are likely to be involved in, or receive, a complaint. How your charity deals with those complaints is known as complaints handling. For charities, complaints can arise due to

  • Service failures, or the poor provision of services
  • Conflict, either
    • Internal – involving staff, board, volunteers
    • External – involving service users, donors, customers or others outside your charity
  • Mismanagement of people’s information or data
  • Concerns over charity performance, governance, management or spending
  • A lack of readily available information, or sub-par communication

Why is complaints handling important?

Handling complaints effectively can:

  • improve what you do – the services or programs you provide
  • have a positive impact on your community standing and reputation
  • engender loyalty among those who support you, as well as attract new supporters
  • have a beneficial effect on your bottom line.

Complaints handling can also be a chance for your organisation to learn, improve and actively listen to stakeholders or the general public. It can also showcase your charity's good governance practices.

Conversely, the poor handling of complaints can damage your public reputation as well as your community and financial standing.

Handling complaints

Your charity’s complaints policy and procedure should be simple, clear and accessible.

Your policy – the more general statement on how your charity handles complaints – should be available to the public as well as to your staff, board members and volunteers.

The policy should be a statement of:

  • how your charity views and acts on complaints,
  • the types of complaints your charity can consider,
  • the charity’s commitment to listen and to work towards a mutually satisfying resolution, and
  • what complainants should or shouldn’t expect from your charity.

It should also provide information about the bodies that can consider complaints that your charity is unable to (for example, state or federal regulators).

Meanwhile, your procedure – the nitty-gritty detail about how your charity addresses and resolves complaints – should also be accessible and available.

The procedure can cover:

  • Your charity’s initial response to complaints.
  • The process your charity will take to ensure the investigation of any complaint is fair and thorough. In some cases, this might include provision for the use of an independent mediator.
  • How your charity will communicate with those involved in the complaints process – both throughout the process and at its conclusion.
    • This includes any members of your charity’s staff, volunteers or board members. Where possible, members of staff should be informed if a complaint has been made about them or actions for which they were responsible; organisations have a duty of care to staff complained about as well as to complainants.
  • The steps towards how your charity will reach a decision, and then how it will communicate that decision – both to those involved in the complaint and, where appropriate, to the general public.
  • Your charity should aim to respond openly and respectfully to substantive points raised by a complainant, explaining why you consider those points justified or not.
  • An explanation of how your charity will learn from the complaint and what it will do to prevent similar things happening in the future – be it through changes in policy, procedure, service or training.

new guidance icon A number of Australian charity sector peak bodies have contributed to a model complaints handling policy and procedure. The documents are available on the nfplaw website: – and are a useful starting point for charities.

Internal and external complaints

The way your charity approaches internal complaints – where charity staff, board members or volunteers are the only ones involved – may well differ from how it handles complaints which involve people both internal and external to your organisation.

Your charity should be clear if (and how) these approaches differ, and ensure any differences in approach do not compromise the fairness and thoroughness of your process.