Positivity and optimism at Not-for-Profit forum

- August 2022

There was a palpable sense of relief and optimism sensed at the annual Governance Institute of Australia NFP Governance Forum, even from my virtual viewing platform, as the end of the war on charities was declared. The Forum was strangely bookended by an opening speech from the incoming Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, The Hon Dr Andrew Leigh, and the concluding presentation from the outgoing Commissioner of the Australian Charities & Not-for-Profits Commission, The Hon Dr Gary Johns. It was a slightly discombobulating way to begin and end the forum, but the strong sense was a positive new dawn for For-Purpose organisations.

Dr Leigh both articulated and demonstrated his strong enthusiasm for his ministerial role and long-standing intellectual engagement with the sector. He reflected on the declining levels of social capital in Australia, across the community, and the leading role that For-Purpose organisations can play in addressing this slide. At the forefront of his address were several key themes, being the new Federal Government’s:

  • Belief in the ability of charities to advocate
  • Belief that a more connected society is a better society
  • Aim to double philanthropic giving by 2030
  • Ambition to better harmonise fundraising regulations between the Commonwealth and the states, to support charitable giving and to modernise to reflect modern economies.

The change in direction outlined by Dr Leigh was given strong support from a panel of leaders within the sector, including Sue Woodward (Chief Advisor of Not-for-Profit Law at Justice Connect), and David Crosbie (Chief Executive Officer, Community Council for Australia). They welcomed the news that advocacy was no longer a dirty word for the sector and pointed to some of the challenges for further reform. Further steps required in terms of regulatory change included the modernisation and streamlining of regulations such as fundraising laws, taxation laws (such as deductible gift recipient status) and workforce awards were highlighted, noting that the way they exist now would not be tolerated in the private sector. The Productivity Commission’s recommendation that all charities with greater than $10M revenue should report publicly to the ACNC (specifically noting religious institutions) was given strong support.

Important reminders to governance specialists and those holding key governance roles were provided by several presenters, including Marc Purcell (Chief Executive Officer, Australian Council for International Development), Trent Dean (Chief Executive Officer, Mercy Connect), and David Swain (Chief Executive Officer, Endeavour Foundation). The importance of governance training for Directors was emphasised as a necessary and ongoing requirement for anyone holding these roles. Ensuring that you are an active and engaged Director was seen as paramount to the role. You can’t just do part of the role: don’t miss meetings, make sure you read all the papers, speak up. Align yourself with the mission and purpose and park your personal ambitions or preferences. And make sure the focus is on the organisation’s purpose not just its regulatory requirements.

Marc Purcell, in his presentation From Ukraine to Lismore: The task of the sector in a changing world reflected on the difficulty in recent times of being an organisation heavily involved in advocacy and while simultaneously receiving government funding and the hope that the environment has changed with the change of federal government. He also reflected on the changing nature of government foreign aid expenditure and its inverse relationship with defence spending, with the ratio widening significantly in the past decade. The consequences of a reduction in foreign aid spending have led to new campaigns to address this shortfall but also the establishment of new alliances and relationships, particularly with Defence.

Joshua Ross (Founder & CEO, Humanitix), and Jennifer Burns (Founding Partner & Impact Specialist, Counting Numbers) shared some interesting insights on changing dynamics in For-Purpose and Social Enterprises. A key reflection was comparing the approach to investment between the For-Purpose sector and the private sector. Contending that the philanthropic model was deficient as donors are willing to fund seed capital but not to scale up, whereas in the private sector there is an expectation that investment will scale up, the new approach was to take strategic thinking away from a charitable model to a business development focus. Social Enterprise structures such as a For-Purpose entity owning a for-profit business (such as the Humanitix model) may be the model of the future.

Cyber Security and Technology Governance were big themes of two separate presentations. John Halliday (Information Technology Governance Consultant, PKF) gave an entire talk on this subject and suggested ISO 31000 was your best friend in considering technological risk, with the main suggestion being to focus on the extreme risks rather than every possible eventuality. Andrew Methven (Head of Risk & Compliance, Hearing Australia), and Darryn Hammond, (General Manager of Risk & Assurance, Churches of Christ Queensland) covered cyber security in a broader discussion on risk governance, noting that the risk was in not being prepared and realising the greatest threat is not the bots but the people within your organisation. Interesting perspectives on Risk Appetite were shared, including ensuring a consistent approach is applied and developing frameworks that provide certainty and empowerment for management to act. A very contemporary reflection on the recent years of health and environmental disasters was for organisations to not reflexively switch back to pre-crisis models of operation – the world and your situation has changed so evolve the organisations operations and risk management accordingly.

Rounding out the sector-led sessions was Lisa Kingman (Chief Executive Officer, Tanarra Philanthropic Advisory) sharing her insights into modern philanthropy. A foundational element to her approach was engaging philanthropy as a sharing practice, rather than a giving practice, which synergised some of the perspectives of Dr Leigh and social capital as well as Joshua Ross’ reflections on Social Enterprise investment. Lisa challenged the audience with several key questions for your organisation that are fundamental to your philanthropic approach:

  • If you ceased tomorrow, why would that matter?
  • What is your bait and your hook?
  • When did you last collaborate or explore potential with a like-minded NGO?
  • Relationships – who has the relationships in your organisation? Is it one person? The fundraiser? The CEO? The Board? Should probably be a combination of all three.

By the time the engaging and challenging forum ended with the ACNC Commissioner making the days last presentation in what was quite possibly his final act in the role, it was clear that the audience had been provided an insight into a more positive future for the For-Purpose sector and a roadmap for organisational governance that will support sustainable and impactful organisations connecting their communities.

Brendan Egan is Head of For-Purpose and Community at Parbery. He is passionate about developing better social outcomes for the community and has worked extensively across primary health, aged care, community services, social housing, arts and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash