October 11, 2017

Are we self-censoring?

By CSI Philanthropy Fellow Gina Anderson

There seems to me to be an uneasy silence in the charity sector around government policy. While the Community Council for Australia is publicly fighting for the right of charities to advocate, and Philanthropy Australia is discussing advocacy, the rest of the sector seems unusually reserved.

While referring to US Foundations, my feeling is that Darren Walker, President, The Ford Foundation, in his blog “a Call for Moral Courage in America” 6 September 2017 speaks for many of us when he says that:

We foundations often hide behind the particulars of our missions, rather than standing up for the deeper values our missions embody. We keep our heads down to avoid making our organizations targets for criticism, especially in the era of social media warfare.

Are we too, in the Australian charity sector, keeping our heads down to avoid criticism? Is the asymmetry of power that comes with government funding scaring us, the charity sector, into self-censorship? Large funded projects that are not delivering could at best waste precious resources and at worst unintentionally do harm. Are we brave enough to talk truth to power, to risk the loss of funding, to advise government where it is going in the wrong direction?

Are we losing our independence? Question 12 of the, Consultation on Tax Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) Reform Opportunities discussion paper, raises an important issue around the independence of charities and their ability to direct their resources appropriately towards their mission. Any restriction on how a charity utilises their resources, regardless of which sector they operate in, may be an unjustified interference with the independence of the sector. Current charity law imposes no obligations on charities to spend their funds in accordance to the specific wishes of government or their donors. Registered charities should have the freedom to allocate their resources appropriately, including towards advocacy work that supports their cause, as long as they meet the requirements of the Charities Act 2013 and the ACNC Act.

On his recent trip to Australia, Daniel Lee, Executive Director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, encouraged us to have the courage to be involved in the issues of our time. He said advocacy is not about being a trouble maker. Agitation by charities is important for democracy, for advocacy is the life-blood of democracy.

 Perhaps our reticence on speaking out and advocacy is more about our over-reliance on government funding. The ACNC’s Australian Charities Report 2015 reported that over 46% of large charities (revenues of $1m and over) were more likely to depend on government income for more than half their income. More recently the AICD 2017 NFP Governance and Performance Study found that ‘many NFPs reported profit margins insufficient to ensure long-term survival, let alone to approach the challenges of the future from a position of financial strength.’

Diversifying our revenue streams will not only underpin our charity’s financial sustainability but also give ourselves the freedom to speak up.

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