Australians Want to Hear the Voices of Charities – Politicians Take Note

Recent studies show that an overwhelming majority of Australians support the idea that the voice of charities is an important part of our democracy and all politicians would do well to take note, writes David Crosbie, CEO of Community Council for Australia, Pro Bono News, 23 November 2017.

Australians Want to Hear the Voice of Charities – Politicians Take Note, Pro Bono News, 23 November 2017 

Two new research reports have been released this week. Both underscore the fundamental importance of charities actively representing their causes and their communities. They also provide a stark contrast between how the public see the role of charities and how they view multinational corporations.

The first of these new reports is the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission’s Public Trust and Confidence in Charities 2017 Report.

Many studies have indicated over recent years that levels of public trust and confidence in our major institutions has generally been falling around the world. Some have argued this decline in trust has contributed to the election of Donald Trump and the UK Brexit vote.

At a time when even those of us who have been around for a few years are struggling to come to terms with just how uncertain federal politics and government decision making has become, it would be surprising if levels of trust in Australian institutions was not declining.

Over the last 12 months there has also been some high-profile cases involving charities not doing the right thing with multiple reports about the misuse of funds by the RSL and ongoing investigations by Fair Work Australia into the practices of some fundraising firms used by a number of charities.

We know that these high-profile media stories take their toll on the standing of charities.

Yet, despite all these factors, the ACNC report indicates that charities still enjoy very high levels of public trust and confidence. The outstanding exception is religious institutions where public trust and confidence is at an all-time low – below almost every other group.This fall from grace of religious institutions will come as no surprise to anyone.

The figures indicate 86 per cent of Australians trust charities. This finding is slightly less than in 2015 when trust in charities was at 90 per cent. Trust in other groups, including federal Parliament, is at least 30 per cent below the level of trust in charities.

The findings of the ACNC research are definitive – the voices of charities carry significantly more credibility than the voices of most other organisations, including our news services and our Parliaments.

The second important release of new findings this week relates to charities, advocacy and elections. A short poll of over 1,800 people conducted by Essential Media highlighted views about the role of charities in our democracy.  

Of particular note are the findings that only 10 per cent of those surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that: “Charities should have a public voice on the issues they have been established to address.”

Only 20 per cent of those surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that: “Restricting advocacy by charities risks silencing the voice of Australian communities and hindering the operation of our democracy.”

These results indicate that charities not only have permission from their communities to be advocates for their cause, but an implied responsibility to speak up on behalf of their communities. The overwhelming majority of Australians support the idea that the voice of charities is an important part of our democracy.  

The same cannot be said about how most Australians view the role of multinational companies.  

The findings suggest people understand that when a corporate company advocates for certain policies, they are usually doing so for pecuniary gain rather than public benefit.

This view is reflected in the survey responses to statements about advocacy during election periods.

Only 29 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that: “Charities that accept overseas donations should be allowed to publicly advocate on issues during or near elections.”

While for corporations, only 10 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that: “Foreign-owned companies should be banned from advocating on issues during or near elections.”

These findings clearly reinforce the view that the vast majority of our communities want to hear the voices of charities, but do not want multi-national companies pushing their agendas, particularly during election campaigns.

There are two very clear take home messages here –  charities are trusted; and the majority of people believe the advocacy of charities makes Australia a better place.

And, of course, they are right.

Charities and not-for-profit organisations are the heart-beat of our communities. They are what hold us together and make us better, in good times and in bad. They are a force for change and a force for preserving what is most important to us all. So much of what has been achieved in Australia has been achieved through the tireless work of charities.

The ACNC report indicates that 90 per cent of Australians claim some involvement with a charity over the last 12 months; over one million are employed as staff in charities, more than five million volunteer, and many more are donors and supporters.This is not a sector that should be ignored or have their views dismissed.

At a time when the government is finalising how best to limit foreign influence over Australian elections, all politicians would do well to remember that charities are not the problem here.

The Charities Act of 2013 already restricts the political activities of charities. Unlike multinational companies and other advocates, charities must be established for a public benefit. Charities cannot donate to political parties. Charities cannot campaign in support of a particular political party or candidate. Charities cannot distribute how to vote cards.

Attempts to further restrict the voice of charities during election periods will not only provoke a needless battle with the charities sector, it will also alienate the vast majority of Australians who believe we are a better place when charities are free to champion their causes during election periods.

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