The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) celebrates its fifth anniversary on December 3 2017 in a time of significant change. The inaugural Commissioner, Susan Pascoe, left her position at the end of September. Changes to the Advisory Board in November 2017 completed a full changeover from the inaugural board. The legislation that underpins the ACNC’s very existence is about to undergo its five-year review.
It is an appropriate time to reflect on the role of the ACNC over its first five years, the effect of regulation on the charity sector, and what we can expect from the ACNC in the coming months.
The establishment of the ACNC was not an entirely smooth project – the very idea of a regulator for the charity sector was uncomfortable for many people and sparked fears among some about the nature of government intervention in this sector.
Some wondered whether the charity sector needed government regulation. They feared that a regulator be too heavy-handed for the charity sector. And there were widespread concerns that a regulator would simply add more red tape to a sector that already felt hampered by red tape.
All reasonable concerns.
But there seems to be general consensus in the charity sector that the first five years of the ACNC has not seen these concerns and fears materialise.
The ACNC’s regulatory approach has been fair, firm when necessary, and focused on education. We have been proportionate in our oversight, have kept the legislated objects in view, and worked to support charities.
The ACNC has been obsessive in pursuing its goal or reducing red tape for charities. Although progress has not always been as fast as we may have – maybe naïvely – initially expected, significant progress has been made. Several states have passed legislation which aligns reporting with the ACNC’s requirements, contributing greatly to a reduction in red tape for charities.
In this sense, the ACNC has provided more than just regulatory oversight. Over the first five years, through its regulatory approach, the ACNC has been able to contribute to the sector in meaningful ways.
Two of the most prominent benefits are the ACNC Charity Register, Australia’s first searchable register of Australian charities, and the annual Charities Report, a comprehensive report on the sector based on the data collected in the ACNC’s annual returns.
Both provide the charity sector – and the public more broadly – with unprecedented insight into charities’ operations, finances and services. They allow us to form an accurate view of the charity sector and its support for the community.
One other important contribution I think is worth noting – and it is one that may often go unnoticed – is the ACNC’s support for charity board members and charity governance. For many charities, governance can be a real challenge and setting up the right structures, procedures and culture is difficult.
The ACNC’s commitment to good governance in the charity sector is a cornerstone of the regulatory approach. By providing free resources in the form of guides, fact sheets, webinars and other tailored advice, the ACNC encourages people in charities to take the time to think about their charity’s operations and how their governance can lead to better outcomes.
And with good governance across the sector, the benefits of trust and confidence will flow.
A state of flux is not a time to rest on one’s laurels, however. Whilst celebrating the achievements is important, we have not lost sight of the immediate future.
Looming large for the ACNC is the review of the legislation. Although the legislation in its current iteration has served us well, naturally, five years has provided some valuable lessons and opened our eyes to potential improvements.
And there will shortly be a new ACNC Commissioner who will no doubt stamp their approach on our operations.
Like everyone else watching from the sidelines, we await the review and hope that any changes to the ACNC Act enable the ACNC to perform its duties – both to the charity sector and the wider public – more effectively and to the same high standards achieved over the first five years.