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Should charities advocate?


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It's a debate we need to have: should charities be free to lobby the governments they are funded by in a bid to change policy?

A number of charities have expressed alarm after Gary Johns -- a former Keating government minister  -- was appointed Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

Dr Gary Johns.

Dr Gary Johns. Picture: YouTube

While a strong advocate for the charitable sector, Dr Johns is also well known for his view that charities should not use their resources to influence governments, in terms of both their causes and funding.

While a number of views expressed by Dr Johns have alarmed the charitable sector, what concerns them most is his view that charities funded by government and with tax deductable status should not be free to advocate against government policy.

I am not sufficiently informed to argue for or against the appointment of Mr Johns -- and I don’t intend to try. He may be the best person for the job, and he may not. The concerns of the charitable sector may be valid, or not.

But I am interested in exploring this question:

Should charities funded by government (whether directly or via tax deductions) be free to lobby and advocate for policy change, either with the support of government or in response to community pressure?

To many on both sides of the debate, the answer to this question is straight forward. Those who think charities should be free to advocate say it is their role to do so. Those who argue against will say that they should not bite the hand that feeds them.

I cannot see that it is that black and white. I see a complex debate here.

I also see a debate that needs to be had, especially now that Dr Johns has been appointed and we have a Federal Government that does not favour the charities it funds lobbying against it.

I would have thought that there were a number of questions here, including:

  • What organisations are defined as charities?
  • What is the role of a charity?
  • What constitutes political lobbying?
  • Should government money have conditions?
  • Is this an attack on free speech?
  • Charities are organisations that serve the community in a not-for-profit capacity, addressing an established community, health, economic or social need. This includes several thousand registered charities in Australia. To be eligible for grants and tax deductions, charities have to be registered.

    There is a grey area regarding churches. Are churches charities?

    I would argue that they are.  So any legislation targeting the advocacy of charities should also target churches, who also receive grants, tax deductions and featured prominently in the recent same-sex marriage debate.

    It is generally agreed that the role of a charity is to provide the services that it is paid, or sponsored, to provide. That can involve providing housing, feeding the hungry, supporting the ill, medical research and many other such activities. Most people would agree with this.

    But there is a grey area in relation to whether the role of a charity is to simply provide services, or also to help eliminate need for those services.

    Is it the role of Foodbank to supply food, or also to help eliminate hunger? I argue that it is the latter, which almost axiomatically involves lobbying and advocating on behalf of the hungry.

    Many in the community would not view taking a political stand or taking on a government as the role of a charity. Most people would not like to think that their donations are being used to change government policy rather than providing housing to those who need it.

    There is a real complication here in that one could, and I would, suggest that all issues impacting on the plight of those served by charities are political.

    Even solutions to health issues involve government funding and health policy most of the time. I would argue that it is not possible for any charity to do its job adequately without some advocacy -- and that advocacy will inevitably be seen as political by some.

    Preventing a charity from lobbying and advocacy may well be viewed as an attack on free speech.

    I argue that it is, but much worse!

    Lobbying and advocacy by charities is all about getting ideas out there, starting conversations and challenging the status quo. I believe that stopping them from doing this stifles debate and restricts the generation of new ideas, which just may move the world forward.

    About this I can see no grey area or complication. So long as a charity sticks to its area of expertise and registration, I would argue it has a responsibility to lobby, advocate, spread ideas and fight for those ideas.

    That said, I would also believe government should have the expectation that these charities will not go off the reservation and advocate for causes and issues that have nothing to do with the activities they are registered to address.

    Further, I would argue that this is so not just for charities funded or supported by government. If I donate to a charity, I want them to do whatever they can to address the issues they exist to address, and I would not like to see them address issues outside of that remit – even if I agree with their position.

    What do you think?

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