The ACNC recently published an article to provide clarification on charities participating in public advocacy. The following summary will assist any charities that are considering public advocacy in any regard and would like clarification on what it is permissible for the organisation under current requirements.
Many charities utilise public advocacy to achieve their organisation’s charitable purposes. However, an important question arises: is the activity consistent with their charitable purpose or does engaging in public advocacy inadvertently disqualify the organisation from their charitable status?
We turn to The Charities Act 2013 (Cth) for guidance on the definition of a charity and charitable purposes. The legislation lists several charitable purposes, including advancing health, advancing religion, advancing culture, promoting or protecting human rights, and more. As part of this same list, the legislation also includes the charitable purpose "of promoting or opposing a change to any matter established by law" when it aids another eligible charitable purpose.
This means that a charity can participate in public advocacy activities when those activities support a charitable purpose – even where it is not the registered charitable purpose of the charity.
For instance, if a proposed law is perceived to hinder the advancing of education, any charity would be able to campaign against this proposed law without endangering their charitable status. Moreover, this freedom is not limited to laws established in Australia. The legislation allows for the promotion or opposition of laws overseas as well.
Consequently, most advocacy activities of a charity are acceptable. However, it must be remembered that the methods of advocacy used and its aims must be lawful and consistent with the established system of government. An organisation cannot engage in or promote unlawful activities or activities that are contrary to public policy. They must not promote or oppose a particular political party or candidate for office.
Note that public policy is not the same as government policy. The ACNC states that public policy includes the rule of law, the constitutional system of government, the safety of the general public and national security. Activities that are contrary to government policy are not necessarily contrary to public policy.
The ACNC provides a few common examples of advocacy activities that a charity can undertake. A charity may:
Make submissions in relation to existing or proposed laws
Generate public debate or seek explanation of existing or proposed laws
Distribute information on policies of different political parties
Publicly express views on the policies of different political parties relevant to its charitable purpose
Publish research or participate in public debates
Directly promote the charity’s purpose to elected representatives.
The ACNC has also provided detailed examples of what is not acceptable. For more information on the topic, read the ACNC article.
Please contact us if you would like to discuss any of the issues about public advocacy.