ACNC Guidelines on Advocacy and the Referendum
A summary of advice from the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission which provides clarification on charity activities in the lead-up to the planned Referendum in 2023.
Charities may want to contribute to conversations taking place about the Australian Government’s planned referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. They can make a valuable contribution. It is important to remember that a charity may only conduct activities that further its charitable purposes according to its Constitution.
‘Advocacy’ and ‘campaigning’ are terms that in everyday use can have very broad meanings. For the purposes of this guidance these terms have particular meanings.
When the ACNC talks about ‘advocacy‘ and ‘campaigning‘ it means activities which are aimed at securing or opposing any change to a law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state or territory, or another country. Such activities can include:
- involvement in the development of public policy
- promotion of, or opposition to, particular laws, policies, practices or decisions of governments, and
In the minds of the public, ‘advocacy’ can sometimes include political party activity. This is not included in the ACNC’s use of this phrase, as registered charities cannot have a purpose of promoting or opposing a particular political party or candidate.
‘Campaigning’ in this guidance is used by the ACNC to mean activities undertaken to educate the public, raise public awareness, change public behaviour and/or mobilise public support. It can include ensuring that existing laws, policies or decisions are either maintained or changed.
What is okay
Advocacy and campaigning can be a legitimate and effective way of furthering the charitable purposes of a charity. However, it is important that charities do not cross the line into having a disqualifying political purpose and that they maintain independence from party politics.
A charity’s policy position on a matter of concern may be similar to, or align with that of, a particular political party. In such a situation it is okay for the charity to continue to campaign on that issue, provided that this does not amount to the charity having a purpose of promoting or opposing a particular political party or candidate.
It would also be prudent for members of a charity’s governing body to consider the independence of their charity and any potential effects of particular campaigning activities on the charity’s reputation, including online activities through social media. Public perception is important and members of a charity’s governing body should be aware of the perception of any advocacy or campaigning.
In the lead-up to an election (or, in this case, the Referendum) there are increased risks that, in the minds of the public, charity advocacy or campaigning can be associated with a particular political party.
- Charities can, and often do, engage in advocacy activities and some charities might want to advocate for a particular outcome on the referendum.
- If a charity plans to undertake advocacy activities, it must be able to demonstrate why it considers its advocacy furthers its charitable purposes.
- In the case of the planned referendum, some charities may just want to make a statement of support for the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ case. An example of this would be a message of support in the charity’s email signature block. This statement would not jeopardise their registration with the ACNC.
It’s okay for a charity to:
- have a purpose of advancing public debate – including promoting or opposing a change in law – where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose
- have a purpose to promote or oppose a change to a law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state or territory or another country where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose.
How the advocacy is conducted
- The charities’ Responsible People and senior workers (paid or volunteer) should be clear about how their charity will advocate; the type of thing that can be said and done in the name of their charity, and set boundaries.
- It’s important that advocacy is lawful, respectful, and fair as this helps ensure the charity (and its Responsible People) meet their obligations under the ACNC’s Governance Standards.
- The ACNC encourages charities to support workers (paid or volunteer) who want to express their views on the referendum, to make it clear they are sharing their personal views and not those of the charity.
- The ACNC has more detailed information on advocacy by registered charities and charities, campaigning and advocacy which can help charities make decisions about their contributions to the conversation on the referendum.
A charity can campaign if it is satisfied that:
- what it is doing is advancing its charitable purpose
- its governing document (its constitution or rules) does not prevent the activity
- it does not have a purpose of advancing a particular political party or candidate or campaigning against a particular party or candidate
This summary is not legal advice and if you have doubts about any particular situation involving your charity, you can seek specific advice from the ACNC or seek independent legal advice.