Dear Commissioner: Community Council for Australia

No one wants the ACNC to succeed in its role more than the sector itself and hugely knowledgable sector leaders are ready to offer advice, guidance and support, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie.


Dear Commissioner: Community Council for Australia, Pro Bono News, 1 August 2022

Dear new ACNC commissioner,

Congratulations on your appointment to this important role.  I am sure you feel both excited and a little daunted.

The one thing I can confidently assure you is that there are many outstanding people willing you to succeed, including the Assistant Minister for Charities, and that is a great starting point. Previous commissioners and assistant commissioners; Susan Pascoe, Murray Baird, David Locke and key people who worked so hard establishing the ACNC like Robert Fitzgerald, Myles McGregor-Lowndes and Krystian Seibert all know where some of the traps lie. These well-informed people also share a willingness to give generously of their time and experience to support our sector. You can and should draw on their knowledge and insight as you work your way through the many issues you will confront.

I am sure you are already aware that there are a wide range of sometimes contradictory expectations on this role.  Some expect the ACNC to be:

  • an enforcer: a tough policeman on the charity block constantly patrolling and cracking down on all potentially inappropriate activities
  • a forensic accountant: following money trails down endless rabbit holes
  • a marketer: promoting the value of charities
  • an accreditor: attesting to the value and merit of every charity on the ACNC register
  • a capacity builder: strengthening how charities operate
  • an adjudicator: judging or ranking the work of charities as good or bad
  • a rationaliser: some have suggested the ACNC should be playing a role in reducing duplication across the sector and pushing mergers between charities
  • a magician: able to apply regulations that actually do not exist or that you have no powers to conjure up.

Underlying all these unrealistic expectations is the fundamental role of service provider; most of the work and time of the ACNC staff involves provision of a comprehensive range of regulatory services to the charities sector and the community.

My expectation is that you will lead and manage a very good regulator, seek to deliver on the three founding objects, and not over-reach that role.

I am anticipating that for the first few months we will hear very little from you as you review the organisation, talk to all the staff and many stakeholders, listen, and begin collaboratively shaping a work-plan to improve the performance of the ACNC as the regulator of charities in Australia.  As part of this process, I am sure you will provide an opportunity for interested charities and stakeholders to have their input into the future directions and priorities of the ACNC.

You may be aware that many core performance measures of the ACNC have deteriorated from where they were five years ago; important metrics like how long it takes to answer a phone call or process a complaint, the levels of voluntary compliance with regulatory requirements, the level of education and engagement directly with the sector. The confrontational tone taken in some communications with charities, the unrealistic timelines on provision of documents, and the poorly informed rewriting of certain guidelines, these are just some of the indicators that the ACNC has lost its way in recent years.

One consequence of recent ACNC communications and audits is that many charities feel under threat from the ACNC, even though in reality they have very little to fear.  The 2013 Charities Act, which came into being under an ALP government, provides world leading protections for charities that choose to pursue their purpose through advocacy. Perhaps you as the ACNC Commissioner could highlight these protections in one of your first commissioner’s columns?

While many people focus almost entirely on ACNC enforcement activities, the actual service functions of the ACNC, the interactions the ACNC has with charities and the community, the quality, timeliness and effectiveness of services provided by its 100 staff need to be a much stronger focus if the ACNC is to regain its status as the pre-eminent charity regulator in the world.  The previous Commissioner had never managed a significant organisation.

Importantly, when we look at the ACNC improving voluntary compliance through increased positive engagement with charities, there is broad scope to give back to the sector and the community, not just through education and awareness activities, but also drawing on the invaluable information charities provide to the ACNC. The previous commissioner abolished the research advisory committee as one of his first ill-conceived actions. The ACNC is the repository of the records of 57,000 charities.  I believe the ACNC has a responsibility to all the charities that provide information to open up this data, clean and de-identify it, and make it available for researchers in Australia and around the world.

No-one wants the sector to be well-regulated more than the sector itself. It is why many of us fought so hard to establish and maintain the ACNC. Our reputation, our brand is critical to our capacity to engage with communities and policy makers. The ACNC can and should play a critical role in building trust and confidence in charities, reducing our administrative workload while increasing transparency, and offering valuable services to charities and the community.

The ACNC commissioner works within tight restrictions limiting what can and cannot be done or said, but there are still many opportunities to not only lead the transformation of the ACNC into being a more respected and effective regulator, but also change Australia for the better by supporting the wonderful work of so many charities in communities across Australia.

Like most people in the charities sector, I genuinely wish you success in your new role.  Go well.

David Crosbie
Community Council for Australia


Note from the editor: this is the final instalment of  Dear Commissioner, a series in which sector leaders were invited to write a letter to the future Commissioner of Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission (ACNC), welcoming them to the role and explaining what they think the priorities should be for the organisation going forward.  


Read in Pro Bono News: dear-commissioner-community-council-for-australia