Rebooting the ACNC

The ACNC was a world leading charities regulator. Given time and good management it will be again. It starts with a reset of the organisational culture to one of engagement and working in collaboration with the sector writes CCA CEO David Crosbie.


Rebooting the ACNC, Pro Bono News, 30 June 2022

Over the past month many people have talked to me about the need to reset the way the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) interacts with the charities sector. Some have made suggestions about who should lead the ACNC following the resignation of Dr Gary Johns, others have talked about expanding the role of the ACNC, and some have suggested the need to bring forward the 10-year review.

In any discussion about the ACNC now and into the future, it is important to be very clear about the role of the ACNC, how and why charities see the ACNC as valuable, and what we might need to focus on to improve the performance of the ACNC.

Establishing the ACNC took years including over 12 months of extensive consultation, discussion and debate. In the early days of 2011, there were a broad range of views about what role the ACNC could and should fulfil. Some wanted a very minimalist record keeping entity that didn’t require annual reporting or any accountability measures. Others argued the ACNC could be an “accreditor” for the sector, endorsing and promoting charities, even making public judgements about which charities were of greater benefit to our communities.

As I have previously noted, it is beyond dispute that the leadership of the first ACNC commissioner, Susan Pascoe, and assistant commissioners David Locke and Murray Baird, was outstanding. Their accomplishments are remarkable especially when you consider the negative pressure exerted by the Abbott government as they tried to close down the ACNC. I should also note the steadfast leadership of Robert Fitzgerald AM, the inaugural chair of the ACNC Advisory Board, and the ongoing support of the now Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh who championed the ACNC from day one.

Thankfully the combination of astute leadership, careful stewardship, strategic advocacy and well-informed planning, enabled the ACNC to emerge as a world class regulator for the sector focused on three core objects:

  • maintain, protect and enhance public trust and confidence in the Australian not-for-profit sector;
  • support and sustain a robust, vibrant, independent and innovative not-for-profit sector; and
  • promote the reduction of unnecessary regulatory obligations on the sector.

Like many long-term supporters of the ACNC, I believe the most valuable role the ACNC can fulfil is to be a very good regulator. A good regulator works collaboratively with the groups it is regulating to achieve the highest possible level of compliance. When regulators fail to proactively engage it inevitably leads to lower compliance and increased enforcement actions. 

This applies whether we are talking about a Liquor Licensing Commission or ASIC or any regulator. (A well-informed restaurant owner who understands their liquor licensing obligations is clearly more likely to do the right thing.)

The regulatory systems that support this engagement approach include responsive helplines and interactive web sites, multi-platform communication and sharing of information, giving back by producing timely and informative reports about important issues, supporting research, encouraging transparency and accountability across multiple platforms. 

Good regulators also work to reduce the time and cost of compliance activities by streamlining data systems and effectively linking accurate and timely data across different authorities, government departments and jurisdictions.

My three main concerns with the ACNC over recent years have primarily been about its failure to positively engage with the sector, falling performance in the key service aspects of the organisation like the helpline and online engagement, and wasted energy and time pursuing the futile vision of a public donor marketplace (an idea that has not worked anywhere in the world, backed up by zero research, not even supported by an effective business case).

These concerns reflect a failure of management, not structure. There are still many good people at the ACNC, and the fundamental ways of operating have not only proved to be effective, but were previously internationally recognised as world’s best practice.

What is needed now is not wholesale changes to what was a very successful organisation, but a reset of the organisational culture to one of engagement rather than enforcement, working in collaboration with the sector rather than acting as an external authority, giving back in return for the input of information provided by charities.

Charities and the communities they serve all benefit if we have a strong and effective charities regulator that enables us to operate in a safeguarded environment. A bad charity damages us all. We also benefit if the regulator is committed to actively informing us, producing reports, pooling our knowledge and value adding in ways that provide insight beyond the raw data. And we all benefit from a regulator that is able to proactively drive other regulators and authorities to use the information they have collected rather than requiring duplication and multiple data entries from charities.

Most importantly, a good regulator builds community trust in charities, and as every charity leader knows, trust is perhaps the most valuable commodity we trade in.

Like many in the charities sector, I think the ACNC needs to change the way it goes about its business, but we shouldn’t try to make the ACNC something it is not. The ACNC has been a good regulator in the past, and given time and good management, it can and will be a good regulator again. 

For the record: David Crosbie was a founding ACNC Advisory Board member and advocated to both establish the ACNC and ensure the Senate defeated government attempts to defund and disband it.


Read in Pro Bono News: rebooting-the-acnc