Boosting philanthropy fundamental for stronger Australia - Keynote address, Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit



Thank you for that very generous introduction. I acknowledge we are meeting on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to elders past and present. I want to acknowledge Joe Skrzynski, Sarah Davies and Krystian Seibert, and in a building known for its give-and-take, the fact that here we have here one of the largest collection of givers assembled in the history of the parliament.

My first significant venture into philanthropy came in 1991 when I was working for Community Aid Abroad, now known as Oxfam. As a teenager, I decided that I would set about raising money for Community Aid Abroad in the local shopping centre using the only method that then occurred to me which was to dress up in a clown suit on a summer’s day and attempt to persuade young children to buy juggling balls from me. Over the course of a very hot morning I think I managed to make about $100 for Community Aid Abroad, but the next year they took me on to the New South Wales board where I got involved on working on their philanthropy strategies. I learned from that the power of story-telling; the value of going to those who’d been generous in the past and telling them in clear language the stories of the impoverished people around the world that their donations had assisted.

That sparked a lifelong interest in community engagement, also known as social capital. Sarah Davies mentioned I did my PhD at Harvard and one of the people I worked with was Robert Putnam who had then just brought out a book called Bowling Alone. Working with Putnam I got interested in what the trends were in Australia and began collecting statistics on how community life had fared in Australia over the last few generations. It turned into a 2010 book, Disconnected, which mapped many of the same trends that Putnam had laid out in Bowling Alone.

With that academic interest, when I came into politics it was natural I’d stay interested in the charities issue. After the last election, Bill Shorten reflected Labor‘s strong commitment to charities and not-for-profits by giving me the portfolio of Charities and Not-for-Profits. It’s the first time either of the major political parties have had a minister or a shadow minister responsible for Charities and Not-for-Profits and it marks Labor‘s strong commitment to your sector. 

Last December, we learned from the Giving Australia 2016 Report, some striking statistics on philanthropy. And for anyone who wasn’t watching the papers carefully last December, they were also helpfully reported again 10 months later in today’s press.  They show that while the amount of dollars donated rose from 2005 to 2016, the share of donors has fallen from 87 to 81 per cent. 

That’s part of a longer trend. In Disconnected, I documented the charitable tax deductions statistics - not a perfect metric, but certainly one that lets us go back over a decent time span – indicates that the share of Australian givers rose from the 1970s to the 1980s before falling back downwards. The share of Australians who now claim a deduction for charitable donations is lower than it was a generation ago. It’s part of that same Bowling Alone, Disconnected problem; Australians are less likely to join community groups such as Scouts, Guides, Rotary, or Lions; less likely to attend church or other religious services; less likely to be part of a trade union; we’re less likely to know our friends and neighbours; and volunteering rates have fallen in recent years.

Now as the Shadow Minister responsible for the issue I’m keen not merely to document these worrying trends but also to think about what we can do to reverse them. Part of that answer must be in ensuring that we have a strong charities commission.

I want to pay tribute today to Susan Pascoe for her steady leadership [applause] Thank you for that applause, because Susan Pascoe‘s steady leadership was integral to those first years of the charities commission. She received a number of professional awards and her professionalism and steady hand in an environment in which from 2013 to 2016 she faced a government committed to the abolition of her organisation and up to 25 percent staff turnover.

Ironically, given the stability at the helm of the ACNC, the coalition has over this four year period had no less than five ministers responsible for the charities commission. The fifth and most recent Minister, Michael Sukkar, chose not to meet with the board, and not to renew Susan Pascoe‘s appointment, leading to an open letter in June from organisations as diverse as St. John’s Ambulance, Arab Council Australia, Musica Viva, Arthritis Australia, Christian Ministry Advancement, Volunteering Australia, and of course Philanthropy Australia. We need bipartisan support to return to the charities commission if we’re to make sure that it can do its important work of reducing the paperwork burden for Australian charities.

We also need government to recognise the value of advocacy. Advocacy is a crucial part of what charities do, from the environmental, to the social, to the legal sector. Charities aren’t a cheap way of getting the work of government done. They’re also a crucial part of our social fabric. Charities use the knowledge that they develop on the frontline to inform better policies. Labor has a strong commitment to charitable advocacy and we will argue alongside the sector for those rights to be maintained.

We also need to fix fundraising, and the Fix Fundraising campaign recognises a number of challenges in this sector. As the statistics that are reported in the Giving Australia report document, there have been massive drops in some traditional channels of giving. For example in 2005, 66 percent of people said they’d given a street donation to a street canvasser. In the most recent report that had fallen to 19 percent. The rise of online fundraising makes it more and more bizarre that we have state based registrations which require charities either to spend a week a year doing the paperwork for every jurisdiction in Australia or just register in one jurisdiction and cross your fingers you don’t get caught. That’s not good enough.

We need to make sure that we have strong fundraising laws to maintain the high standing in which Australia’s charities are held. That isn’t a guarantee. In Britain, we had the terrible tragedy of 76 year-old Olive Cooke, a woman who was said to have received 3000 requests for charitable donations before she took her own life. The ensuing debate led to a significant drop in the standing of the charitable sector. We need to fix fundraising to streamline paperwork for charities, but also to safeguard charities against these reputational risks.

A third thing that we have been focusing on since I’ve had the portfolio of Charities and Not-for-Profits has been holding reconnected forums around Australia. We’ve now held eight of these forums around Australia, and some of you will have attended the forums in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Launceston, Darwin, and Canberra. At those forums we’ve worked with charities to discuss ideas to spark a civic renaissance. The forums are not a top-down process, they’re an idea-sharing conversation, because Labor recognises that not every good idea comes from government, or can be implemented by government.

We are now at the stage where we are looking for charities and not-for-profits who might be interested in road-testing some of the ideas that have come out of the forums. If you are interested in this, please get in touch with me, has all my contact details and we would love to work with you on road-testing some of the ideas.

One of the proposals is to provide more detailed information about the impact of charitable donations through the model, for example, of the website. According to the Giving Australia report, 48 percent of people who didn’t give to charity say they might be inclined to do so if they had more information on impact. A second idea that’s come out of the Reconnected forums has been to use technology to make donation easier. The platform sets up a virtual warehouse where those intending to donate a washing machine to a worthy cause can keep it in their house until it’s ready to go at which point it gets picked up and taken directly to the needy recipient or to the charity. There are other powerful platforms we can use to ensure that technology doesn’t contribute to the disconnected problem but helps be part of the reconnected solution.

We also are looking for road-testers among organisations who might want to refine the work that your volunteers do. An intriguing conversation with those who organise ParkRun in Darwin revealed that they found their typical volunteer didn’t want to go door to door knocking on doors of helpful Darwin businesses asking them for money. They just wanted to organise a fun run at 8am on a Saturday morning. So ParkRun looked for alternative sources of funds, and took their volunteers back to the thing they loved best. Just as, for example, in 1991 my comparative advantage was not in raising money as a clown in the local shopping centre, so too Darwin ParkRun is better using their volunteers and better targeting their philanthropic efforts. 

I want to thank all of you for being part of this vital conversation. A life lived together is a better life. Your work here today as part of Philanthropy Australia’s Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit is going to be a part of building an Australian civic renaissance. I’m keen to work with you, Bill Shorten and Labor are keen to work with you, because we know that turning these statistics around. Boosting philanthropy is a fundamental part of building a stronger Australia. 

Thank you.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.