At Philanthropy Australia’s biannual Member Seminar on 22 September, one of the most resonant questions asked of speaker Robert Fitzgerald – chair of the advisory panel to the soon-to-be-established Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC) – was how external government regulation would mesh with or make use of the codes of conduct developed by the sector itself.
It’s a timely question. The Australian philanthropic sector’s governance has largely been in its own hands for more than a century. Philanthropy Australia’s members adopted a voluntary Code of Conduct in 2002, which is based on recommended principles of good giving and best practice, but members are not required to sign or adopt the Code (although some are clear and unambiguous about the fact that they do adhere to it). Other parts of the not-for-profit sector have adapted codes, including the fundraising industry and international aid organisations.
Of course, a code of conduct is almost impossible to enforce. But its implications go further than policing. An organisation that openly endorses and adheres to a code of conduct is one which acknowledges that it can benefit from an external, agreed-upon set of guiding principles; it’s an organisation that implies that it isn’t willing to rest on its laurels, that it knows its responsibility extends beyond its own doors, and that (like any organisation) it has more to learn.
More importantly, an organisation that signs off on a code of conduct acknowledges that it is important not just to do good, but to be seen to do good. In other words, the goodwill of the public, the media and governments is vital to the continued health of the sector. Even grantmaking foundations which are stewards of private money have a vested interest in ensuring that philanthropy, and the not-for-profit sector at large, keep the public trust; without it, the sector’s capacity to raise public funds is diminished and its demands on philanthropy will increase. And an increased level of cynicism around philanthropic efforts is hardly likely to encourage more philanthropy.
Australian governments, both state and federal, have been responsive to voluntary codes developed by individual sectors. Appropriately, however, Robert Fitzgerald’s response was that ultimately the sector is responsible for its own reputation. In a country where studies indicate that we are becoming increasingly mistrustful of institutions, would a voluntary code of conduct – showing that as a sector we are determined to be professional and accountable – be just as effective at keeping the public trust as any external regulation? And if so, how can its value be communicated to our very independent, and in some cases fiercely private, sector?
Vanessa Meachen is director of research and policy for Philanthropy Australia