March 22, 2023

Advocacy vital in making change: report

This report was originally published in Pro Bono News on 22 March 2023.

A survey of the sector has revealed advocacy has become a greater focus for civil society organisations, with more players in the sector feeling that their advocacy on federal issues has been successful.

The Voices for Change survey, prepared by the University of Melbourne for the Stronger Charities Alliance in collaboration with Pro Bono Australia and authored by Professor Sarah Maddison, surveyed 401 organisations from across the sector about their experiences in advocacy in recent years.

The survey is a follow up to 2004’s Silencing Dissent report, and 2017’s Civil Voices report.

There were less respondents to the 2022-23 survey than to the 2017 survey. The Voices for Change report suggests this may be due to the sector being “less concerned about the advocacy environment than they were in 2017″, perhaps because of the change in federal government.

What did the survey find?

Respondents said they were involved in a number of different types of advocacy work, including 26 per cent that said they were involved in policy advocacy, and 21 per cent that said they were involved with education or public awareness. 

When asked what methods of communication they use to influence government policy, the majority of respondents (115) said they participated in policy consultation processes. Ninety-three respondents said they make submissions to government enquiries.

The survey also found that “despite the prominence of the more traditional methods of policy advocacy, there continues to be increasing use of digital communication and advocacy across the sector”, including use of social media.

The survey also asked civil society organisations how well they feel key stakeholders understand the role of civil society advocacy.

A majority — 76 per cent — believe the public only “slightly” or “partially” understands this role.

In contrast, 19 per cent believe that regulatory bodies like the ACNC have a good understanding of the role of advocacy. 

The role of advocacy is vitally important to organisations themselves; the report notes that 77 per cent of survey respondents reported that policy advocacy is extremely important or very important to their organisation’s purpose.

And organisations feel that their advocacy is making headway, with 96 per cent reporting “moderate levels of success” in influencing government policy in the six months preceding the survey.

And 79 per cent said they have become more successful in influencing government over the past five years.

Mixed feelings on the ACNC

The survey reveals the feelings of the sector towards its regulator.

Although 62 per cent of respondents strongly agreed that “a well-run charities and not-for-profits regulator is essential for the sector to thrive”, the survey found that “confidence in the ACNC is low”.

When asked whether the ACNC is “supportive of charities engaging in advocacy in pursuit of their charitable purposes”, only 22 per cent agreed with the statement, and 24 per cent disagreed. A further 36 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Just 20 per cent of respondents agreed that the ACNC is free of political influence.

However, the report notes that one respondent said “I feel a lot more confidence in the political neutrality of the ACNC with its new commissioner”.

Stronger charities

The Stronger Charities Alliance was born of Hands Off Our Charities, a coalition of more than 120 charities that formed in 2017 in response to government attacks on charitable advocacy.

According to Hassan Nasir Mirbahar, campaign manager and strategist for the alliance, the alliance has a “vision for a thriving not for profit sector, where charities are empowered to advocate for lasting change in pursuit of their charitable purpose”.

This involves both an internal and an external focus: internal, to determine strategic directions for the alliance and its members, and external to work with governments and other stakeholders to make change happen.

Mirbahar said advocacy is necessary to allow charities to address the issues they work on.

“Australian charities work on a range of issues such as poverty or housing or domestic violence or climate change, which may not be fixed through a single solution. They are complex problems… so they require a system-wide change in policies and laws and budgets and also public behaviour. Hence, it’s important for charities to engage [with] legislative and policy reforms,” he told Pro Bono News.

Mirbahar said alliance members recognised that there had been a shift in the way the new government approaches the charity sector.

“But at the same time, we also believe that there are important legislative and regulatory changes which need to happen for all of us to create an enabling environment where charities can undertake their advocacy role in a more meaningful manner,” he added.

The name change last year to “Stronger Charities Alliance” from “Hands Off Our Charities” reflects the changed operating environment that charities now find themselves in, he explained.

Mirbahar said alliance members had noted the “positive development” of the change of government, and wanted to work more positively and proactively with the new policy makers.

“It seems like the current government has a strong commitment towards empowering charities,” he said.

“Besides the government reform initiatives, the establishment of the multi-party Parliamentary Friends of the Charitable, Not-for-Profit and Philanthropic Community, which Senator Dean Smith and Senator Catryna Bilyk have cofounded, is also a welcome initiative. Often any reforms need champions from across all parliamentary parties, and the friendship group can provide one such avenue to Australian charities. We are also keen to work with the group as well.”