Can Charities Engage in Political Advocacy?

It is vital that charities be allowed to engage in political advocacy and law reform; however, there are certain legal rules they must follow when doing so

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The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) provides guidance for charities engaging in campaigning and advocacy activities. These activities are crucial for charities to fulfill their missions, raise awareness, and advocate for social change. The ACNC emphasizes several key principles to ensure that charities engage in these activities effectively and responsibly. 

When it comes to elections and political advocacy, charities may decide to engage in advocacy. Most of the time, this is a noble (and legal) pursuit, however, the ACNC has published guidelines on how charities are allowed to go about this endeavour. Charities must meet the requirements of charity law, such as the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) (Charities Act) and other relevant legislation, such as the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) (Commonwealth Electoral Act). 


How can charities pursue advocacy?


Firstly, political campaigning can only be pursued in alliance with charities’ charitable purpose. The charitable purpose is the stated aim, or mission, of the charity when it is set up. The activities a charity pursues must fall in alignment with, and achieve, their stated purpose. Due to the subjectivity of this principle, the reasonability of advocacy and campaigning is not so black and white; it must be applied where suitable.  

The ACNC explains that activities that aim to influence public policy, change laws of the government or raise awareness of such legislative issues can all fall under this topic. This means that charities can be involved in the political process to a certain degree, which is important, as it means they can raise awareness about important social issues and ensure that the needs of the communities they serve are addressed by political candidates and parties. This is also significant due to our implied freedom of political communication.  

However, charities cannot advocate for candidates in an election. Registered charities cannot have a purpose of promoting or opposing a particular political party or candidate. This is one of the two stated disqualifying purposes of a charity under Section 11 of the Charities Act. 


Case example: Global Citizen 


This complexity was seen in Global Citizen Ltd vs Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission [2021] AATA 3313 (Global Citizen), which reinforced that engaging in advocacy is a lawful and accepted way to pursue a charitable purpose. Originally, the ACNC had denied Global Citizen, an anti-poverty charity, the ‘Public Benevolent Institution’ (PBI) status because its activities include advocacy, such as lobbying the government and philanthropists. This was rejected by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), as Global Citizen’s advocacy was in line with its charitable aim, and, as stated by the AAT, “most large PBIs engage with the political process as a regular and indispensable part of their work because governments are invariably key players in delivering the relief that is sought.”   

Another element to be aware of is that the Commonwealth Electoral Act prohibits charities from directly funding a political party. PPartaking in such action would also fall under promoting a political party, which would be grounds for the disqualification of the charity. 


What does this mean in practice? 


In practice, charities that engage in advocacy can do all sorts of things lawfully. They can advocate for law reform, propose changes in policy, informing the public about the law, and more. Your charity cannot, however, promote or oppose candidates or parties, or encourage people to vote specifically, to name a few.  


The importance of charities engaging in advocacy 


It is vital to our democracy that charities engage in advocacy, as it is always beneficial to have more voices in the arena demanding better policy and law reform on all areas that touch our lives, like environment, poverty, equality, and more. But it is vital that in doing so, charities know their boundaries. 


If you need help understanding what this means for your charity, please get in contact with Warlows Legal today using the contact information below.

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