Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Transparency Awards Dinner

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I begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on the traditional land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight and what an honour it is to announce the runner-up and winner of the Awards later on this evening.

I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the support of the Award sponsors – PricewaterhouseCoopers, Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia and the Centre for Social Impact. Events such as these are simply not possible without the financial and in-kind support of sponsors, so I thank them for the investment in the sector that their generous sponsorship represents.

Rick spoke to us earlier about the impetus for establishing the awards as the desire to recognise the quality and transparency of reporting in the third sector.

And Graeme mentioned how Transparency Award recommendations have contributed to best-practice reporting in the sector by being incorporated into the ICAA’s updated Enhancing not-for-profit annual and financial reporting.

So these Awards play a significant and valuable role in not only recognising excellence in the sector but also promoting best practice reporting by the role model the winner provides and the learnings that are achieved through the intensive judging process.

This work is happening at a time when there is much interest coalescing around regulation of the sector.

Just in the past week I have been to two forums that have examined how best to enable the third sector. The first one was convened by Myles McGregor-Lowndes of the Centre for Philanthropy and Non-Profit Studies at QUT on modernising charity law, and the second was convened by the Australian Davos Connection which focused on enhancing philanthropy in Australia. These forums attracted an impressive array of participants including third sector organisation CEOs, philanthropic fund managers, government, national and international academics and business leaders.

It was fascinating to hear from the international guests about the approaches to non profit regulation that have been adopted in their countries. It reminded me that we have the opportunity within our own agenda to learn from the mistakes and successes of other jurisdictions, and to craft our own system that draws from these learnings but is also reflective of our own distinct Australian context.

Much of the discussion at these two forums centred around the question of how best to regulate and support the sector to balance the need for good governance with a lean regulatory system.

There was a strong consensus that getting this balance right would entail streamlined regulation that encourages good governance but does not impose weighty burdens on organisations, which we know often has the unintended consequence of diverting attention from mission related activities.

This question of how to achieve accountability without unnecessary burdens was at the heart of the Senate Inquiry into Disclosure Regimes for Charities and Non profit Organisations, which handed down its report to government last December.

The government is preparing its response to this report, which is likely to be tabled in parliament in May, but the government has already begun work addressing some of the points the report raises.

Earlier this year, we secured the agreement of the Council of Australian Government’s Business Regulation and Competition Working Group to start work immediately on how to implement a standard Chart of Accounts and a nationally consistent approach to fundraising.

We also recognise that we have to better understand the characteristics of the third sector in Australia. This is why we have commissioned the Productivity Commission to undertake a study into the contribution of the non profit sector. The study will assess how the sector’s contribution to Australian society is currently measured and whether these measures can be improved. It will also look more broadly at any impediments to the efficient and effective operation of the sector, including regulatory issues.

The government is also funding the Australian Bureau of Statistics to update the Nonprofit Institutions ‘Satellite Account’. This research will provide up to date information and a strong evidence base about the characteristics of size, scope and role of the third sector in Australia.

Improving the data available to government and the sector is vital to making informed decisions about how to strengthen capacity within the sector to deliver efficient and effective services, promote innovative policy responses to community needs, and, also provide strategies to improve support for volunteers.

The government’s third sector regulation reform agenda is about building an operating environment that will support and enable sector organisations to do the important community-building work they do.

And it is also about building trust.

As many of you may know, the Senate Inquiry was sparked by a Choice article that questioned the accountability of charities’ expenditure of the donations they receive.

So discussion around third sector regulation is also about maintaining and building the trust that Australians have in our non profit organisations. That is, establishing a system that is light-touch, but also provides the public with confidence that the money they give is managed accountably.

All of you here this evening who have participated in the Transparency Awards as either an entrant, a judge or a supporter have made a real commitment to achieving best practice governance across the third sector.

Your participation in these awards and the high quality of entries that I had the pleasure to read through as a jury member are evidence that the third sector shares with the corporate sector an aspiration for best practice governance and reporting.

This commitment to best practice is evident across the whole, diverse breadth of the sector. I read through entries from health promotion organisations, community services, disability support services and international aid agencies, to name a few.

I would like to congratulate all the organisations who entered this year’s awards. It is no simple task to compile an entry and I acknowledge the hard work and effort of every organisation that participated.

Your hard work has been well rewarded regardless of tonight’s final decision. Not only have your own organisations benefited from the self-examination the awards demand, but by your very participation alone you have highlighted the importance of best-practice governance to a strong, respected third sector.

I would like to congratulate all involved in the awards – participants, sponsors and organisers – and will now turn to the moment you’ve all be waiting for – the award announcements.

Let’s begin with the 10 shortlisted organisations in alphabetical order. These are:

  • ACSO
  • Cancer Council NSW
  • Mission Australia
  • National Breast Cancer Foundation
  • National Heart Foundation
  • Oxfam Australia
  • Royal Flying Doctor Service
  • The Benevolent Society
  • Vision Australia
  • World Vision Australia

We congratulate all 10 of these organisations for their continued efforts to improve the transparency of their reporting.

Our runner up this year is World Vision Australia.

World Vision is a large non profit organisation and its area of coverage is wide and complex. To draw this together is a major undertaking and the judging panel commends this impressive achievement. World Vision performed particularly well in describing its programs, strategy, and operations in a transparent manner.

Key strengths of their reporting were:

  • Making their international relationships as transparent as possible, including key partners and collaborators
  • The clarity of their vision, mission and values
  • The explanation of their suite of communication channels
  • The accountability and governance sections and
  • The key development challenges faced within each operational regions, including project examples

Well done to World Vision. I would like to invite Tim Costello to the stage to receive a cheque for $10,000 for use in providing further training to World Vision personnel.

And finally, I congratulate our winner, Oxfam, who was a unanimous choice by all Judge and Jury members.

Oxfam’s submission demonstrated a very high level of transparency combined with very engaging presentation. The Annual Report was detailed, yet clear and precise, and the website very user-friendly. The language is engaging and personal and the FAQ is a very useful feature of the site.

Oxfam’s reporting is outstanding, showing great clarity around policies, processes, staff and volunteer activities. There is a good description of the breadth of program activities, well supported by case studies with maps and graphs, and qualitative data.

Oxfam also clearly identified its risk management strategies and clearly described an ambitious but manageable expansion strategy. Financial targets were also disclosed and accountability for use of funds was well detailed. Oxfam’s disclosure of its governance arrangements gave a clear understanding of the separate roles of the Chairman, the Board, the Board Committees and the Executive.

Overall Oxfam demonstrated very strong and detailed reporting, covering a wide range of areas of disclosure in a clear and inspiring manner.

Congratulations to Oxfam on winning the 2008 PwC Transparency Award.

I would now like to invite Andrew Hewett, Executive Director of Oxfam to receive the winner’s trophy and a cheque for $20,000 for use in training Oxfam staff and to say a few words.