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A Lawyer’s Vision

17 August 2015 at 11:14 am
Lina Caneva
An expert in Not for Profit law and a passion in sharing her knowledge with others has made Sue Woodward integral to the Australian social sector. Woodward is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

Lina Caneva | 17 August 2015 at 11:14 am


A Lawyer’s Vision
17 August 2015 at 11:14 am

An expert in Not for Profit law and a passion in sharing her knowledge with others has made Sue Woodward integral to the Australian social sector. Woodward is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.


Sue Woodward was instrumental in setting up the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) as the Director of Policy, Education and Red Tape Reduction.

In this week’s Changemaker column she told Pro Bono Australia News that the role felt like a natural fit for someone who had previously researched the sector intensively and advocated for a national regulator.

If going helping to set up the ACNC was a full circle journey for Woodward then returning to Justice Connect, the organisation she left to join the regulator, is a welcome homecoming.


Tell me a bit about your background in the sector.

I started my professional career in the sector when I was at Melbourne University in the Law School. I did a major research project into the regulation of the sector that was published in 2004. It was an ARC funded project with Philanthropy Australia as an industry partner. It was a survey of all the companies limited by guarantee, so it was quite a comprehensive survey to get some data about their board size, activities, views about a specialist regulator and things like that. It was written up as a major report that’s been cited in Senate Inquiries and the like.

So I came from a background of teaching corporate law at Melbourne University but I always had a passion and an interest in the sector so when I was able to do that research for me it was a matter of blending my academic and professional skills with a sector that I really cared about and was interested in and wanted to contribute to.

And from there you went to what was then known as PILCH and is now Justice Connect?

First I actually worked for several philanthropic trusts as a consultant for about three years. I worked primarily for The William Buckland Foundation, which is a very large Victorian philanthropic trust. It was a great job because it exposed me to a broad range of the sector. My role was to research grant applications and it was a very generalist trust so you had things from diabetes research through to homeless youth programs and a whole lot of other things. It was great way to get a snapshot of the breadth of the sector and it was a great grounding in the sector.

From there I started at what was then PILCH, the Victorian Public Interest Law Clearing House, now Justice Connect, and that role was a very lucky one as I got to scope the implementation of one of the recommendations that had come out of my research at Melbourne University.

One of my recommendations was in response to the survey results that showed small to medium organisations really were searching around and confused about what their legal and regulatory obligations were. It seemed that there was this need for a support service for those organisations. So going to PILCH to look at the possibility setting up what is now the Not-for-Profit Law service at was great. I got to look at overseas and Australian models, and I also looked at what PILCH was already doing in that space. From there I thought about what the model could be and helped set up the full suite service that Not-for-profit Law now delivers.

Initially we got some funding from the Legal Services Board and the William Buckland Foundation and then the Victorian Government and others got on board. There has since been funding from both sides of the Victorian Government and it’s grown over that time.

So when I left it to go the ACNC I left feeling a sense of pride because it had been running for several years, it had been fully evaluated by Deloitte Access Economics, it had ongoing funding, it had a great team who are now experienced in all the legal issues and delivering training and telephone advice.

It was a great opportunity to go the the ACNC and to help set up something that I had advocated for, written multiple submissions about and had researched the need for. To me it was really important that when we were finally going to get this regulator that it was actually going to be the right sort of regulator if I could put it that way, that it had the right sort of culture and ethos. So to have the opportunity to be the Director of Policy and Education, because those are the two areas I have the most experience in and cared the most about, was a great privilege.

Is it a sector you always saw yourself working in?

I suppose I was a pretty idealistic uni student. I volunteered at the Sunshine Community Legal Centre and I guess I always thought that I would do law that helped the underdog. The path didn’t quite work out like that in the start. You take the job that you can get at the time and that was at a major law firm and then an international firm when I worked overseas for a couple of years. I learnt a lot from those experiences, but I always had that passion and it took a few sidesteps to get around to using the legal skills and the training I had to help the sector that I was interested in.

How do you reflect on your time at the ACNC? Was it quite a challenging role?

It was a challenging role. I was very excited to get the role. Recently having handed back my security badge I did look at the photo and you could tell on my face that I was full of enthusiasm.

I always knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I had previously at PILCH started with a blank piece of paper and then helped to develop a website that had a huge amount of resources on it and I knew that’s really what I was facing again. The ACNC was a completely blank piece of paper and I knew it wouldn’t be easy and it wasn’t easy!

I think it was a great team that we recruited, there was a great ethos around getting the right mix of people: people from the sector, people from corporates and people from Government.

It was particularly hard in the education stage getting all the resources out to the charities so they had clear information about what all this meant to them, when at that time we actually didn’t even have a full draft of the legislation and then the drafting kept being changed as it went through the parliament.

It was a pretty torrid birthing process which, when you’re behind the scenes trying to write the guidance about an Act that’s not yet enforced, that was pretty challenging for the team .

But I think we rose to that occasion really well and then obviously soon after we were established there was an election and a change of Government which meant there was a clear policy statement that we were going to be abolished.

There was a lot of uncertainty and confusion and that was clearly difficult for the sector, it was clearly difficult working for a regulator that had a Government mandate to be abolished.

It was particularly hard when the sector had fought for so long for the establishment of its own regulator, which is an almost bizarre request, and then when faced with losing it and they had to fight for it again.

What kind of toll did that have on those working within the ACNC?

People deal with those challenges on a fairly individual basis. Some people certainly left because they couldn’t continue to work in that situation, particularly because it kept going on, and it wasn’t clear cut whether we were going to be abolished or not. But a lot of people just realised that from week to week you could hear a completely different story and the best thing to do was just getting on with your work and really being determined to do your absolute best, and ultimately that’s all we could do.

How do you think the ACNC is travelling now? Obviously there is still a bit of a lack of knowledge of the work it does from within the sector.

Well I suppose until there is final clarity from the Government there is still a bit of a question mark, but I think it is much clearer now than it has been.

I think in terms of the sector a lot of the fears have subsided. Some parts of the sector were concerned about ratings tables and an increased burden, but I think now there is a much greater acceptance of the ACNC and people feel that it hasn’t been such a big change for them.

There were so many small charities in all parts of Australia that initially had not heard of the ACNC but effectively they have now because they’ve had to do something relating to the ACNC. Once you’ve had to report and you’ve received a letter or a phone call for not reporting it, then I think most of the people and groups that are actually on the register know about the ACNC now.

What was it that brought you back to Justice Connect?

My heart’s always been in the sector. I think this was a unique opportunity to have another impact.

It was a hard decision because I’ve really loved working at the ACNC. But I felt that perhaps my best contribution was made at the start of the ACNC and then, when I was approached about the potential to roll out Not-for-profit Law across the whole of Australia which could benefit each and every one of the sector's 600,000 community organisations, I thought that was almost unfinished  business for me.

What are some of the big challenges for you stepping back into this organisation. Is it going to be the exact same role or have a whole lot of things changed?

Well I think it’s a nice position in the sense that some of it feels comfortable, there’s some of the old team there, I know what the service does so I don’t have to learn it all from scratch. I still feel passionately about it and believe in it, but I’m not stepping back to do the same job. So it also feels exciting because it’s about spreading the word about a free pot of gold.

All the building blocks are there but one challenge is getting more funding. Communication is another challenge. It would be great if every single community organisation knew that they could get this free help online and that it’s there to support them through the whole of the life cycle of their organisation.

What is it that inspires you?

Making a difference to the sector as a whole. Ensuring there is a strong underpinning so that volunteers don’t waste time filling out unnecessary forms or trying to work out what something means when they could get that help more effectively and efficiently from someone else.

If they get that help then they can get onto doing what they actually signed up for, whether that be providing sporting programs for indigenous kids or running a domestic violence service, or whatever it might be, then that would make me feel that I had made a contribution, which would be great.

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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