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Opinion  |  Governance / Management

Please, Not Another Charity!

Tuesday, 1st March 2016 at 9:03 am
Sue Murray,
People thinking of starting a new charity should partner with an existing one instead, writes Sue Murray, CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia.

Tuesday, 1st March 2016
at 9:03 am
Sue Murray,



Please, Not Another Charity!
Tuesday, 1st March 2016 at 9:03 am

People thinking of starting a new charity should partner with an existing one instead, writes Sue Murray, CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia.

In all my years of working in the Not for Profit sector, first with The Cancer Council NSW, then National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) and now Suicide Prevention Australia, I have had the humble honour of meeting thousands upon thousands of community fundraisers and individuals with the passion and drive to make social change.

I always welcome time spent with people to share their stories, empathising with the pain they have endured and talking through the lessons they feel can be learnt from their lived experience. However, increasingly, these conversations often end with a call to action that I struggle to support. That is, a desire to affect change through starting their own charity.

Did you know that the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) gets at least five requests a day from people applying for DGR (Deductible Gift Recipient) status?

Many of the fantastic charities and foundations we have in this country today started with one person, their lived experience and their desire to make a difference. I, and many others, will be eternally grateful to those people for the hard work they have put into growing these from the ground up.

But, I believe we have now reached a point where, if people want to make a positive contribution, there will be a way to do this in line with their personal values and objectives, in partnership with someone already working in that space. Starting a new charity is not the answer.

Why you shouldn’t start your own charity.

Today there is an unprecedented number of charities and community based organisations seeking to fundraise and solicit donations to deliver their own charitable work. There is no denying that this will continue to grow.

There is a clear opportunity to bring opportunities to the table to relieve the strain of charities seeking DGR approval from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Here are my top three reasons as to why I think people should first consider partnering with an existing organisation rather than start your own charity.

1. You may spend a lot of time on the process but not actually make it through the two step gateway for DGR status. Currently, you need to get approval from both the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) and the ATO. Put plainly, this is extremely time consuming. Furthermore, a number of charities registered with the ACNC have been denied endorsement by the ATO, leaving applicants with limited options to proceed.

2. You may spend most of your time administering rather than making change. Charities with DGR status are required by law to report on their transactions in a timely manner to ensure their funds are used appropriately to fulfil their charitable goals. The ACNC recently revealed that more than 10,000 charities face losing their DGR status and may face penalties for failure to submit their Annual Information Statements (AIS) on time. The process takes time and small charities have limited resources as it is. After all, time is money!

3. There is no guarantee your status will remain active once granted. Charities are currently having their DGR status reviewed, and in some cases revoked, so rather than adding to the pile, why not consider another way?

What are the alternatives to starting your own charity?

Smaller organisations and individuals should look at how they can leverage the resources of larger charitable organisations with existing DGR status, to reduce administrative time and duplication of processes.

The time and cost savings mean that organisations can allocate their resources more effectively to achieve their charitable goals, and the ATO will spend less time processing approvals. Joining forces also means less voices trying to be heard in the public “marketplace”.

In reality, the government sector alone is not enough to manage the growing number of charitable organisations in Australia. Suicide Prevention Australia is an advocate for larger established organisations empowering smaller organisations to deliver community-driven initiatives that focus on areas of proven strength.

Not unreasonably, the Australian community have high expectations of charities to ensure that resources and funds are used appropriately. We should do everything we can to ensure the goodwill and generosity of the Australian public continues with transparency at the forefront.

If you are an individual wanting to contribute, do some research into small or large organisations already working in that space. The odds are that there are a number of organisations working to similar objectives. It is simply a matter of finding the right fit for you.

New structure being trialled by Suicide Prevention Australia.

After years of seeing a growing number of charities being established, we saw the need to offer alternative structures for small organisations and individuals. Suicide Prevention Australia has a pilot Ambassador program starting this year, with the kind participation of three of our longstanding community supporters and suicide prevention advocates. We are grateful for their collaborative spirit in trialling this new approach to community driven suicide prevention.

Ben Higgs from the Rise Foundation, Joe Williams from the Enemy Within and Lived Experience Network advisor Lauren Breen will formally be joining SPA as Community Ambassadors this year. They will continue to operate in their own right, under their own brands, doing important work in their communities and chosen demographics. The key difference is that instead of them each registering their charity, they will be operating in partnership with Suicide Prevention Australia from an administrative perspective.

Donations and sponsorship received by them for their agreed suicide prevention activities will be received into an SPA managed fund, leaving them free to focus on the delivery of their respective programs. Suicide Prevention Australia will also work with them to ensure suicide prevention key messages and best practice are implemented within their programs and speaking engagements. Part of this will entail connecting them to appropriate training opportunities. We have also built regular reviews into the agreement so that all parties can give honest and timely feedback on the pilot as it progresses over the next 12 months.

Time will tell if this arrangement is the answer. But, if we are all working towards a shared goal of reducing suicides in this country, surely we must take the most efficient and effective route to doing so. Alternatives to starting up new charities must be sought.

Seek out alternative structures on offer in your area before starting your own charity.

Take some time to research what others are doing in a similar space to avoid duplication and charity fatigue in the community.

Our pilot agreement is just one way of contributing. You could partner with another like-minded organisation on a specific fundraising or awareness event. You could look to become a regular volunteer and use your skills to contribute to an existing charity that can’t afford to buy in such expertise. Finally, if you still want to go down the charity avenue, you could look at being auspiced by a large organisation or set up a similar agreement to our Ambassador pilot. The key is to first explore all alternatives.

About the author: Sue Murray’s background in education and health promotion has underpinned a career spanning more than 25 years in the community sector leading programs in education, media, communications and fundraising. After 10 years leading the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Murray built on her experience to establish the George Foundation for Global Health. She is currently the CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia.

Sue Murray |   |  @suevmurray

Sue Murray is the CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia.


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  • DougJacquier says:

    Couldn’t agree more with the basic proposition but it begs a couple of questions:
    1. Why didn’t the instigators of SPA join forces with Beyond Blue rather than start something new?
    2. What plans do SPA have to merge with other similar organisations?

    • Sue Murray says:

      Hi Doug, SPA has been operating since 1992 and is a peak organisation not involved in the delivery of services. Our colleagues at beyond blue, began their work in depression and anxiety in 2000.

      SPA has also brought together more than 30 organisations that work in this space to form the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention. The NCSP has adopted the framework of collective impact which among other things seeks to help participants identify potential duplication and where resources could most effectively be distributed.

      The first step is to influence the thinking of those who are seeking to form new organisations. This is not something new, I also sought to try and influence many others who contacted me in my role at NBCF wanting advice on how to set up a charity. I said the same then, find an existing organisation that can provide the infrastructure support and enable the program or service to be delivered under their own name. Ultimately it will still be up to the individual to make the decision.

  • Lee-Anne says:

    There is a lot to agree with philosophically but as the previous commentator states it does beg the question about why SPA didn’t join with Beyond Blue or even Lifeline. My experience is that large NFPs (even medium-scale) NPFs are not that approachable for a small number of people to lob in with a new idea. Funding is the critical aspect and the increasingly competitive nature of securing either grant funding from government or private support. Relying on donations via your DGR is not a sustainable position if you plan to do any volume of work and make a difference. I also think people try to start their operations because they believe they have a better idea about how to make an impact or are a splinter group where they disagree with some policy or procedure position of a larger organisation. If you want to see this in action look at animal welfare where splintering and factions are rife. I also think this is the same with health – how many cancer charities do we have (need)? In my experience of suggesting collaborations in the past – not even mergers just a collaboration for funding purposes – it’s hard to get off the ground and often breaks down around the first question: who will be the lead/ responsible agency? Dare I mention the dirty word – ego! While pursuing your own charitable setup is mostly noble there is a degree of ego involved and the same goes for trying to partner with the ego of a larger charity. But I really like and respect the Ambassador program model that SPA is piloting and look forward to reading about its outcomes. For me the issue is always of duplication and waste – wherever it can be, it should be avoided.

  • Sue Murray says:

    Thanks Lee-Anne, the article was written for all the reasons you state. As I said in my reply to Doug, SPA is a peak organisation and not involved in the delivery of services. It has been in operation since 1992.

    If we don’t keep trying to bring greater cooperation and consolidation confusion in the community will continue to abound.

    We will keep Pro Bono informed on progress with this initiative.

  • Cameron Winnett says:

    The Ambassador program sounds good, Sue. But like the other commenters, I think the burden needs to be on established charities to reach out to start-ups.

    It’s very difficult for a small group of community members to get support from a medium or large charity whose priorities/activities are already in train.

    Established charities are more likely to say ‘yes, we’re already aware of those problems and we’re developing our own strategy to respond to them’, instead of ‘you seem like capable, motivated people with a clever idea, let us auspice you!’.

    For an established charity to say the latter, they’ll likely expect to see that the start-up has some track record: that its model works, and that the founders have the skills to execute it. Registering as a charity can be an important step in establishing this track record, because it gives legitimacy and accountability and therefore makes it more likely that others will support the founders.

    Before registering my organisation as a charity, I was constantly asked by potential supporters (especially in the private sector) ‘so what’s you’re legal structure? And are you charitable?’. I also learnt that many funders don’t allow auspicing.

    The bigger picture is that headlines like this are disempowering for people with new ideas. It strikes me as odd that we think about start-ups completely differently in a commercial context. We spruik commercial start-ups as a crucial part of a dynamic economy. They can challenge outdated ways in which existing companies are operating, or unlock new opportunities that others hadn’t thought of. But new charities? They’re wasteful and duplicative.

    Of course, analogies between the business and charitable sectors are dangerous. The public is less tolerant of failure when it comes to a charity compared to a commercial venture. Nevertheless, rather than ‘don’t start a new charity’, I think we need more articles with the headline ‘Established charities – what are you doing to incubate new ventures?’.

  • Anonymous says:

    Well said Lee-Anne and Cameron. I was inclined to articulate those precise sentiments. As the Director of a small NFP operating for 10+ years, I have found that approaching larger organisations for partnership or volunteer involvement in their activites as a means of working collaboratively has been largely met with a great deal of ego, territorialism or even lack of response. Specifically, the Suicide Prevention “Sector” in itself is relatively small, however years of experience has proven that it is a near impossibility to even get an audience with the “in” crowd of the sector. I do however agree with Sue in principle and personally strive for partnerships and collaboration in every aspect of operation. To my simplistic way of thinking, there should be no ego or fear of having to share your “pot of money” (which is perhaps the drive for such a response?)- there should only be everyone working together, sharing resources and supporting one anothers’ efforts in reducing suicides.

  • Brian Boulton says:

    When you have a specific aspect of an issue that you wish to address, it doesn’t always serve the purpose of the bigger charities to entertain you as they are then giving you their valuable time and getting nothing in return.
    Also, they usually just want you to join them and just do what they are already doing – thus frustrating your desire to do something a little different than the current offerings.
    Show me an organisation that will say “sure – we will take you under our wing, train you, do all your admin – and let you do as you please leaving us held responsible for the outcome” – show me just one and I will join them!

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