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Charity Sector Looks To Improve Complaint Handling

24 April 2018 at 2:35 pm
Luke Michael
Major peak bodies in the not-for-profit sector have launched a “desperately needed” policy to improve how charities handle complaints.

Luke Michael | 24 April 2018 at 2:35 pm


Charity Sector Looks To Improve Complaint Handling
24 April 2018 at 2:35 pm

Major peak bodies in the not-for-profit sector have launched a “desperately needed” policy to improve how charities handle complaints.

These 11 peak national bodies – including the Australian Council for International Development, Community Council for Australia, Fundraising Institute Australia and Justice Connect – unveiled this initiative on Monday.

The policy is designed to ensure that complaints are handled confidentially and safely by charities, to enhance community trust and confidence in the sector.

The initiative was driven by Dr Sue-Anne Wallace AM, the former chair of the ACFID Code of Conduct Committee.

Wallace told Pro Bono News she began researching this area of charity activity in 2014, after she was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to look at how charities and not for profits internationally handled complaints.

“In 2015, I came back to Australia and canvassed about 50 people across corporate social responsibility areas, across philanthropy, across charities themselves and regulators, and realised there was an appetite for actually taking this on in Australia,” Wallace said.

“And the general message that I got right across the sector was that this was very important for the charity sector and was actually the next step that charities needed to take.”

Wallace then convened an expert panel on the handling of complaints by charities, facilitated by Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine, Emeritus Professor Myles McGregor Lowndes, Professor Kristy Muir and Professor Peter Shergold.

The meeting developed five key recommendations to address the issue.

“[The recommendations] talked about how the failure to address complaints appropriately could undermine the trust and reputation of the sector,” Wallace said.

“They also came up quite strongly to say that this is a governance issue. So it’s really important not just that charities take this on but that their boards and directors take on the importance of risk management and appropriate governance.

“One of the recommendations was that we draw together in an alliance of key peak bodies to look at how we might develop a set of recommendations for the sector and then to champion those recommendations through all available networks.”

The resulting resource contains a model policy and model procedure for charities – intended to provide guidance for organisations on “key principles and concepts of an effective and efficient complaint management system”.

The documents are designed to be used by charities as a template for “adaption and then adoption” within their organisation.

This policy has also been designed to give the sector access to complaint data so charities can learn from past incidents.

Wallace said the sector did not currently know how many complaints charities were addressing, because there was no reporting requirement.

“But in the commercial world for example, they are required to report the number of complaints that they addressed. They also have a code and are required to report serious breaches against that code,” she said.

“This is an area within charity regulation – whether it’s regulation or self-regulation – where we don’t know what’s happening until it hits the front pages of the newspaper.

“At the worst end of the scale, during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, some of our most well-known charities were shown to be inadequately dealing with complaints.”

Wallace added she was “fairly certain” that some charities were not adequately addressing complaints, meaning an updated policy was “desperately needed”.

“What we feel fairly sure about, having seen how other sectors work, is that there will be complaints coming into charities currently that are not being adequately addressed,” she said.                     

“[Our Community CEO] Denis Moriarty… said to me at one stage that this was so desperately needed by the organisations that he deals with.

“We’ve made the process very simple, so it can be addressed easily by even the smallest of charities.”

Understanding what a complaint actually is and realising the significance of addressing complaints is another issue in the sector, Wallace believes.

“One of the things that we discussed as a collective working on this for the last eight months, was the fact that many people don’t recognise what a complaint is after they just received one,” she said.

“They think ‘oh isn’t that person being a nuisance’ and sometimes they may tend to feel that a complaint is just an [annoyance] and if they ignore it, it will go away.

“But a complaint can actually tell you about where your systems might not be working to the benefit of the people you are trying to help. So it may be actually something that you will benefit from addressing.”

The initiative has been welcomed by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

Commissioner Dr Gary Johns said: “Improving the governance of charities and how charity boards manage risk and enhance accountability are key concerns of the ACNC.

“We encourage charities of all sizes to review their procedures and consider adopting these and other like tools to assist them to manage community expectations of charitable activities.”

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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