Have you checked if your social purpose organisation is on this list?
22 April 2020 at 4:46 pm
Many NFP and social purpose organisations unwittingly find themselves on lobbyist registers. It is critical you check to see whether you are also in this situation, writes Neil Pharaoh.
A few months back I did some research for a whitepaper I was drafting on government engagement. As part of my research I approached several not-for-profit and social purpose organisations who were actively engaged in lobbying, using various state and federal lobbyist registers to find them.
I came across a big problem while doing this. Almost half of the not-for-profit and social purpose organisations listed on these lobbyist registers that I contacted either didn’t know they were listed as a client on a lobbyist register or told me that that relationship had ended more than 12 months ago.
Yet many NFP and social purpose organisations are still unwittingly finding themselves on the lobbyist register. This can be both damaging to their reputation and potentially put future funding, contracts and partnerships at risk. As an NFP or social purpose organisation, it is critical you check these registers, to see whether you are also in this situation.
So, what is a lobbyist register and why does it exist?
Lobbying is a multibillion-dollar industry in Australia, consulting fees paid to lobbying firms are in excess of $1 billion per annum – not including donations that are made to political parties on top of the lobbyist fees. Lobbyist registers were set up in most jurisdictions to ensure politicians, their advisors, and the public are aware of “who is representing who” on a fee-for-service basis.
Why would a lobbying firm be publicly listing a client who didn’t know they were listed, or had not paid that lobbying firm for over 12 months? Especially a not for profit or social purpose one? Perhaps because a “halo” of good work can surround a lobbyist who has a not-for-profit or social purpose organisation on the register.
If you scroll through the variety of lobbying registers available across Australia, you will notice a few things in common. The first is that not-for-profit and social purpose organisations tend to be listed at the top of the client list – this is because when competing for private lobbying work, it looks good to have a few social purpose and not-for-profit organisations on the register. In effect, many social purpose organisations who may have used a lobbying firm once or twice and are now seemingly stuck on the register for extended periods of time are there because it is good optics for the lobbying firm.
Secondly, you will notice very quickly that potential conflicts of interest are rife on the register. The same lobbying firm may be representing alcohol and gambling companies while also representing a domestic violence charity or homelessness organisation. While “Chinese walls” may be the typical response from this lobbying firm when questioned on this, many lobbying firms employ less than 10 people, so can a Chinese wall realistically exist in this environment?
Also, from a political advisor or politician’s perspective, perception of this duality can be mixed. Is this lobbying firm advocating for homelessness relief today, or for property developers? Are they advocating for a gambling consortium, or for poverty alleviation and services? This conflict can even be used by lobbyists in a “bait and switch” move in the meeting – by requesting a political meeting for a social purpose organisation they work for, but ultimately discussing their commercial client with a for-profit motive.
“Not my lobbying firm,” your organisation might say. However, with no record of what is happening in the meeting, how do you really know?
Thirdly, as mentioned above, a large number of social purpose organisations do not even know they have been placed on a register by a lobbying firm. This finding really shocked me.
You may think I was interviewing the wrong people, however during the whitepaper research I would always speak to the CEO and senior leadership from each social purpose organisation. “Are you sure you haven’t used this lobbyist?” I would ask, with a substantial number replying that they knew nothing about it.
So, what does this mean for you and your organisation?
- Check the registers, both federally (https://lobbyists.ag.gov.au/register) and in every state or territory you operate in. Search your name or organisation and make sure you are not “accidentally” listed at the top of a register you are unaware of. If you are on the list, report this to the relevant regulatory body (federally this is the Attorney General’s Department) and ask to be removed. Otherwise your organisation’s reputation may inadvertently be damaged without you even knowing about it.
- If you do currently use a lobbyist, make sure your organisation’s name isn’t at the top of the list or it will be the first thing a person will see when they search that particular firm. If every other client except you is listed in date or alphabetical order, ask for this to be corrected with the lobbying firm you work with. If you don’t pay for the lobbying services, ensure you ask them to put “pro bono” after your name, as otherwise when the register is checked it will be assumed you are paying for professional lobbying services.
- If you have used a lobbying firm in the past but are no longer employing them, check to make sure your name has been removed. At the end of your usage, continue to check the register until your name has been removed (if you are no longer using their services).
- If you currently use a lobbying firm or have done so in the past, check the register for conflicts, whether real or perceived. Many lobbying firms run on both sides of the ledger – representing conflicting interests and sectors seemingly without concern for either how this is perceived or for the actual conflicts which may result. Remember, this is a lightly regulated space, do not assume the same conditions as for other professional services such as lawyers and accountants, who have both membership and legal obligations around conflict management.
- If you do get an offer of support for pro bono lobbying from a firm, remember this means you will be listed on the register and that this has substantial benefits for the lobbying firm – a “halo” and improved political access (by dropping the NFP name) being just two of the benefits. Weigh up whether what you are receiving from the firm is worth the reputational and consequential costs.
I won’t hide the fact that I always believe that the best person to speak for a social purpose or not-for-profit organisation is the organisation itself. Then messages aren’t mixed, reputations are managed, and conflicts are minimised. Smart social purpose organisations and not for profits are learning to use their voice, tools, boards, team members and clients to engage with government effectively – off and online.
However, if you do choose to use a lobbying firm, or have done so in the past, make sure you and your organisation are not getting caught up in the unintended consequences of being listed on a lobbying register.
About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. He regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems.
Happenings on the hill is a new fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.
If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.