Karen Mahlab AM, Founder and CEO of Pro Bono Australia delivered a Keynote Address at PeakCare’s recent SPEAK OUT Symposium. She reported on the voices that Pro Bono Australia have researched through the Civil Voices report on sector advocacy and other surveys that have allowed for non-government organisations (NGOs) to be effective advocates for the causes and communities they represent.

“Our individual voices reflect the nature and complexity of the issues we deal with on the ground. There is, however, great power to be had in our collective voice which requires we gather an evidence base that informs and allows us to speak out together for change,” said Karen. She outlined her organisation’s belief in the power of civil voices in activating good intentions. Pro Bono Australia are leading the way in social impact. “We dedicate time, energy and resources to support and enable the growth of an engaged and effective social sector. In 2015, nearly one million Australians used our services. Ernst and Young estimated the value of the social impact created by our News, Volunteer Match, Surveys and Webinars to be approximately 6.5 million dollars.”

Now over 1 million people use their services. They engage in issues, projects and campaigns.

Karen noted the work of Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize Laureate. He lamented that 1 in 7 Americans go hungry and live on food stamps. The dialogue around this issue, and issues such as poverty and social exclusion is often problematic and one of blame. “We’ve seen signs of that language and harsh methods come to Australia. It’s time to advocate. Each person can make a difference. We have resistance to having a voice from the sector that comes from factors such as gag contracts under the Newman government and others. This is an alarming trend. We initiated Civil Voices as a partnership between the Human Rights Law Centre, philanthropists and Pro Bono Australia. A whole collaboration came together. This required a reduction of the ego factor to work towards outcomes.”

In 2004 The Australia Institute produced the report Silencing Dissent: Non-government organisations and Australian democracy, following a survey of the non-government sector. It concluded that NGOs felt the government was undermining their credibility, shutting them out of civic discourse, defunding, or threatening to defund, organisations that were considered uncooperative, and micromanaging NGO activities by dismantling peak bodies. The report clearly articulated the growing concerns across NGOs with regard to their right to advocate in relevant public policy, alongside their changing role in the democratic process.

So much has occurred in the fourteen years since the publication of this report. These include: changes to the political and regulatory landscape, the formation of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission, the passing of the Charities Act and advances in digital media.

Regardless of these changes, the threat to advocacy remains. Civil Voices set out to re-examine NGO perceptions about their capacity to participate in public debate and ascertain how public debate and advocacy has changed since the Silencing Dissent report, and to re-examine NGO perceptions of their capacity to participate in public debate.

A total of 1,462 people responded to the survey, 30 percent of respondents were CEOs. “What we found is that not for profits are on a path of quiet advocacy. To a greater or lesser degree civil society organisations are engaging in various forms of “self-silencing” – treading very carefully in their advocacy work less they risk financial security and political retribution.

Amongst the findings were:

  • 65% of state-based NGOs stated that they feel restricted to speak out in terms of funding arrangements compared to 42% of nationally based organisations
  • 53% believe NGOs are pressured to amend policy statements to align with government
  • 83% of respondents have DGR status, and regard it as essential to their financial wellbeing
  • 40% directly linked the airing of dissenting viewpoints as a threat to their DGR status
  • When asked to rate out of 100 the extent to which “anxiety” about maintaining their organisation’s DGR status would “affect decisions about whether to engage in public debate/advocacy” the mean response was 39. NGOs most concerned with the loss of DGR status were those working in law, justice and human rights (mean=45); children’s services (mean=47); immigration and refugees (mean=48); religion and religious groups (mean=51)

“[We] pick our battles carefully,” said one survey respondent.

“We desperately need to find ways to fund advocacy in Australia – we self-fund it in my organisation, but it’s really hard. Places like the US have a much better tradition of trust/foundation/philanthropic funding for advocacy – sorely lacking here in Australia,” said another.

Karen noted that we need to be cognisant of the climate of fear but also to push back, own our positions and take up the challenge to advocate.” She highlighted that Australian Policy Online runs out of Swinburne University and is a daily media service pulling together an inordinate amount of reports each day. The Social Innovation Research Institute is looking at social media data and analysis. There are inroads in media and reporting of the issues our sector wants to advocate for and highlight. Innovation in doing so is required.   She spoke to the various ways the not for profit sector now engaged with media. In 2004 the mainstream media was a more important audience than in 2017. By 2017, NGOs were seeking to engage key persons directly rather than relying on intermediaries, such as the mainstream media, to carry their message. This reflects the changes in the media landscape. The development of multiple social media platforms has transformed the way that NGOs participate in public debate and communicate with their members and stakeholders. The Civil Voices report noted that 89 per cent of respondents used social media to “get their message heard” as part of their communications strategy. Facebook was the most used platform for 79% of respondents.

Karen was asked about the intersection between philanthropy and business in relation to social justice and advocacy. She noted that advocacy has really come to the fore. Many philanthropic organisations were wary about being seen to advocate. That is changing. There are some very solid case studies about where philanthropy has offered a significant contribution in supporting advocacy. She also noted “There is a warning that comes from people with lots of money being able to put their money towards the issues they want to fund. How money intersects with cause and advocacy is a very tricky one.”

She added, “There is need for reforms to ensure that the current definition of charities, which recognises advocacy as a part of an organisation’s charitable purpose, be protected and advanced. Philanthropy also has a role here, as by funding advocacy philanthropists can provide a much-needed signal boost to a muted and anxious sector. Australian civil society needs to be supported, and encouraged to engage in frank and fearless advocacy. This is vital if we are to ensure that our democracy remains vibrant and robust. We cannot allow ourselves to become complacent in this regard. The more the silencing of civil society is normalised the higher the risk becomes to the overall quality of Australian democracy.”

Karen highlighted the need to support our own leaders. The recognition that to fight, find a voice and advocate over a long period of time is hard. Within a climate of general exhaustion and scarce funding, it is important to take care of ourselves also.

In closing, she stressed the importance for NGOs to know their rights and ensure that in advocating they stay within the parameters required. Some facts Karen offered as examples are outlined below:

  • A charity may undertake advocacy activities without having a specific subtype of advancing public debate, if the advocacy is in line with its charitable purposes

It’s okay for a charity to:

  • Have a purpose of advancing public debate – including promoting or opposing a change in law – where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose
  • Have a purpose to promote or oppose a change to a law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state or territory or another country where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose

It’s not okay for a charity to:

  • Have a purpose to promote or oppose a political party or a candidate for political office
  • Have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are unlawful
  • Have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are contrary to public policy (the rule of law, our constitutional system, the safety of the public or national security)

Civil Voices offer significant information on rights and facts of advocacy. For more information about your rights Download Fact Sheet 1 – Advocacy and Download Fact Sheet 2 – Charities, elections and advocacy

They also offer links to the following external resources:

NFP Sector Freedom to Advocate Act 2013 (Cth)

Charities Act 2013 (Cth)

Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth)