Boosting ethical fundraising self-regulation in Australia: our recent history

With October being Ethics Awareness Month, we review the recent FIA Code journey.

Over the last three years, FIA has been working to shore up trust in the Australian fundraising sector. The Olive Cooke scandal in the UK, some negative press locally and research showing evidence that donor confidence was dwindling in charities were all the reasons FIA needed to get fundraisers focused on best practice.

To avoid a potential crackdown by regulators, we move quickly to ensure the sector’s ethical practices were current. We established a taskforce of fundraising leaders to examine the sustainability of the fundraising sector and to advocate for a more donor-centric landscape based on an ethical fundraising approach.

The taskforce reviewed sector practices, conducted research, talked to members and donors, and examined the FIA system of self-regulation. FIA kept regulators and government officials, who have jurisdiction over fundraising regulation in the states and territories, informed about the work.

The taskforce concluded that FIA’s system of self-regulation needed updating. Staff produced a new Code, with content informed by the International Statement of Ethical Principles in Fundraising, which sets out the values that govern professional fundraisers globally.

While Australia has just over 57,000 registered charities, many are small and engage in limited fundraising. It is FIA’s 1200+ members who do the lion’s share of fundraising. We believed if we could effectively self-regulate our members, this would help provide an environment where charitable giving could thrive.

Launched in 2017, the compulsory member Code introduces vital new governance and accountability measures along with protections for people in vulnerable circumstances and rules for donor communication preferences. 

After the Code launch, we still had to undertake substantial work to bolster member support for the Code and ensure compliance with the new self-regulation system. We appointed a Code Authority, consisting of an independent chairperson, fundraisers, donor advocates and suppliers, to oversee compliance with the Code.

We also developed an online Code training course to help members understand their obligations. All FIA members and any person involved in fundraising for them (including chief executives, board members and volunteers) must take the training. To date, more than 2,500 fundraisers and suppliers have completed the course.

We also initiated a mystery shopping program to monitor member compliance. The Code contains several specific commitments by fundraisers in how they must treat supporters and beneficiaries. By regularly checking on their compliance through spot checks undertaken by a Code Monitor, we believe ethical standards will improve across the sector, and this will benefit charitable giving.

When mystery shopping reveals evidence of Code breaches, the Code Monitor alerts the Code Authority, which has a variety of options available in cases where a member has been found in breach, ranging from requiring the member to undertake additional training to other remedial action to ensure the breach doesn’t happen again.

This exercise, however, is not about punishment. Code monitoring is designed to alert members to non-compliance before it becomes a serious or systemic issue leading to real harm. Members found in breach have the opportunity to correct the behaviour before the Code Authority considers sanctions.

For self-regulation to work, there needed to be community confidence that fundraisers are doing the right thing. Our proactive approach to updating our Code, supporting our members with training and monitoring compliance, provides the evidence base to support our arguments for light-touch government regulation of our sector. We believe fundraising standards across the country will rise as more charities sign up to our Code and system of self-regulation. Ultimately, our efforts should help to enhance public trust and confidence in the fundraising sector.