Why Australia needs to rethink the debate on charities

The data is in: the Australian charities sector is more diverse and economically important than ever given credit for. It’s time to rethink how we regulate it.

For the first time in Australian history we have a picture of the size, complexity and contribution of the charitable sector. It shows clearly that it is time to rethink the national discussion regarding this incredibly important sector.

Curtin University’s report — Australian Charities 2013 — published in last month is based on our analysis of the Annual Information Statement data provided by charities to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission for the 2013 financial year. It also includes analysis of Australian Taxation Office data from charity Business Activity Statements lodged during the same period. As such, it is the first comprehensive view of the sector.

The data highlights that the sector is extremely diverse and incredibly economically important. It shows that the sector turned over around $100 billion during the 2013 financial year and employed almost 1 million people. Indeed, the sector employs more people than the mining, the automotive and the agricultural industries put together, and is able to leverage 2 million volunteers.

While the turnover reported is significant by any definition, the income of the sector reported is very much a low estimate as the data reviewed did not include donations and a number of other income sources that are not captured by the BAS form. Additionally, the report considers charities only and so any consideration of the broader not-for-profit sector (of which the charitable sector is a subset) will almost certainly mean the income of the sector will be considerably in excess of the $100 billion reported.

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