by Greg Beattie,
There is so much misinformation getting around, it’s bewildering. We expect misinformation from a group calling itself “Stop the AVN” – that’s what they do with their spare time. But throw in a couple of mischievous journalists and politicians and you have a recipe for a fantasy blockbuster.
By now you may have heard we have shed our charitable fundraising licence. This is true. And it’s something we’re still popping the corks over. It’s one of the best things that has happened to the AVN for a long time. We have been trying to get rid of that licence for many years, but, for so long, we couldn’t. However, a few recent changes allowed us to tackle several issues in one move. The licence was one of them. Let me explain.
You’re probably wondering what a charitable fundraising licence is, why we had one, and why we wanted to get rid of it. Moreover, why we couldn’t do so for so long. Sit back for a moment and I’ll explain. It’s important that you understand this issue and how it relates to your organisation.
When the AVN was formed in 1997 it took over the reins from an existing entity – one which was in the process of folding – called the Australian Council for Immunisation Information (ACII). Although the committee were not aware at the time, one of the things we inherited was a charitable fundraising status and licence. ACII had been set up with this capacity and it literally landed in our lap. It meant AVN could conduct fundraising as a charity. In other words, just like the various cancer, homelessness, mental health, and other appeals, AVN could go door-to-door, or run a telethon, or whatever, presenting itself to the public as a bona fide ‘charity’, and ask for money.
Now you might be thinking “But all organisations raise funds, don’t they?” The answer is yes. They charge membership fees, hold cake stalls and other events, and accept donations from anyone who chooses to give. The difference lies in what they do with those funds. If they build a new clubhouse, upgrade equipment, pay workers or contractors, run courses for members, or a host of other things, they’re fine. They don’t need a charitable fundraising licence, because those activities are not ‘charitable’.
So which activities are charitable? Well the definition is slightly different depending on which jurisdiction you operate in but, basically, if the money is raised to provide relief for people in distress – such as food, shelter, clothing, or education – then you are engaging in charity.
So where does the AVN fit into this? Well it doesn’t. And that’s the point. We are not a charity, and never have been. But here we were holding this charity licence. Each year the management committee would go through the ropes tending to the various requirements for this licence, but we were getting no benefit from having it. I guess the committee thought it might come in useful someday, but that day was never really discussed. Until then, it was nothing but a mild drain on our resources.
Let the groaning begin
Then came the birth of ‘Stop the AVN’. Quite apart from their well-known abuse and harassment, this group made it their business to lodge complaints about us to every regulatory body they could think of. They figured that by doing this they could completely tie us up responding to them all, and no one would have any time left to talk (or write) about vaccination. For those who aren’t familiar with this side of life, every complaint requires at least ten times the effort in defence.
One of the bodies they started complaining to was – you guessed it – the office that administers charities in NSW. It’s called the Office of Liquor, Gaming, and Racing (OLGR). In fact they lodged a multitude of them there. The complainants argued our licence should be revoked because, in their opinion, we were a danger to public health.
The OLGR required us to defend ourselves or lose our licence. Well… this was a licence we didn’t even use. We certainly didn’t need it so we asked if we could just surrender it. And this was where the battle over our charity licence began – back in 2009.
We were informed that if the licence was surrendered we would not be allowed to raise funds any more. The reason… because we were considered to be pursuing a charitable purpose. And why was that, given we weren’t engaged in any charitable activities? Apparently, the answer lay in our ‘constitution’. The wording of our objectives indicated we did in fact pursue a charitable purpose. So we were stuck with it. And that meant responding to all the inquisitions (and there were quite a few).
We finally have a new constitution! One which outlines exactly what we do. One which demonstrates clearly that we do not pursue a charitable purpose. Now we can raise funds without the licence… just like every other organisation. As soon as our constitution was changed we wrote to the OLGR and surrendered the licence. We were finally free.
But boy are the folk at SAVN upset? They are seething. One of their major avenues of complaint has just dried up, and they had no idea it was happening. So now they’re trying to put their own spin on the story, telling everyone that they had a major win. But make no mistake – this is the best thing that’s happened in a long time, and those in the wheelhouse of AVN are breathing a long sigh of relief.
Why did it take so long?
Well, to be honest, the constitution was changed, but not for this purpose. Other reasons drove that. The decision to change our constitution was made early last year, during the appeal process for our name-change. Our barrister complained that our objects were far too broad. They made his job difficult. According to the objects, we were to be all things to all people. (I guess it’s no wonder the OLGR saw us as a charity.) We decided to wait and see whether our name had to be changed, and process both together. Since both required a special resolution to be passed by 75% majority at a general meeting, there was no point going to the trouble of doing it all twice.
While we waited, we sat down and drafted new objects, describing as accurately as we could just how we saw the AVN. At the end of that process we looked at each other, and said “Hey, that’s definitely not a charity.” This revelation prompted us to search further to determine how charitable purposes were defined. Boy was that difficult. It turns out they’re different, depending on the jurisdiction you’re in. In our case (NSW) the definition was quite broad. It used three words – benevolent, philanthropic, and patriotic. If you came under one of these you were a charity. We didn’t.
It’s easy now to look back and see what the problem was, but for quite a long time the committee found it difficult to understand why the AVN was seen as a charity, and why we seemed to be stuck with this label forever.
We had already been subjected to many inquisitions by the OLGR, including one audit in 2009 where two of their staff spent two days in our office, going through everything financial. On another occasion we had our fundraising licence suspended because the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) issued a public warning against us. This warning was later found to be unlawful by the NSW Supreme Court and our licence was handed back to us. The orchestrated complaints seemed to stream constantly for years, and the OLGR were obliged to act on them.
There was in fact another ‘show cause’ sent to us in January, just as we were going through the change of constitution process. Two professors provided affidavits to OLGR swearing that, in their opinion, we provided misleading information.
This time, we gave a short response outlining the fact that we were in the process of changing our constitution to better reflect our purpose and activities and we would no longer be needing the licence. Oh, and also that the two complainants were known opponents of the AVN and were also financially conflicted.
We must say, however, that the OLGR itself has been particularly pleasant to deal with over the years. The staff were helpful and always had time for us. Still… we’re glad it has come to an end.
[Note: Throughout this article I have used the term ‘we’ when referring to those who carried out all the work. I wish to stress, however, that I have only been a part of the committee for a little over a year, so the vast majority of compliance work associated with this licence was carried out by others.]