It’s been a busy week for NFP media and not in a good way. Several charity leaders are facing a backlash after endorsing the LNP’s Josh Frydenberg.
It’s been a rocky few days for a handful of Melbourne-based charities with leaders who appear to have aligned themselves with federal election campaigning. In case you missed the news, it centres around Josh Frydenberg, the current federal treasurer, and the public endorsements he has received from several nonprofits.
At the centre of the maelstrom is Karen Hayes, CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria. Karen appeared in a now-deleted video on the treasurer’s Facebook page espousing his support of Guide Dogs Victoria, including his backing of the $30 million redevelopment of the charity’s Kew campus.
Karen has also appeared on a flyer distributed to letterboxes across the Melbourne seat of Kooyong where Josh hopes to be re-elected. Between the front and reverse of the flyer, the words ‘Guide Dogs Victoria’ appear not once, but five times, leaving the reader in little doubt that this message goes beyond an endorsement in the ‘personal capacity’ allowed by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).
“He gives us good advice and guidance,” Karen says in her video. A quote her board may disagree with as they undertake an internal investigation into the matter, saying in a 20 April statement, “The board had no prior knowledge of the distribution of this material and does not endorse it”.
On 26 April, the board released a second statement that says: “Guide Dogs Victoria can confirm that CEO Karen Hayes has been stood down pending an independent investigation, following the distribution of political materials that included comments from the CEO purporting to be on behalf of Guide Dogs Victoria and publicly endorsing a political candidate. The board had no knowledge of this and did not endorse it.”
“The purpose of the investigation is to understand what happened and ensure it never happens again,” the statement went on.
Josh’s calling in of favours did not end there. Next is Cate Sayers, founder and director of Down syndrome support charity, the Inclusion Foundation. Cate also appears on one of Josh’s flyers, as well as a now-deleted page on his website.
The Inclusion Foundation responded with this statement:
The Breast Cancer Network Australia’s (BCNA) CEO, Kirsten Pilatti, has emerged as the third nonprofit leader to throw their support behind Josh with this recent television appearance.
The organisation has responded by saying “BCNA does not endorse individual politicians or political parties. We have been fortunate to be able to work with politicians from all political parties and our focus is to ensure we can be part of policy decisions, no matter who is in government”.
And you may have heard about Josh’s, now infamous, Scouts photo blunder. The image in question was taken five years ago and shows Josh saluting alongside nine Scouts Victoria members. Included on corflute signs around Kooyong, the picture attracted a complaint from one of the featured Scouts members, who said: “I did not give permission for my photograph to be used in this way so I’m glad they are going to cover it over.” The treasurer’s team are now busy covering up the offending image with stickers across the campaign signs.
Scouts Victoria’s guidelines state: “We do not involve ourselves in any election materials like brochures, posters and billboards.” To date they have not commented on the matter.
So, what is the problem here? Why are these campaign tactics so controversial?
Let’s just address the Scouts issue straight away: using images of children – of anyone – without consent for political campaigning is unethical at best.
What has really caused a stir for Guide Dogs Victoria, the Inclusion Foundation and BCNA is that these organisations are registered as charities with the ACNC, who have strict rules surrounding political campaigning and advocacy by registered charities.
The two statements below, taken from the ACNC website, make it clear that a charity should not produce material asking its supporters to vote for a particular candidate or party, and neither should a ‘Responsible Person’ from a charity provide support for an election outcome on behalf of that charity. With all three of the leaders appearing alongside their organisation’s names in their Josh Frydenberg endorsements, it is hard to see how they have not flouted these rules.
And finally, you won’t be surprised to hear that the supporter outcry has been loud and clear.
This is, without doubt, an PR disaster for the charities involved. We hope, that beyond whatever inquiries and actions unfold as a result of this controversy, the charities’ valuable work can continue unscathed and lessons are learned.
In the words of ACNC commissioner Dr Gary Johns, speaking on ABC Radio Melbourne, “You can sing from the rooftops about your charitable purpose, that you’re in favour of this or that, but not about candidates or political parties.”
As the coming weeks of election tactics ramp up, take heed of Gary’s advice and fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.