It’s not unusual for community groups and not-for-profits to find themselves in legal tangles, whether that’s around governance, dispute resolution or volunteer management. Unfortunately, legal advice can also be prohibitively expensive for many groups.
Luckily, there’s help available. Australian community groups and not-for-profits have access to the excellent Not-for-profit Law (NFP Law) service, a volunteer legal service run by the pro bono legal organisation Justice Connect.
I spoke to NFP Law’s Manager of Education and Advocacy, Nadine Clode, about what the organisation does, and what resources are available for community groups and not-for-profits with legal issues.
How and why was Not-for-profit Law started?
The service that is now called Not-for-profit Law was established by in 2007 after a scoping study about how best to respond to the unmet legal needs of small-medium not-for-profit community organisations. Ten years on, the service is growing from strength to strength. Not-for-profit Law now operates out of offices in Melbourne and Sydney, delivering advice, information and training sessions to community organisations across Australia. Why? Because we know if we support not-for-profit organisations through services and law reform, we will help them improve their efficiency and effectiveness in delivering positive outcomes for the community. They will be able to better focus their time and energy on achieving their mission – whether that’s supporting vulnerable people, delivering important services, enhancing diversity or bringing the community together.
What are the main services you provide?
We provide free or low cost, high quality practical legal help for not-for-profit community organisations, and advocate for improved standards and legal frameworks. We do this by:
- Building not-for-profit capacity with free and low-cost education, mostly through our web-based Information Hub and through our webinar program
- Free legal advice, delivered by staff lawyers or via Justice Connect’s member law firms and barristers
- Law and policy reform work to make sure there is the best possible legal framework for the sector, and
- Delivering tailored legal training on a fee-for-service basis through our social enterprise, Not-for-profit Legal Training.
What do you find most fulfilling about your work? What’s the biggest challenge?
The most fulfilling aspect of my work in the Not-for-profit Law team of Justice Connect is knowing that I can use my skills to help organisations resolve legal problems that they may have never been able to fix otherwise. In helping one organisation, I set off a positive domino effect, where I am also helping the people who go to that organisation for support or assistance. And it is often the small volunteer-run organisations that really give me a sense of doing something useful. As one volunteer told me: “After volunteering since 1995 I now feel cared about. Thank you from us all who need your help.”
The biggest challenge is meeting demand with limited resources, including funding. The Not-for-profit Law team would love to help all organisations with legal problems. But as a small team of lawyers, we don’t have the capacity. On the plus side, we have wonderful relationships with our member law firms, who provide us with countless hours of pro bono legal information and advice along with partnerships with other organisations (including in-house legal teams of corporates) who support us with our work. We also focus much of our energies on legal information resources so that, where possible, organisations can be empowered to solve their own problems.
Roughly how many organisations does NFP Law assist per year, and what areas do they work in?
In the past financial year, our Information Hub resources received 365,000 online hits – it has more than 280 factsheets and resources on a range of issues, from starting an NFP, to running meetings, to employment and safety issues.
Last year we received over 1,700 legal enquiries. Of these, we provided legal information to 1,097 clients, provided free legal advice to 379 and referred 134 clients onto one of our member firms for pro bono assistance.
We also provided legal training to over 2,400 people in 108 training sessions.
We provide assistance to NFP organisations across Australia. These organisations cover a range of community activities, from local clubs to international aid agencies. We provide direct legal assistance to organisations that help the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. This can take a number of forms, including free legal advice or a pro bono referral.
What are the most common legal issues faced by non-profits or community groups?
We are often asked about managing volunteers – this is not surprising given that many (if not all!) of the 600,000 not-for-profit organisations across Australia are supported by volunteers, or are wholly volunteer run. We have developed many helpful guides (including Ending the volunteer relationship and Safety, risk management and volunteers) and our training program on ‘legal issues in managing volunteers’ is always popular.
Governance obligations is another common issue that NFP organisations ask us about. To meet this demand, we offer organisations tailored and comprehensive governance training that helps board and committee members better understand their legal responsibilities.
How to resolve an internal dispute is another common enquiry. We have produced a comprehensive suite of dispute resolution resources which are available on our Internal Conflict page, however, we do not provide direct legal advice on this issue.
Fundraising laws in Australia are complex and tricky to navigate. We are frequently asked about the need for licences in one or more states (where organisations want to conduct an online fundraising campaign). We have been working hard to #fixfundraising laws. The campaign has called for the repeal of complicated and duplicative state and territory-based fundraising laws, and proposed that the Australian Consumer Law provides a nationally-consistent set of laws that can be used to support ethical fundraising behaviour.
Which area(s) of law do you think it’s crucial for non-profits to understand?
It is crucial for not-for-profits to be practising good governance. Good governance means committee members (or board members) are complying with their legal duties, in turn this means a better-run organisation. Legal duties apply to all people who sit in a governance position in all not-for-profit organisations. If legal duties are not complied with, committee members could be legally responsible and penalties could apply, which is why it is so important that legal duties are understood. The good news is, legal duties are easy to meet and we have free resources that explain them with practical examples!
What’s the most important thing a non-profit or community group can do to ensure they meet their legal obligations?
There are number of important things a not-for-profit or community group should do to meet their legal obligations. There are numerous obligations, including as committee members in understanding the role and legal duties that come with it, under work health and safety laws, and compliance with requirements set down by regulators such as Fair Trading NSW or the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
This is why we have developed our Information Hub which has more than 280 resources covering 12 topics and more than 70 sub-topics, from setting up an organisation, to the people involved, to risk and insurance to winding up an organisation. The Hub also contains helpful toolkits (for example, how to run a NSW incorporated associations), templates (i.e. sample volunteer agreement) and checklists (i.e. holding an event) and is supported by videos that help explain common situations for community groups that might involve legal considerations (i.e. key considerations around risk and legal duties).
What should organisations do if they’re concerned that they may not be legally compliant?
We always recommend getting legal advice if an organisation is unsure if it is legally compliant. It is not something that can be ignored.
Apart from NFP Law’s own fact sheets, what resources do you recommend if people want to educate themselves on the relevant areas of law?
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission website has a wide range of factsheets and resources on managing a charity and good governance procedures.
The Arts Law Centre has their own Info Hub, similar to ours, that covers legal issues specific to arts organisations such as copyright, defamation and privacy as well as general governance topics.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking of starting a community group or non-profit?
We recommend first reading our “Getting Started” resources to get you thinking about the legal issues and decisions you will need to make. We have also developed the free Getting Started Decision Framework, that will step you through the questions your group needs to consider, and it will provide you with your own report (based on your answers to the questions) about important considerations, such as legal structure.
Before you choose to incorporate, it’s vital that you consider factors like who will run the organisation (your potential committee members), what you will do (your purposes), where your funding will come from, and how the organisation will be run.
One of the biggest decisions you will face is what legal structure you should choose. It is important to be aware of the different options, and the obligations attached to each structure. We recommend reading widely to make sure you choose the most appropriate structure the first time, because having to change structure down the track can be difficult. Our resources on legal structures are available here.
Running an organisation can be a fair amount of work. Sometimes it can be more convenient and practical to work with an organisation already in existence. If there are other organisations doing the same or similar work you wish to do, you might consider volunteering with them, or looking at your work forming a project under their umbrella.
How can people get in touch with you?
We release a monthly Not-for-profit Law Update that advertises upcoming training sessions, changes in the law and relevant news from the sector. It’s a great way to stay informed with the not-for-profit community and any changes or events that may be relevant to your organisation. You can sign up to receive the update here. We also keep a fairly active Twitter account if that is your thing (our handle is @nfp_law).
Keep an eye on our training page for upcoming free and low cost webinars for individuals. If you think your organisation could benefit from a training session with Justice Connect’s lawyers, then visit our Training for Community Organisations page. We provide training on a wide variety of topics and tailor the content to suit your needs. Get in touch today to book in!