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The advocate’s advocate

3 min read

After five years working in Oxfam’s advocacy division, Marc Purcell was appointed as Executive Director of the Australian Council For International Development (ACFID) in April this year.

The peak body for Australian aid and development agencies, ACFID represents 73 diverse member organisations from very large to very small not-for-profit aid and development agencies who collectively spend over $1 billion a year on aid.

ACFID members created and led the Make Poverty History campaign, which successfully pressured the Australian Government to substantially increase Australian aid levels in order to contribute to meeting the Millennium Development Goals. The organisation also campaigned for two decades for East Timor’s independence.

Criteria for successful advocacy

“Advocacy is really the art of getting policy and practice changed by people in power,” explains Purcell.

“It’s the skills and techniques you use to effectively persuade governments or others who have power to change their ways of thinking and doing things.”

“There are real strengths in our sector around advocacy but I think for a lot of organisations there are many lessons that can be learned to make them more effective.

“Never underestimate the power of people to change the behaviour and thinking of governments. This sector has many, many strengths but we need to remind ourselves sometimes because we forget our own power.”

He says the successful Close the Gap campaign in 2006 is a good example of not-for-profits working together in an effort to get the Federal and State governments to commit to achieving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and life expectation equality within 25 years.

“You had health organisations, indigenous organisations, aid agencies and advocacy organisations, so you had the Australian Medical Association, the national aboriginal health associations and the Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma.”

Participating organisations spent nearly a year getting to know each other before publishing a substantive report, and getting Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe to launch the campaign.

“Now the campaign is in a different phase,” says Purcell. “It’s actually about holding governments to account for the promises that they’ve said that they’ll honour.”

The sector’s future

Purcell believes the National Roundtable of Nonprofit Organisation’s recent decision to include the larger service providers and agencies, in addition to the peak bodies already represented, is good for the sector.

“Bodies like the not-for-profit roundtable become very important as a mechanism for the peak bodies and large agencies to come together.

“I believe it will be vital to the future prosperity of the sector that the not-for-profit roundtable provides leadership and I’m confident that it will do this.

“The Government would be wise to give more political attention to the sector.”

Leading by example: a Code of Conduct for the third sector

ACFID maintains a unique code of conduct: a voluntary, self-regulating sector standard for aid and development agencies. Purcell says its adoption would benefit the entire not-for-profit sector by increasing credibility.

“There are not many other codes like it in Australia,” says Purcell. “It sets standards around accountability, transparency, finances, financial reporting and governance. There’s an independent complaints mechanism. It is recognised by the Government, who encourages agencies to sign the code.

“It’s important because we need to provide some sort of assurance back to the public that their money is being accountably spent.”

ACFID is currently advocating the usefulness of the code of conduct, via submissions to the Senate Economic Committee inquiry, Productivity Commission inquiry and the Henry Review.

Latest trends

Purcell says the sector’s increasing investment in research and departments devoted to advocacy is “recognition that it’s not enough just to provide the services.”

“You actually need to work on the systems that have influence over whether poverty or injustices are removed or not.

“What we’re seeing is an increasing investment in research as well to provide the evidence base for governments to change policy and practices.”

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