Diluted Thinking

in Australian healthcare

AVSN: Everything Charitable Stripped

The Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network Inc. (formerly Australian Vaccination Network Inc.) can no longer accept donations for charitable purposes after the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) asked the AVSN to surrender its authority to fundraise as a result of their investigation into the fundraising activities of the AVSN.

The NSW Government issued this media release, dated 18 March 2014 Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) no longer a licensed charity (pdf).

The following newspaper articles (all dated 18 March 2014) have covered this issue:

The above articles are somewhat confusing in that they've failed to adequately explain and differentiate between the AVSN losing its status as a charity and the loss of its authority to fundraise.

Background

The AVSN was considered a charity as a result of the association's objectives it submitted when it first registered as an incorporated association with NSW Fair Trading. As a non-profit organisation it met the criteria for being a charity under common law.

Since it was a charity it was entitled to apply for an authority to fundraise. These authorities are regulated and issued by OLGR. It is not mandatory for a charity to hold such an authority but it is necessary if they wish to conduct public fundraising for a charitable purpose (in NSW).

As the AVSN was a charitable organisation, and was therefore pursuing a charitable purpose, it was required to hold an authority to fundraise to accept donations from the general public for any purpose. This was why the AVSN was restricted to member-only donations and membership renewals only from October 2010 until April 2012, the period in which OLGR had previously revoked the AVSN's fundraising authority.
Note: donations from members and fundraising drives directed only to members are not covered by fundraising regulations.

Update 21 March 2014:
I've received feedback that questions my reasoning of why the AVSN wasn't accepting public donations or new members during 2010-2012 and also questions the accuracy of my statement that the AVSN required an authority to accept money from the public (non-members) for any purpose.

As to the first point, I can't see why the AVSN would have restricted themselves to member-only revenue if they didn't have to. This is an organisation that would run a fundraising appeal for anyone or anything just so it could grab the money to pay its bills. Although it is possible the AVSN got it wrong, I think it highly unlikely that they didn't receive professional advice on the matter given the negative impact this revenue restriction would have on the organisation.

As to requiring an authority to accept non-member donations for any purpose, this one is a bit trickier. I've reached that conclusion largely from the AVSN unable to publicly fundraise or accept new members without an authority during 2010-2012 and that the NSW government had deemed the AVSN was pursuing a charitable purpose. If the first point is incorrect, meaning the AVSN could have still accepted money from non-members for its running costs, etc, then it follows that the second point is also incorrect. I doubt this is the case though.

No longer a charity

It does appear that the NSW Government has deemed that the AVSN no longer satisfies the criteria, under common law, of being a charity. It is now just a non-profit incorporated association. Meryl Dorey confirms this is the case in this AVN Facebook post.

This means that the AVSN can ask the public for money so long as it isn't for a charitable purpose.
It can ask for money from the public to cover costs associated with its aims or objectives, its running costs, or anything it likes so long as it isn't for a charitable purpose. This situation is very different from when its authority to fundraise was revoked Oct 2010 to April 2012. During that period the AVSN was a charity and was therefore restricted to donations from members only and was not allowed to accept new members because any donation made to it was considered to be for a charitable purpose. (Please refer to update dated 21 March in previous section).

As it is now a non-charity, no such restrictions exist. It does not require a fundraising authority for non-charitable purposes.

In addition, non-charitable donations to the AVSN are unregulated. It must still however satisfy the requirements of being an incorporated association including holding annual general meetings and lodging annual financial reports. AVSN has usually struggled meeting these commitments.

Financial reporting for the AVSN may change; if their gross receipts are less than $250,000 it will no longer have to present audited financial statements at the AGM and will only be required to submit a summary of their financial affairs. These financial reports must be submitted to Fair Trading within 1 month after the AGM.

Time will tell if the AVSN as a non-charity can fundraise to the same extent it did before. Its 2011 & 2012 financial statements show a significant drop in revenue from $281K in 2010 to $140K by 2012 (its 2013 financial statement has not been lodged yet). I expect the AVSN will struggle to receive donations from non-members now that it's lost the credibility that comes with being a charity.

New group?

There has been speculation that some people associated with the AVSN may proceed with a new, unincorporated group. Greg Beattie implied this when interviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald article and public Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) records show that the AVSN registered the following new business names in March 2014: Note: 'Australian Vaccination Network' is a new name as the original included the word 'Incorporated'.

Proceeding unincorporated would mean that:

The only real downside for them in being unincorporated is that even less people will be willing to give them money. Generally, people are happier to give money to a proper association than a bunch of people who aren't answerable to anybody. And let's not forget that the AVSN's reputation for financial shenanigans precedes them. I suspect many of its members and supporters were on-side because they perceived the government investigations and widespread criticism as a threat against natural medicine.
Privately, however, I'm sure many of them were unhappy with the AVSN's financial (mis)management and downright furious over the Living Wisdom Scam and I think the huge revenue drop in recent years confirms this. In any event, now that the government investigations are over and the AVSN is free to go about its business in anyway it chooses, I think some of its past supporters will go elsewhere. VISA, based in Adelaide, South Australia, is the only other active anti-vaccination group in Australia that is an incorporated association.

It will be interesting to see if the AVSN Inc. make a move to a new group before the current HCCC investigation is completed. The brand AVSN (AVN) could well do without a second public health warning.