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Show me the money: unravelling the web of Australian charities

Article (1,208 words) posted on 06 Apr 2018 by Rosie Williams

The wealth of the various religious denominations active in Australia is a point of interest in the wake of the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, yet the true financial worth of religions in Australia remains something of a mystery.

According to a six-month investigation by journalists for The Age:

Many researchers have attempted to estimate the wealth of the church in Australia and globally, but the efforts have been stymied by a lack of reliable financial data.

Making no secret of their refusal to bow to the expectations of a modern democratic society, the Catholic Church was a major critic of the introduction of the charities regulator, putting the new agency under threat of abolition at one point.

"I'm well aware that Sydney lobbied the opposition very hard on this issue", says Senator Stephens. "They got to Kevin Andrews early."

Fairfax has linked the obfuscatory culture of religious institutions with historical abuse.

"Special issues" were often discussed, internally, in conjunction with asset protection strategies.

In its findings, the royal commission slammed such secrecy: "It is clear to us from those minutes that the purpose of not recording information was to protect the assets of the archdiocese in the event of a claim being made against it."

It would be interesting to know why the investigations carried out by Fairfax and The Age querying the worth of religious organisations makes no mention of the ACNC data.

In this blog post I will introduce what the data published by the charities regulator can tell us about the wealth of religious charities in Australia. This data comes from Annual Information Statements which are required from all registered charities with the exception of what the ACNC describes as a small number of Basic Religious Charities.

This data provides information on the purposes, beneficiaries, location and financial information for over 40 thousand registered charities each year. This data is available for 2014, 2015 and 2016 years. 2013 was the year this dataset was being established and does not contain financial information.

The ACNC financial data that I have selected for use in AusGov.info is:

  1. Total Donations & Bequests (received)
  2. Total Government Income (grants/tenders)
  3. Total Gross Income
  4. Total Liabilities
  5. Surplus/Deficit
  6. Total Assets
  7. Total Liabilities
  8. Net Assets/Liabilities

You can get this information (where it has been submitted to the ACNC) ranked by size on Total Gross Income, Total Assets and Total Donations & Bequests.

Click the chart bar to view data for that year. The ABN numbers starting with '91111111' are not valid ABN's. The ACNC allows charities to provide a single report for a number of charities that are financially affiliated and gives the group as a whole special reporting number. Where an organisation is a group reporter, AusGov.info provides lists its member organisations with links to their financial data where available (click on the down arrow). Keep in mind that organisations that contribute to a group report are not required to report separately to the ACNC and very few do.

If you click on the year you want in the graph AusGov.info provides the financial data for that organisation or group of organisations.

Below this is the ACNC charities register information including address, charity size, operating countries and issues addressed by the charity. I've added in federal electorate for good measure.

On the total assets page, in addition to looking at the relative size of all charities you can total by search term. This is one way of estimating the size of specific denominations eg Catholic, Anglican, Adventist, Salvation Army. It's worth pointing out that these searches will exclude charities if their legal name does not include the search term. While charities and charity groups listed by total income, assets & donations ranks the universities at the top, when you total by denomination, the data tells another story.

Creating financial transparency in Australia is a tedious and demanding technical process. The data is diabolical, changing year by year as the new dataset grows and reporting evolves. AusGov.info integrates data from across multiple datasets, a task of enormous difficulty. Mistakes can appear in data and I appreciate patience from those who realise the significance of the work and the potential of the project.

My special thanks, as always to those willing to put a dollar value on the skills and commitment that has gone into this site.