Charity Series – What is ‘Promoting the Natural Environment’?

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As part of our series on charitable purposes, this time we ask what is the charitable purpose of “advancing the natural environment”?

When an organization is registered as a charity with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), it is registered under one or more charity subtypes. These subtypes are categories that reflect the 12 charitable purposes under the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) (Charities Act), and therefore reflect the charitable purpose of the registered charity.

The purpose of a charity is the reason for which it was created or the basic reason why the organization should exist and what its activities aim to achieve. It can be helpful to think of the purpose in terms of the “why” of the organization.

In this article, we explore the charitable purpose of “promoting the natural environment“, including its meaning in the context of charitable registration with the ACNC and the activities that a charity can and cannot undertake when pursuing this goal.

What is a “promotion of the natural environment” charitable purpose?

The “natural environment” is not specifically defined in the Charities Act, nor in the Reasons for the Charities Act (Explanatory Memorandum), and therefore takes its ordinary meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “the environment” as the natural world or the physical environment in general, either as a whole or in a particular geographical area, particularly insofar as it is affected by human activity.

Despite the lack of definitional guidance, the ACNC states that charities registered under this subtype include (but are not limited to):

  • Conservation organizations and societies;
  • land protection groups;
  • Wildlife groups;
  • Trusts created to preserve or restore the natural environment and waste minimization organizations; and
  • Environmental education groups.

According to Australian Charities Report 7th Edition (Charities Report) (compiled from 2019 annual information return data submitted to ACNC), charities registered only under this subtype (without other subtypes) represent approximately 1.4% of charities .

It is important to remember that a charity can have more than one charitable purpose.

What are the requirements for registering as a charity for the purpose of “advancing the natural environment”?

To register as a charity, regardless of the sub-type applied for, an organization must meet certain criteria under the Charities Act. Organizations must:

  • be a non-profit organization;
  • not have disqualifying purposes (for example, engaging in or promoting illegal or contrary to public order activities or promoting or opposing a political party or a candidate for political office);
  • not be an individual, political party or government entity; and
  • have only charitable purposes that are in the public interest (i.e. any non-charitable purpose must only be incidental or incidental to, and in support of, its charitable purposes).

Once registered with ACNC, a charity will be listed on the public register of charities, with its subtypes listed.

When determining the public interest, the explanatory memorandum indicates that consideration should be given to any possible harm to the general public resulting from the achievement of this objective, including damage to the environment.

What types of activities does a charity pursuing this subtype typically undertake?

A charity’s activities must be in furtherance or advancement of its objects. That is, “what” the charity does (or will do) should help it achieve its purpose.

Although there are no specific legal guidelines regarding the activities that a charity pursuing a natural environmental objective must undertake, the ACNC and the explanatory memorandum provide some examples of activities. These include:

  • protect, preserve, care for and educate the community about the natural environment;
  • promote sustainability and biodiversity (for example, sustainable development, resource use and the practice of recycling);
  • preservation of native flora and fauna (eg planting of native trees and plant species, eradication of noxious weeds or non-native predatory animals);
  • rescuing or caring for native animals (for example, rehabilitation programs for orphaned or injured native animals); and
  • preserve or rehabilitate habitats (for example, improve the cleanliness of rivers, lakes and artificial waterways, create nature reserves or refuges for animals).

The explanatory memorandum emphasizes that it is not enough for an organization to simply carry out activities in the name of “promoting the natural environment”. There must be an identifiable benefit and sufficient value.

These activities cannot be incidental to a non-charitable purpose. The explanatory memorandum gives the example of an organization which offers a recreational experience in a natural environment. Such an organization is unlikely to be recognized in this subtype, as the educational benefit is relatively minor or incidental to the recreational experience.

By using the International classification of non-profit organizations nonprofit activity category classification system, the Charities Report noted that 3.6% of charities undertook environmental activities in the 2019 reporting period.

Deductible Gift Recipient Approval (DGR)

Although this article does not go into detail on how to become a DGR, it should be noted that some environmental organizations are eligible for this approval. To do so, they will have to meet all the requirements to be registered on the Register of environmental organizations.

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