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

When an organisation 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 which reflect the 12 charitable purposes under the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) (Charities Act), and therefore reflect the registered charity’s charitable purpose.

A charity’s purpose is the reason it has been established or the core fundamental reason for why the organisation is to exist and what its activities work towards achieving. It can be helpful to think of the purpose in terms of the organisation’s ‘why’.

In this article, we explore the charitable purpose of ‘advancing the natural environment’, including its meaning in the context of ACNC charity registration and what activities a charity can and cannot undertake when pursuing this purpose.

What is a charitable purpose of ‘advancing the natural environment’?

The ‘natural environment’ is not specifically defined within the Charities Act, nor in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Charities Act (Explanatory Memorandum), and consequently takes on its ordinary meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘environment’ as the natural world or physical surroundings in general, either as a whole or within a particular geographical area, especially as 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 bodies and societies;
  • Land care groups;
  • Wildlife protection groups;
  • Trusts established to preserve or restore the natural environment and waste minimisation organisations; and
  • Environmental education groups.

According to the Australian Charities Report 7th Edition (Charities Report) (compiled from data from the 2019 Annual Information Statements submitted to the ACNC), charities solely registered under this subtype (with no other subtypes) comprise of around 1.4% of charities.

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

What are the requirements for registration as a charity with the purpose of ‘advancing the natural environment’?

To register as a charity, regardless of the requested subtype, an organisation must meet certain criteria under the Charities Act. Organisations must:

  • be a not-for-profit;
  • not have any disqualifying purposes (e.g., engaging in or promoting activities which are unlawful or against public policy or promoting or opposing a political party or a candidate for political office);
  • not be an individual, political party or a government entity; and
  • have only charitable purposes which are for the public benefit (i.e., any non-charitable purposes must only be incidental or ancillary to, and in aid of its charitable purpose(s)).

Once registered with the ACNC, a charity will be listed on the public Charity Register, with its subtype(s) listed.

When determining public benefit, the Explanatory Memorandum states consideration must be given to any possible detriment to the general public arising from carrying out that purpose, including damage to the environment.

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

A charity’s activities must be in pursuit or furtherance of its purpose(s). I.e., ‘what’ the charity does (or will do) must help fulfil its purpose.

While there is no definite legal guidance regarding the activities a charity pursuing a natural environment purpose must undertake, the ACNC and the Explanatory Memorandum provide some example activities. These include:

  • protecting, preserving, caring for and educating the community about the natural environment;
  • promoting sustainability and biodiversity (e.g., sustainable development, the use of resources, and the practice of recycling);
  • preserving native flora and fauna (e.g., planting native tree and plant species, eradication of noxious weeds or non-native predatory animals);
  • rescuing or caring for native animals (e.g., rehabilitation programs for orphaned or injured native animals); and
  • preserving or rehabilitating habitats (e.g., improving the cleanliness of rivers, lakes and man-made waterways, establishing nature reserves or animal sanctuaries).

The Explanatory Memorandum stresses it is not enough for an organisation to simply carry out activities in the name of ‘advancing the natural environment’. There must be some identifiable benefit and sufficient value.

These activities cannot be incidental to a non-charitable purpose. The Explanatory Memorandum provides the example of an organisation which provides recreational experience in a natural environment. Such an organisation would be unlikely to be recognised under this subtype as the educational benefit is relatively minor or incidental to the recreational experience.

Using the International Classification of Non-Profit Organisations classification system of not-for-profit activity categories, the Charities Report noted 3.6% of charities undertook environment activities over the 2019 reporting period.

Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) endorsement

While this article does not go into detail about becoming a DGR, it is worth noting some environmental organisations are eligible for this endorsement. To do so they will need to satisfy all the requirements to become listed on the Register of Environmental Organisations.

How can we help?

If you would like to find out more about registering as a charity or amending your charitable subtype

to include advancing the natural environment, please get in touch with our specialist Charities + Social Sector Lawyers.