The Final Report from the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry delivered by Commissioner Hayne in February 2019 has put a spotlight on Board accountability.

This will impact corporate compliance and the activities of ASIC.

The Banking Report recommends that ASIC should adopt an approach that takes, as its starting point, the question of whether the Court should determine a contravention of the law.

Regulators are being encouraged to litigate, rather than compromise any breaches of statutory obligations.

The Banking Report also critically reviewed the need to address governance failings involving inadequate investigations by Boards into emerging non-financial risks.

Against this background, as part of good risk management, it is important for NFP directors to remain up to date on their legal duties and the protections available to them so they can continue to serve their organisation's purpose in a confident, sustainable and responsible manner. This article serves as a useful reminder of the legal duties of NFP directors as well as the consequences that NFP directors could face if they are found to breach their legal duties.

We will explore major shifts to the risk management landscape and its impact on the NFP sector arising from the recommendations from the Royal Commission.

A brief recap of directors' legal duties as part of risk management

Each director of an Australian company owes a number of statutory and general law duties to the company. Generally, those duties are designed to safeguard the company and ensure that the directors satisfy high standards of good faith and loyalty to the company.

Directors of NFP organisations are no exception.

Director duties are generally governed by the provisions within the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) (Corporations Act). To the extent that the NFP entity is a charity registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC), their duties are prescribed by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Regulation 2013 (ACNC Regulations) which mirrors and imports parts of the Corporations Act.

However, the duties which are not "switched off" involve the duties related to related-party transactions (Chapter 2E of the Corporations Act) and, more relevantly, the duty to prevent insolvent trading (section 588G of the Corporations Act). Company directors are also subject to certain duties at common law. As part of good risk management, NFP directors should be aware of their potential personal exposure if deemed to be non-compliant, on application by either a regulator (such as ASIC or ACNC) or a stakeholder (such as creditors or members).

The purpose of this article is to give some practical tips for compliance and risk management. The table below provides a summary of key legislation, regulation and AICD NFP governance principles relevant to directors of NFPs.

Corporations Act
(civil obligations)

ACNC Regulations


NFP Governance Principles
Australian Institute of Company Directors

Good risk management and governance tips

Section 180
Exercise due care and diligence

Reg 45.25(2)(a)

Principle 1:
Purpose and strategy

Principle 2:
Roles & responsibilities

Principle 3:
Board composition

Principle 4:
Board effectiveness

Principle 5:
Risk management

Principle 6: Performance

Principle 7: Accountability & transparency

Principle 8:
Stakeholder engagement

Principle 9:
Conduct & compliance

Principle 10: Culture

Functional relationship between Board and Management

Section 181
Act in good faith

Reg 45.25(2)(b)

Review powers and limits in Board charter and Constitution

Section 182
No misuse of position

Reg 45.25(2)(c)

Governance training

Section 183
No misuse of information

Reg 45.25(2)(d)

Decisions made for charity's best interests

Section 191
Disclose material personal interests

Reg 45.25(2)(e)

Reporting against cash flow (not history)

Section 286
Keep financial records

Reg 45.25(2)(f)

Timely payments for payroll, PAYG, GST

Section 588G
Prevent insolvent trading

Reg 45.25(2)(g)

Read and challenge Board papers, participate in meetings

The Incorporated Association legislation in most States and Territories also impose duties on management committee members, which have not been turned off by the Corporations Act. There have also been changes to how registered charities that are incorporated associations incorporated under the relevant state legislation report to regulators.

For example, from the 2018 reporting period, the majority of registered charities that are incorporated under the Association Incorporation Act 2009 (NSW), with a financial year that ends on or after 30 June 2018 will only need to report to the ACNC, using the prescribed Annual Information Statement.

Consequences of breach of directors' duties

Breaching your director duties under the Corporations Act can carry significant sanctions, including personal liability for directors. A failure to prevent insolvent trading, for example, may result in civil penalties of up to $200000, criminal charges (with possible imprisonment of up to five years), order(s) to compensate the organisation or any interested person for damage suffered as a result of their misconduct and disqualification.

These provisions are not turned off for directors of charities. This is in addition to the other common law or equitable remedies available to the liquidators or ASIC.

Additionally, non-compliance with the ACNC Act and ACNC Regulations can empower the Commissioner to enter into enforceable undertakings, provide directions and potentially revoke charity status of the relevant charity. The ACNC is also empowered to suspend and remove individual directors (for federally regulated charities). Governor misconduct can also result in grave commercial and reputational consequences with potential loss of government funding, donor disenchantment, loss of assets for charitable purposes as well as damage to reputation.

Heightened scrutiny post Royal Commission?

Following the release of the Banking Report, it is more necessary than ever that boards of NFPs remain vigilant and informed as to their legal responsibilities.

While the Banking Report referred to directors and senior executives in the financial services industry, these lessons are transferrable to governors on how to avoid similar circumstances in their respective NFP organisations.

The primary responsibility of misconduct in the financial services industry, according to the Banking Report, was attributed to the boards and senior management of the entities in question.

The failings that led to the misconduct originated from de-synchronized dynamic organisational culture, governance and remuneration.

The Banking Report however, provided good benchmarks for good governance, involving:

  1.  The importance of the Board challenging management; and
  2. Ensuring that there is adequate disclosure of information to the Board to enable the Board to make informed decisions.

These benchmarks will also ensure that directors can comply with their legal duties under the relevant governing legislation.

As far as risk management and governance is concerned, Commissioner Hayne emphasised the importance of the Board receiving adequate and relevant information and challenging management, and used failings by certain banks as examples of companies that did not do enough to ensure management fixed issues in a timely manner.

The Commissioner did however caution Boards to not become embroiled in the day-to-day management of the companies – the task of the Board is still governance, not management. 

Duty of directors of NFPs to exercise powers for a proper purpose to promote objects

The Banking Report raised a further issue about the nature and extent of directors' duties. The Banking Report further stated that:

"Directors must exercise their powers and discharge their duties in good faith in the best interests of the corporation, and for a proper purpose..... Financial returns to shareholders (or 'value' to shareholders) will always be an important consideration but it is not the only matter to be considered. The best interests of the corporation cannot be determined by reference only to the current or most recent accounting period....The longer the period of reference, the more likely it is that the interests of shareholders, customers, employees and all associated with any corporation will be seen as converging on the corporation's continued long term financial advantage".

In addition, the evidence before the Commission showed that:

"...too often, Boards did not get the right information about emerging non-financial risks; did not do enough to seek further or better information where what they had was clearly deficient; and did not do enough with the information they had to oversee and challenge management's approach to these risks".

Commissioner Hayne also noted that "the best interests of a company cannot be reduced to a binary choice". These statements can also be directly relevant to boards and senior management of NFP entities. The NFP Board should not have to choose between the interests of its members and the interests of customers.

Whether this involves the addition of further duties and obligations on directors of companies and NFP entities remains to be seen overtime. While the 'stakeholder' approach is yet to be adopted, it is useful for NFP directors to consider the following questions raised by the Royal Commission:

  • Is there adequate oversight and challenge by the Board and its organised committees of emerging non-financial risks?
  • Is it clear in the entity who is accountable for risks, and how they are to be held accountable?
  • Are issues, incidents and risks identified quickly, and managed and resolved with sufficient urgency?
  • Is enough attention being given to compliance? Is it working in practice? Or is it just 'box-ticking'?
  • Do compensation, incentive or remuneration practices recognise and penalise poor conduct? How does the remuneration framework apply when there are poor risk outcomes or there are poor customer outcomes? Do senior managers and above feel the sting?

ASIC enforcement: Why not litigate?

Commissioner Hayne disapproved of ASIC'S negotiated outcome approach to enforcement and indicated that ASIC must consider whether legal proceedings should be commenced.

In the Banking Report, Commissioner Hayne affirmed this approach with the following three points:

  1. That there can and will be some cases of contravention of the law in which the outcome is negotiated between contravenor and regulator;
  2. Remediation or compensation for consumers is an important goal but ASIC does not have to choose between remediation and enforcement; and
  3. ASIC should ensure that breaching the law is not profitable.

Under the Corporations Act, an application for a compensation order for any contravention of civil penalty provisions (such as directors' duties) in relation to the company can be made by ASIC.

ASIC has begun implementing the Banking Report's ethos by establishing a new internal Office of Enforcement principled on deterrence, pubic denunciation and punishment of wrongdoing by way of litigation. In a nutshell, the new body's principles impel ASIC to investigate alleged breaches of law, and if satisfied that there is one or more breaches, ask itself: why not litigate?

It is inevitable that the ACNC will have regard to this new environment in determining its approach to regulation of charities.

Where to from here?

From the Banking Royal Commission, corporate governance should be front and centre of every NFP directors' risk management strategy.

In short, knowledge, training and effective accountability systems will help NFP directors manage their NFP organisations with confidence rather than fear of doing the wrong thing.

The imperative is to be informed of your legal obligations and protections as a NFP director; to safeguard yourself from personal liability and also allow the NFP organisation to pursue its purpose in the long-term.

About Dentons

Dentons is the world's first polycentric global law firm. A top 20 firm on the Acritas 2015 Global Elite Brand Index, the Firm is committed to challenging the status quo in delivering consistent and uncompromising quality and value in new and inventive ways. Driven to provide clients a competitive edge, and connected to the communities where its clients want to do business, Dentons knows that understanding local cultures is crucial to successfully completing a deal, resolving a dispute or solving a business challenge. Now the world's largest law firm, Dentons' global team builds agile, tailored solutions to meet the local, national and global needs of private and public clients of any size in more than 125 locations serving 50-plus countries.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.