Health and non-profit: In conversation with Kate Russell, chief executive of Canterbury Medical Research Foundation and commercial director of NZ Brain Research Institute
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I have worked for the last 25 years in the non-profit sector starting with three years as a junior fund raiser in Hawke's Bay. But since then I have always lived in Christchurch. Here, I worked with CCS Disability Action, Presbyterian Support, and St John as their fund raiser.
For 11 years, I was the CEO of Cystic Fibrosis NZ. This was a great learning curve for me as I realised people in New Zealand get variable treatment depending upon where they live. So people's right to proper treatment all over the country is very important.
For many years, I was also the chair of Pharmac's consumer advisory board, which gave me the understanding of our severely restricted access to medication under a rationed health system. Though I must add that considering the limited resources we have, we still do very well.
I am also a Fellow of the Fundraising Institute, member of the National Board and former Chair of the Institute’s Ethics Committee. Additionally, I hold trustee and advisory roles on various other charitable boards and mentors for Mentors NZ.
I took up my current roles as the chief executive of Canterbury Medical Research Foundation and commercial director of NZ Brain Research Institute, three years back.
So, in a nutshell, you have extensive – over two-and-a-half decades – of working experience in the health and disability non-profit sector. Before, we go to the non-profit side, please share your opinion of the health system in New Zealand? We hear so many stories of over-burdened hospitals and GPs all the time now. What's going on here?
In simple words, our health system is premised upon employing delaying tactics. What annoys me the most is when health system defers cost to other departments. This, frankly, is a dumb way of doing things.
Last year, a study in Christchurch found that hospitals are returning patients to GPs to get the conditions managed. They are not even putting patients on the waiting list. This is their way of burying the costs. And it's not that the Government doesn't know all this. We have been telling them for years.
What is needed is a joined-up way of thinking. And a legislative requirement for all the concerned government ministries to work together. Something similar to what the Government has started doing with the domestic violence issue. The health sector also needs its own version of the Integrated Safety Response (ISR) scheme.
Now, let's turn our attention to the social sector. There are currently over 27,000 non-profit organisations in the country, one for every 170 Kiwis. Is this desirable?
"...our health system needs a joined-up way of thinking..."
Certainly not. Over 27,000 charities for a country our size, doesn't make any sense. Duplication and proliferation are the two major issues here. Firstly, we have to understand and acknowledge that a lot many charitable trusts are formed for tax avoidance purposes.
The problem is once a charity passes the public benefit test in New Zealand, it doesn't have to pay any taxes. This is absurd. We need to change that.
A charity should be able to accept donations and people who donate get tax reliefs. But the charity itself is not tax exempt. We need to divorce these two things. For example, we have cases of Sanitarium and Ngai Tahu, which are into serious for-profit businesses but pay no taxes.
I say this with full authority as the former chair of the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand's ethics committee, we need to put more people in the Department of Internal Affairs so that the charitable sector is properly managed.
Till now, the Government is attacking the symptoms only, not the root causes of the problem.
But all this will happen from the Government side. Do you have any suggestions for the charities as such? With funding getting scare, what are their options?
They can and should do two things.
"...a lot many charitable trusts are formed for tax avoidance purposes..."
Firstly, combine resources. That's the only way to survive now. Share premises, share front office, share the Xero software. There are many ways now. The Loft, Christchurch Community House are good examples of that.
Secondly, change the mindset. Recognise that you are performing a vital social need. Develop a business-like attitude. Large national charities have already done that. It's now for the medium and small charitable trusts to follow their lead. Currently, such charities just survive from one funding cycle to another, which is not sustainable.
Clarification by Kate Russell: (updated on May 23, 2017)
In the article on Kate Russell in the Migrant Times 5 May, Kate mentioned systemic issues with the registration of charities. Due to space constraints in the article, this wide-ranging conversation was heavily truncated and in doing so, may have given the impression that Ms Russell was criticizing Ngai Tahu and Sanitarium. She wishes to clarify that in no way were her comments intended to link these organisations with issues of tax avoidance and that she holds both organisations in the highest regard. Furthermore, as the article was intended as a profile piece on Ms Russell herself, her comments should in no way be taken as representing the views of her employer.