Mark von Dadelszen: Why write about not-for-profits?

by 13 Jan 2014
Change is always with us
With the change of ownership of NZLawyer I do not yet know whether this series of articles will continue, but if there is one constant in life – for each of us and for not-for-profits – it is that change is always with us, and we must change to adapt to that changing world.
Should we all know more about not-for-profits?
Feedback informs me that readers of this series of articles have read them for a variety of reasons. I know that many lawyers (and judges) read them, and the reasons are simple; almost all lawyers are asked to advise on or get involved in governance of not-for-profits, no matter the area of law they practice in, and they learned nothing much about not-for-profits at law school. A wide range of folk in the community also read these articles, as emails and phone calls I have received from all over the country attest.
Certainly the Law Commission believes not-for-profits are important (A New Act for Incorporated Societies (Report 129, 21 August 2013) page 3):
New Zealand has over 23,000 incorporated societies spanning a diverse range of interests and purposes. Approximately 45 per cent of them are cultural, sporting and recreational bodies. The remaining 55 per cent comprise a broad range of community activities, including social service providers, religious groups, development and housing bodies, educational and environmental interest groups, and business and professional groups.
These community organisations play a very important role in New Zealand society.
Together they are often referred to as the not-for-profit sector or as the “third sector”, existing alongside the private (for profit) sector and the public (or state) sector. The third sector has a direct impact on New Zealand’s social and economic development through the provision of services not provided by the other sectors and the development of strong communities.
Why have I written this series of articles?
In case regular readers aren’t aware of what seems obvious to me, I’m passionate about the importance of not-for-profits, and that motivates me to write about them in the hope that others will be empowered to make not-for-profits more effective. There are also other factors maintaining my enthusiasm:
  • There is always material to write about. When I first considered writing these articles I thought I could find material for, perhaps, an article a month. Once I was committed to writing the articles, I wrote out a list of potential subjects and soon found I had enough material for over a year of fortnightly articles, and after three years I have enough to keep me going for at least another year! An early illustration of the wealth of inspiration for articles was a newspaper report on a police investigation into over $750,000 “drained from Whitireia Polytechnic Students’ Association funds over a 12 month period,” which prompted me to write my second article, “Lessons from a Polytechnic?” (Issue 144, 3 September 2010).
  • While I have written two books, Society Law in New Zealand, and Members’ Meetings, those are necessarily generalised overviews of the law and somewhat academic. This series of articles has allowed me greater freedom to delve into interesting specific issues, and sometimes to speculate about issues where the answers are often uncertain or obscure (as I did in presenting different views on access to society records in Issue 189, 27 July 2012 and Issue 190, 10 August 2012). In that instance, the first article provoked a reader response; raising further questions, advancing other points of view, and drawing attention to authority I had overlooked.
  • Finally, I’ve been privileged to receive regular feedback and questions from readers which has been, variously, appreciative, encouraging, challenging, informative, and inspirational. I have tried to acknowledge every email I’ve received, and where I’ve been able to provide quick advice it has been given pro bono.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
Writing these articles has also prompted some research, and I was curious about the origin of the heading of this section. I discovered that it is an epigram or proverb written by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes), usually translated as “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Assuming, as I do, that Parliament will replace the Incorporated Societies Act 1908 in the next couple of years, those in not-for-profits and their advisers will need to adapt to the legislative changes. That should not be regarded as a negative prospect because I believe the sector will be strengthened immeasurably by having a modern statute to guide (and regulate) it.
Whether this series of articles continues in the same or a changed format is yet to be seen, but my enthusiasm to inform people about not-for-profit law, practice and governance will not alter.

This is one of a series of articles on societies and charitable trusts by Mark von Dadelszen, a Hastings lawyer and author of Law of Societies, 3rd Edition, 2013. If any reader has examples of issues that have arisen or questions about societies or charitable trusts that might be a suitable subject for one of these articles please contact Mark at