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Hunting for a ‘golden unicorn’: How NZ charities find banks constantly get in the way of them helping people

Banking / analysis
Hunting for a ‘golden unicorn’: How NZ charities find banks constantly get in the way of them helping people

By Jane Horan*

Aotearoa New Zealand is home to 28,560 registered charities and some 90,000 not-for-profits without charitable registration. From disability advocacy groups and local theatres to sporting clubs, all do vital work in our communities.

Around 89,000 of these are “small” not-for-profits, which means they have under $2 million operating expenses.

My new research found these smaller groups are finding it difficult to open bank accounts, change signatories, get onto online banking, access bank cards, or deposit and withdraw cash, among other issues.

As people from 130 small charities and not-for-profits made clear, accessing effective banking services is too often a matter of luck – but they occasionally stumble across a “golden unicorn” within a bank. Here’s what they said needs to change.

A lack of specialists

Not-for-profits are generally charitable trusts, incorporated societies, or other types of non-profit legal structures. Think your local sports club with a roster of volunteer leaders and support staff that can change each year.

My research included survey data from 120 of those organisations, in-depth interviews with people from 37 different not-for-profits, and 14 stakeholder interviews.

Almost all reported lengthy, unpredictable “runarounds” to get any type of necessary banking process done.

With fewer branches and more basic tasks pushed online, many New Zealanders are finding it harder to do their banking.

But the very nature of small not-for-profits runs counter to normal commercial banking practice. This, combined with a lack of specialised staff at bank branches who understand not-for-profits, means banking is too often really difficult for these organisations.

Research participants reported the majority of front line banking staff weren’t familiar with the banking processes required by small organisations. At the same time, many of the volunteers weren’t familiar with what they needed to do themselves. But they found the rules keep changing and information from banks to guide the process was incredibly difficult to find.

Those interviewed also said banks made it difficult for not-for-profits to comply with anti-money laundering and countering of financing of terrorism legislation. The identification process required by these laws, which should be straightforward, is too often a nightmare.

Interviewees also found bank staff misinterpreted the rules. Bank errors, like missing or misplaced paperwork, were repeated over and over again. This created a number of issues which required repeated visits to the bank branches to sort out.

Banking ‘shouldn’t be the hardest part of saving the world’

One organisation, a small sports club, needed to add a signatory to its accounts. Achieving this required multiple visits to three different branches of the bank, multiple emails, and long wait-times on calls to the bank’s helpline.

Each interaction was with a different bank representative and resulted in inconsistent information about how to change or add signatories.

Around 60% of survey respondents and organisations we interviewed reported similar frustrations when they wanted to change the signatories on their account.

Another arts and performance organisation lost access to its bank accounts after issues around updating the trustee list were not resolved in the time frames imposed by the bank.

While the not-for-profit was trying to sort out the issue, there appeared to be a lack of communication between the different divisions within the bank. Those who had authority to close the accounts at the bank were not aware of the frantic efforts by the organisation to find a bank person who knew what to do. The arts group was forced to stop operating for a time.

In another case, a new advocacy organisation set up by people with disabilities took months to get its new bank account working.

This group had a basic account after five months. But trouble finding someone to oversee the account setup, along with unclear communications from the bank, meant it took much longer to organise online banking and to have credit and debit cards issued.

This organisation said doing banking “shouldn’t be the hardest part of saving the world”.

But this is how it can feel for smaller not-for-profits.

Relying on a ‘golden unicorn’

My research found most organisations got their banking issues sorted – eventually. This was achieved through sheer determination and perseverance by not-for-profit personnel - and the emergence of a “golden unicorn”.

Golden unicorns are bank staff who understand the inner workings of not-for-profits and their banking needs. They know how to move through the bank’s different silos and are a point of contact for organisations – and other bank staff – who need help solving issues.

Golden unicorns are rare, but all the banks have them. The problem is, banks may not know which of their staff have this capability. As more bank branches close, it is critical banks identify the “unicorns” in their midst and create digital pathways linking them with not-for-profits and other staff.

Once the not-for-profits found their golden unicorn, issues which had already consumed hundreds of hours were quickly resolved. Harnessing these specialists’ capacity gives hours and hours back to the not-for-profit sector. This is also more efficient for banks – freeing up resources to serve other customers.

One research participant said he would love his bank to have this attitude to his and other organisations. “You didn’t create a not-for-profit to spend all this time in the bank; let’s work together to get this done.”The Conversation

*Jane Horan, Economic Anthropologist, and contract lecturer, University of Auckland. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Wouldn't it be nice if all large organisations could identify their own "Goldern Unicorn's", for customer service, but more importantly ALL GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS as well.  Life could be much simpler and less frustrating.


I am not at all surprised, I have found that dealing with a bank for anything that is slightly non-standard takes hours, and no one seems to know anything.

I think its a lack of training, as we move more to online, the people in the branches get less experience and less training. But they should probably have more, since a higher proportion of the inquires will be something special.


Often the people in banks are good but shackled by their bosses in Head Office.  It must be very frustrating to be intelligent and working for a bank


My golf club had to go through a ridiculous number of fake hoops to get our banking organised recently. We changed from Aussie owned to a Kiwi bank. One would think they would be pleased to see us. We got through them all, both government, and a surprising number of bank rules, not regs.

From here on in, we will never change signatories, even upon resignation or death, but will just have a few of us knowing the PIN for our account. Once their estates have been signed off, there is not much the bank can do about our bank signatories all being dead! In fact, it is probably an advantage for the rest of us.


This article really resonated with me as until a couple of years ago I worked for a bank and I would agree with frustrations from both the customers and bank employees point of view.

In most instances the front line staff have to get the opening of account signed off by a central team who confirm that AML requirements have been met. There is often issues around the centralised team understanding  how the customer is going to receive their funds and what the purpose of the entity is and the estimated amount that will be received. For example, a golf club they are probably going to want to know the following

Purpose. Fairly obvious in this instance

Who controls the Golf Club. This will be the office bearers and committee members. All are going to have to complete AML (i.e. provide identification and address verification.)

What money do they anticipate receiving and how much? 

Subs 100 members at annual Subscription of $1200 =$120,000

Green fees - 500 rounds per annum at $35 = $17500

Profits from Clubhouse Bar $10,000 pa

If it's an existing club, then all that is easy to prove with financial accounts but if new then they would need a letter signed by the office bearers outlining the above.

I agree that often people are not sure what to provide and for small entities it can seem like overkill but just like the issues caused with CCCFA introduction, AML legislation does not take into account the size or turnover of an organisation when setting the requirements.