These conferences first appeared in Melbourne in November 1890 when Professor E.E. Morris (1843-1902), president of the local Charity Organisation Society, convened the Australasian Conference on Charity at the University of Melbourne. Morris, who earlier in the year had attended a similar gathering in San Francisco, hoped that the conference would become an annual event attracting delegates from all the Australasian colonies. The 96 delegates, 30 of whom were 125 from outside Victoria, were presented with papers describing both philanthropic and statutory responses to such contemporary social problems as poverty, unemployment and child and female rescue. At the end of the week delegates agreed to reconvene, in Melbourne, 12 months later.
The second conference more than confirmed the hopes of the first. Interviewed by the Argus in November 1891, South Australian social reformer Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) enthused: 'What practical work was there that the conference could do? A conference was not intended to do work. It was intended to gather together the opinions of workers in different places, under different methods, with different views, and it might be different hopes and aspirations'. The conference was also addressed by General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, who was visiting the colonies to promote his controversial plan to assist London paupers to migrate to Australia.
Despite the delegates' decision to reconvene in Sydney in 1892, neither the conferences nor the Intercolonial Committee on Charity they had established survived the depression. Loose coalitions of philanthropic and women's organisations continued to convene single-issue conferences in order to lobby for legislative change early in the new century, but as the voluntary social work field became professionalised, the wide-ranging discussion that had characterised the charity conference was increasingly confined to the annual conventions of women's organisations.