Donation Debacles: The controversies surrounding public donations to bushfire relief

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Words | Elizabeth Laughton

Everyone reading this has Facebook. Even if you don’t use it often because it’s kinda overrun by mums, you have Facebook. 

Given this, you’ve probably seen that huge crowdfunding effort for the Rural Fire Service following this summer’s bushfire crisis. The appeal was created by Australian comedian, Celeste Barber (no hate, but totally one of the mums overrunning Facebook) and has since amassed over $50,000,000 in donations. 

This all sounds good and well, except for one thing: when Celeste first listed the appeal on Facebook, she advised donors that their funds would be distributed between wildlife organisations and community relief across Victoria and New South Wales. However, she set the Rural Fire Service (RFS) as the recipient of the donations on Facebook. This means all the money has actually gone to the RFS, who legally can’t spend donations on anything but training, resources, and equipment for their fire fighters. 

An RFS spokesperson stated the organisation was keen to have the funds go towards fire affected communities, as was intended. However, they were not confident it was an easy solution; instead, the RFS and Celeste have lawyers working together on the case. Meanwhile, the odd $50,000,000 is sitting in limbo. 

The Fire Fight Australia charity gig, which Celeste hosted, was a bit more careful about the recipients of the donations they received. They specified that donations from tickets and merchandise would go to the Red Cross, the RFS, and the RSPCA. 

My mum (Facebook user) is a huge concert goer, so we snagged tickets and stayed the whole bloody ten hours. The line-up was varied. We saw 5 Seconds of Summer, Alice Cooper, and Indigenous performers like Jessica Maulboy and Baker Boy. People flitted in and out for most of the day. The stadium seemed maxed out at 75,000 people when Queen performed with Adam Lambert as their vocalist. There was good music and lots of white Australians rocking out to Amy Shark. 

Celeste spoke intermittently. She dedicated the event to volunteers, thanking them for saving us from the bushfire crisis while politicians sat back. Every Murdoch paper in the country said she had made this huge “swipe” at ScoMo, but she was relatively tame. She did however get a bit Comrade Celeste when she bagged out corporations that were leaving the burden of crowdfunding on everyday Australians. General praise was given to Fetch TV, who had donated $100,000 worth of tickets for RFS volunteers to attend the concert. 

So far, it seems the donations from Fire Fight Australia have been received by the expected organisations without any hiccups. 

However, one of those organisations, the Red Cross, has faced their own difficulties with those donations. The Red Cross offers grants of up to $20,000 for fire affected families. Since opening their online applications, they’ve been flooded by bots generating fraudulent submissions for grants. There are only 60 staff working on distributing grants and many more Australians in need of financial aid, so these bots are delaying their access to help even further. It’s good news for all you cybersecurity majors looking for work, but it’s bad news for those who genuinely need the grants to get on their feet again. 

The Red Cross also faced criticism in late January over how they’re distributing the funds they’ve amassed. They’ve allocated $30,000,000 of donations to immediate relief, while planning to use the other odd $80,000,000 on fire affected communities over the next three years. A spokesperson has defended this allocation, citing the organisation’s experience with responding to the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. They also cited the importance of saving that funding for when the media spotlight moves away from the immediate recovery of affected communities. 

There are a lot of similarities between public response to Celeste’s and the Red Cross’ donation debacles. Australians just want to know their money is going to help people, sooner than later. We don’t particularly care for the bureaucracy or legality of helping a mate. And Karl Stefanovic will hold a provocative interview with any charity so he can feel like he spoke for Australians. 

So, to recap it all: mums rule Facebook, Celeste Barber gave it a good crack, and Australians just want to help each other despite all bot-generated odds.