What the charity sector can learn from the 2019 Bushfires

10 Feb 2020

In August 2019, an out of control bushfire begun to burn it’s way through Wollomi National Park, 22km from our home. Within weeks the fire had burnt through more area than the whole 18/19 bushfire season. Sadly, this was not the only fire burning across our state.

Fast forward to December 2019 and our state was burning; it was carnage and it was devastating to watch these horrible fires unfold each day. On Boxing Day, we had to head to our farm to protect and defend our property. In the days that followed the fires would be within 500m of our home.

We spent our time refreshing the Fires Near Me app, keeping an eye on Facebook updates from our local RFS and keeping a close eye on the news bulletins. I remember standing in front of the TV one afternoon watching the sheer devastation down the South Coast of NSW as they were thrown into turmoil. The heaviness that sat with me for all of the people who lost family members, animals, their homes and even their towns was something I struggled with.

Thankfully our property was ok and it is not lost on me how lucky we were. 2,779 homes destroyed, 34 lives lost, 18.6 billion hectares of Australian land burnt, and an estimated 1 billion animals killed. The numbers are spine chilling, lives forever changed.

What happened next though was incredible. Donations started flooding in as the world dug deep. The number is fast approaching $500million and continues to rise as celebrities, philanthropists, businesses and individuals show their support. The Australian Bushfire Appeals are well on their way to becoming the biggest fundraiser ever in response to an Australian disaster. On top of that the Federal Government committed $2Billion to the recovery work that would be required.

But as the smoke starts to lift and the fires die down, people are now asking where all of that money is - how will it be spent, why hasn’t it reached the people who need it the most, how much will be spent on admin.

As I have followed the news reports and the ongoing conversation on social media, I have taken the time to reflect on our own responses to crisis and how we as a charity need to continue to provide transparency around all that we do. This is what I’ve learnt from the last four weeks and the Australian Bushfires.

Transparency is key to public trust

Recently our kids from Home Hug presented us with their money boxes full of coins that they had been saving from their daily chores and vegetable sales at the markets. There was over 30 kilos of 1 Baht coins. Their request was to take these funds home to Australia to help provide our animals with food, water and medicine during the bushfire crisis. They raised $527 and entrusted me to find the right organisation to donate the funds to. I’ll be honest… I struggled to meet the brief initially. I was looking for an organisation that was transparent around their use of funds, provided specific updates on the bushfire appeals, and were open in sharing their financial reports. There were few and far between that could tick all of my boxes. Perhaps working in the charity sector makes me a little more aware of these factors but at minimum I’m looking for:

  • Regular updates during peak periods so people feel confident of where their money is going
  • Financial reports available on the website
  • Information about the use of funds particularly the split of project vs administration costs

There will always be administration costs

Any charity doing their job right will be incurring administration costs. If they are not, then one would question how they fundraise and bring about the greatest change for those that they support. At Hands, we absolutely have administration costs however we have a unique set up to allow 100% of donations coming in to go to the projects that we support. We run a social enterprise Hands Group that sits next to the charity that undertakes commercial activity to fund our people, our fundraising, and our growth. We still have costs, we just don’t use donors funds to meet those expenses.

People are generous and we can all make a difference

Whether you are making a financial donation, volunteering your time or providing products and services that are in need, we can all make a difference. In Australia we have seen knitting groups come together to make gloves and pouches for injured animals, we have seen people driving to food banks and lining up for kilometres to drop off supplies, and we have seen volunteers stepping in to lend a helping hand wherever they can.

At times like this we can all feel a bit helpless. I had that heavy feeling myself as I watched the glow of the fires and the flash of the fire truck lights every evening knowing that these guys were not getting a lot of sleep and were doing all they could to protect our properties. The biggest lesson I learnt during this period was not to assume what was needed. Typically money is best as it allows organisations to stock up on the things they need but if you do want to buy, then check before you buy. We see this when people head to Thailand and want to provide items of support to our kids - we always try to encourage generous humans to wait a few days while we ask what the need is rather than heading out and loading the trolley up with colouring in pencils and books.

Every little bit matters, it adds up and makes a huge difference, but start by knowing what little bits are important for the organisation you want to support.

Time, strategy and some breathing space will deliver greater results long term

There's a lot of funding coming into Australia and times like these do present a challenge for charities as emotions are running high, people are frustrated and donors want transparency.

We saw this on a much smaller scale with the Gammy Fund in 2014 that generated 6,000 donations totalling $235k. The funds were entrusted to Hands and the focus was to ensure his immediate needs were met through regular monthly contributions as well as securing his long term future through the purchase of a home. The home is in trust to Gammy until he turns 21, ensuring he has financial security behind him into the future. Factoring in even modest capital growth of the home, by the time Gammy is 21, the home can well be expected to be valued at many times more the sum of the original donations made. While there were frustrations from our donors at the time as the funds were not distributed immediately, I think most would now agree that this strategy for the distribution of funds has been a good outcome.

In the days and weeks following this story hitting the press we were bombarded with media requests and unfortunately didn't have the manpower to deal with all of the requests in a timely manner. We needed breathing space, time and a strategy to arrive at the outcome that we did.

Long term commitment

What happens when the media finds something else to talk about and the fires burn out completely? People are still left without homes, without family members, and some with ongoing mental health issues. What happens then? What happens if we spend all of the money in the immediate aftermath of the fires. We don’t set our country and our people up for success. There is the need to respond immediately and provide short term relief, but we also expect our support to be allocated effectively, fairly and to achieve the greatest outcome. Sometimes that takes time, patience and the wisdom to know when to move and when to wait. Perhaps after we’ve given the next best thing is to give again but this time latitude to those entrusted to bring about the change we all want.

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