Philanthropy amongst the ashes and the floods: making it count for the long term

In the past months, and ongoing today, Australia is living though the worst bushfire season on record.

In my hometown of Canberra, the fires were followed by a devastating hailstorm that caused enormous destruction across the city. Now, the East Coast of Australia is being inundated by torrential rain, with some towns recording their annual rainfall in the space of only a few hours. The resulting floods are adding to the destruction. Incredibly, in spite of the helpful and much needed rain, the fires to the south of Canberra continue to burn!

For weeks after the peak of the fires, I could only glimpse blue sky if I looked directly upwards, with the smoke from burning to the east, south and west of the city, keeping the air quality at “unhealthy” levels. But less than 100km away, some people have lost everything: their homes, their livelihoods, and, in some cases, their lives.

The scale of the disaster is incomprehensible. With more than 33 fires still burning—in spite of the recent downpours, and now mixed with the threat of flash floods and landslides from the huge storms raging across NSW and Victoria—this Australian bushfire season has seen:

  • 30 lives lost
  • At least 3000 homes lost
  • 7M hectares burnt (more than 82% the land area of England)
  • More than a billion animals perish
  • And a predicted $3.5B in economic impact

Australians are known for their charity, especially in the face of disasters

For the past decade the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), a UK-based charity, has published their CAF World Giving Index, assessing the most generous countries by the measurement of three charitable behaviours: helping a stranger, donating money, and volunteering time.

Under the CAF index, Australia and New Zealand consistently rank as among the most charitable nations (NZ 3rd and Australia 4th in the most recent study) and were identified in 2019 as the most consistently generous across the 10 years the Index has been running. 

Fundraising practitioners in Australia and NZ acknowledge that our regional philanthropic culture and organised fundraising practice are still maturing: universities, schools and non-profits—with some notable leading exceptions—are generally still developing the fundraising strategies to facilitate reliable philanthropic revenue in support of their important missions.

Yet, when natural disaster strikes, Australian charitable behaviour often plays out with unexpectedly large giving to public appeals. The current crisis is quickly becoming the stand-out example, as potentially the biggest fundraiser ever seen in response to an Australian disaster—the result of a remarkable outpouring of support across the country, further boosted by #megagifts (exceeding $10M) and extraordinary generosity by concerned international donors.

The challenge now is to make sure this continues for the long-term—strengthening the capability and capacity of our institutions and non-profit organisations, so that they’re prepared for when this happens gain. Because it certainly will.

In this respect, we’ve been fortunate to see some powerful leadership from two well-known Australian foundations, and from philanthropists in all corners of the world.


The Mindaroo Foundation

Andrew Forrest and family’s Mindaroo Foundation has pledged $70M for “response, recovery and resilience” through their Fire Fund:

  • $10M for the mobilisation of 1,250 volunteers;
  • $10M to support recovery efforts through organisations such as the Australian Red Cross and The Salvation Army Australia;
  • $50M to develop a long-term blueprint for fire resilience in Australia, as a lead gift in a $500M international fundraising campaign.

Paul Ramsay Foundation

The Paul Ramsay Foundation’s $30M pledge includes a $3M allocation for immediate relief efforts provided by the Red Cross, the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) and St Vincent de Paul, with the remainder “allocated to longer-term work with disadvantaged communities”.

Large-scale generosity from across Australia and around the globe

The Australian Financial Review reported on 10 January that more than $200M had been raised for the crisis; just nine days later, The Sydney Morning Herald put the figure close to $500M–and this continues to grow. A huge number of gifts have been made in the $100K+ bracket to charities and causes associated with the fires, and the number grows by the day. Australia’s ABC News compiled a list of significant donors that includes the Packer Family (and Crown, to a total of $5M), Leonardo DiCaprio ($4.3M), Elton John ($1M), Chris Hemsworth ($1M), Jeff Bezos/Amazon ($1M), John and Pauline Gandel ($1M), Kylie Jenner ($1M), and the Hains Family (via Portland House Foundation, $1M).

Extraordinary fundraising

Accolades for Australian comedian Celeste Barber are well deserved: starting from a modest target of $30,000 for the NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund (NSW RFS), the now largest ever Facebook fundraising campaign reached a whopping $50.79M in just 10 days. This feat was made possible through the generosity of the more than 1.3M people who donated to the fund. More than a month on, the total stands at $52M.

But this upswell of giving is proving testing for the intended recipients, who must now apply careful thought and strategic management to the funds. And it’s proving testing for the donors, whose initial philanthropic gestures are now clouded by questions as to a) the speed with which funds will be released to areas of desperate need, and b) the purposes for which the funds will be spent. In short, like ALL donors to all organisations, our bushfire supporters are concerned about accountability and impact. In the longer term, this experience will likely lead to a requirement for much greater clarity in fundraisers of this type. Australia’s ABC has made an excellent analysis.

As Barber’s Facebook fundraiser grew from its original target, it became clear there was considerable scope for broader impact, and this was reflected in her public comments via social media: “…I’m gonna make sure that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died in these fires, the wildlife”.

However, the gifts are technically made to the PayPal Giving Fund, a registered charity operating in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. In Australia, the PayPal Giving Fund is a Public Ancillary Fund administered under a trust. The fund grants to the recipient at its discretion, according to its policies and consistent with legal requirements.

There’s nothing unusual about this, and it would be expected that PayPal Giving Fund will grant the funds to the recipient specified when the fundraiser was initiated, in due course. The NSW RFS & Brigades Donation Fund (itself a public fund, administered by a trust) can then apply the money, or income from investing the money, to its purposes. In its governing document, these purposes include “to meet the costs of purchasing and maintaining fire-fighting equipment and facilities, providing training and resources and/or to otherwise meet the administrative expenses of the Brigades which are associated with their volunteer-based and emergency service activities”. On the face of it, the purposes and geographic impact of donations received will be smaller and much more limited than suggested in Barber’s public commentary.

More than half of the donated funds have now flowed to the NSW RFS, and while avenues are being explored for broadening the impact of the funds, they have acknowledged that this is complex and will take time to resolve. However this situation plays out, nothing should detract from the remarkable fundraising Barber has undertaken and the generosity of donors to this appeal. The personal involvement of Barber with her enormous social media following, and the energy she has transmitted through constant authentic communication has driven the campaign towards this remarkable result.

Making it count for the long term

If you want to donate to the bushfire crisis, or any natural disaster, but are feeling bewildered by choice and scale, consider the following:

  • Give money not things. Immediate crisis relief is buoyed by donations of household items such as clothing and blankets. However, the logistics of accepting items of this kind is slow and expensive–consider that your gift of things will come at a financial cost to the charity.
  • Carefully select the recipients of your gift. Take time to select the recipients of your giving and discuss it with your family. Ensure your intended recipient’s values match your own and those of your family, and that they have the capability and capacity to make efficient use of your gift for the purposes you wish.
  • Don’t get scammed. A search for “bushfire” on GoFundMe at the peak of the current crisis gave 5,000 results. Many of these smaller fundraising efforts are legitimate, but as has since been revealed, some were scams. There is a strong argument for concentrating your giving to registered charities, as they generally have strong governance and work to minimise overheads. You can check the status of your intended recipient on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) website.
  • Give for the long-term. The underlying causes of the current crisis have taken a while to build and will require long-term solutions. Match this by making your commitment long-term too.

Creating your own fund

In most cases, charities would be best served by you giving directly, and then asking your friends and contacts to do so too. However, if you’ve been moved to conduct your own fundraising using an online platform, then make sure that you:

  • Choose your cause carefully. Consistency is paramount—it is very difficult to change your cause mid-campaign. Be sure you’ve picked something that matches your values, and that you genuinely feel is the most important thing deserving support right now. Choose something you would–and will–give to yourself. And then put it to the ultimate test by being your own first donor!
  • Don’t dilute an existing campaign. If there are existing campaigns for the cause you’ve identified choose one conducted by a well-known charity and direct your donations there. This action will serve to maximise impact, rather than fragmenting the effort.
  • Do your homework. Read the fine print: who will be receiving the donated funds? Are you satisfied they are well-governed and well-run? If you hit your target, how will use of the funds be restricted? What would happen if your activity substantially exceeded its targets?
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. A proven success factor in crowdfunding (and any fundraising) is consistent, authentic communication. Start by talking about your own giving, and then provide regular updates. Social media provides the mechanism, but only your visible effort and commitment will motivate people to join you.

If you represent a not-for-profit and would like to discuss how to navigate fundraising challenges around the current natural disasters, then we’d like to help. Please don’t hesitate to contact us – ph: (02) 8324 7585, email: [email protected]

Dr Colin Taylor is Vice-President (Asia Pacific) for Global Philanthropic, a strategic fundraising consultancy specialising in major gift management and campaigns, as well as a host of other stakeholder engagement and fundraising services.

Read Colin’s recent blog 7 tips for preparing for and managing principal gifts