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Some thoughts on the bushfire crisis, charity and giving

21 January 2020 at 8:23 am
Krystian Seibert
Krystian Seibert reflects on what the outpouring of generosity sparked by the bushfire crisis means for giving in Australia.

Krystian Seibert | 21 January 2020 at 8:23 am


Some thoughts on the bushfire crisis, charity and giving
21 January 2020 at 8:23 am

Krystian Seibert reflects on what the outpouring of generosity sparked by the bushfire crisis means for giving in Australia.

The bushfire crisis we’re currently experiencing in Australia has prompted an outpouring of generosity. According to some estimates, around $500 million has been donated, in small and large amounts, from individuals, businesses and foundations, in Australia and from abroad.

I’ve been commentating on the surge in giving in the media, for outlets in Australia and abroad, and as part of that I’ve been reflecting on what the last few weeks mean for charity and giving in Australia. Here are some of my thoughts.

We are a generous country

The World Giving Index 2019 was released last year, and it analysed 10 years of data to arrive at its conclusions. It ranked Australia as the fourth most generous country in the world, after the US, Myanmar, and New Zealand. Sometimes people are surprised at how “well” Australia does in this list. However, especially when we have disasters like the current bushfire crisis, you really see how people rally to give generously.

In watching the response to the crisis, I think about how we can continue to harness this generosity once the bushfires subside. Recovery and rebuilding will take a long time, and donations will be needed to assist with that immense task. 

And when it comes to the frequency and severity of bushfires, climate change is a significant contributing factor. However, we have inadequate policies at a national level to try to combat it. So I do hope that donations will also flow to environmental organisations that are undertaking climate change advocacy and seeking to mobilise the community and push the Australian government to adopt proper policies in this area.

There are blurred boundaries between philanthropy and government

The phenomenal success of Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraising appeal, which raised over $51 million dollars for The Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund, has been remarkable. It’s the largest Facebook fundraising appeal ever.

There are some legal complications associated with the fundraiser, which I’ve commented on, but hopefully they will be resolved. There are various options available to provide more flexibility with how the funds raised are used, which is one of the key issues that has arisen.

One thing which is of interest is that the Rural Fire Service in NSW, just like the Country Fire Service in Victoria and similar bodies in other states and territories, is actually a government body. Some government bodies, such as public hospitals, do fundraise to augment their government funding. However, it does beg the question – in terms of providing such essential services, what is the role of philanthropy? Is philanthropy filling a gap left by government? If so, that’s problematic. If it’s not filling a gap, but is complementary in some other way, then how is it complementary? It’s a question that needs to be explored further in Australia.

Transparency with how donations are used is essential

Compared with the Victorian bushfires of 2009, giving during this bushfire crisis has been rather decentralised with many different organisations and fundraising appeals receiving donations, including through crowdfunding websites such as GoFundMe.

People have given generously, and they will have done so with the hope that their donations will make a difference. That’s why it’s essential that in the coming weeks and months, the different organisations and appeals which have received donations are fully transparent about how they’ve been used. If not, there’s always a risk that there could be some sort of controversy which could have an impact on donor trust, which would not be good for encouraging giving in Australia.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission has flagged that this is an issue it will be focusing on.

New fundraising approaches need to be explained better

Linked with the question of transparency, is the issue of how the public understands some fundraising approaches, such as the one used for Facebook appeals such as Celeste Barber’s. I talked about how Facebook fundraising appeals work with Pro Bono News last week. I think there are lots of benefits to such new approaches, but that said, when I explain how they work, some people are surprised and sometimes a little confused. 

When donors click to donate, they don’t usually read the fine print (that’s the kind of thing people like me get excited about!), nor do they usually need or want to understand the intricacies of how public ancillary funds operate. But, in order to build confidence in new fundraising approaches, I wonder how information could be better conveyed to donors when they are making a donation, explaining exactly how the particular fundraising approach works. Perhaps using graphic images rather than text contained in “policies” or “terms and conditions” would be a start.

Giving as an antidote to powerlessness and as an act of community

As a final reflection, I wanted to share something more philosophical. I think one of the main emotions I’ve felt, and probably others have too, during this bushfire crisis is one of powerlessness.

And I think that this is where giving can be so powerful – as an antidote to powerlessness. 

When we donate, we know that our $10 or $20 or $50 or $100 commitment won’t change things dramatically. But every dollar counts, and every donation helps.

Giving is also an act of community. Community is about the bonds that hold us together, and can exist on multiple levels. When we make a donation, it helps address our feeling of powerlessness, and it helps make a difference “on the ground”. Giving is sharing, and sharing is perhaps the ultimate act of community. Given the need to rebuild the “social capital” of our society, giving is certainly something to be celebrated and something we need to foster and cultivate.

Krystian Seibert  |  @ProBonoNews

Krystian Seibert is an industry fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology and has a strategic advisory role with Philanthropy Australia.

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