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What about the charities?

8 January 2020 at 1:26 pm
Maggie Coggan
Charities big and small are stepping up to support the people and wildlife worst affected by this year’s catastrophic bushfires. But how is the sector coping with one of the largest disaster relief efforts to date? 

Maggie Coggan | 8 January 2020 at 1:26 pm


What about the charities?
8 January 2020 at 1:26 pm

Charities big and small are stepping up to support the people and wildlife worst affected by this year’s catastrophic bushfires. But how is the sector coping with one of the largest disaster relief efforts to date? 

Images of red skies, blackened piles of rubble, and video footage of flames tearing across Australia’s precious bushland have characterised this Australian summer.

The devastation to the environment, people’s homes, and wildlife has inspired a huge surge in money and goods being donated to a number of charities aiding the bushfire relief effort.

But with the fires spreading quickly, and circumstances changing frequently, running an effective relief effort and coping with the magnitude of not only the disaster but the surge of public attention, has proved challenging for many charities.  

What’s different about this year 

It’s common for charities to run summer natural disaster appeals, but the scale and magnitude of this disaster has meant charities have had to completely rethink the running of their campaigns. 

Kyla Shelley, the operations manager for wildlife rescue organisation WIRES, told Pro Bono News this year’s appeal had to deal with the size of the disaster. 

“Whilst we’re used to bushfires… they’re usually not as severe, long-lasting or in such a broad area as they are this year,” she said.  

“We’ve never had to potentially deal with entire ecosystems and species being wiped out.” 

Dermot O’Gorman, WWF Australia CEO, said because conditions are changing so rapidly, the campaign has had to change direction and expand time and time again. 

“The appeal we started running in November was around deforestation and koalas… and since then we’ve adapted that message around the impact that the bushfires have been having on wildlife and rural communities,” O’Gorman said.

Managing generosity  

The generosity of the Australian and global community has been vital for charities such as WIRES to deliver relief efforts. 

A Facebook fundraiser for wildlife rescue organisation WIRES has raised more than $8 million, and in December alone, the charity received over 20,000 calls, leading volunteers to attend more than 3,300 animal rescues.

Shelley said a lift in public profile over the past few weeks, as the public look for a way to assist in the relief effort, has meant they have been inundated with donations. 

“Although many community members knew to call us if they found an injured animal, not everyone thought about donating to support our rescue and care work,” she said.

“The scale of this disaster has massively increased international interest in Australia and people are incredibly keen to help the affected communities and wildlife.”

Like most charities, the behind the scenes operations at WIRES are run by a small management team, and despite doing their best to keep up with demand, there have been challenges. 

“We are constantly focused on improving our capacity to help more animals faster. We had already done a lot to improve our systems and processes but we have been so overwhelmed by community support that we have not been able to respond to everyone’s calls and emails as fast as we would have liked,” she said.

“At times our website has struggled to handle the additional visitors and there have been some issues with processing but the generosity of the community been amazing and we are very grateful for the support we have received.”

Donated goods put pressure on charities 

The logistics of accepting and storing donated goods such as blankets or old clothes can be tricky for already-stretched charities and can divert precious resources away from dealing with the bushfires. 

The issue even prompted the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, to tweet that while a lot of “people want to get stuck in and lend a hand” it was important to remember that experienced organisations running relief efforts don’t have the space to sort or store donations.  

Givit and Vinnies are asking for specific items such as fuel and grocery vouchers, fencing and water tanks, but it’s important to check with the charity about what is actually needed.  

Communication is key 

O’Gorman said the global attention the disaster has attracted has meant it’s more important than ever for the sector to keep their supporters updated on where their money is going, and what the charity is doing to combat the disaster.    

“The other piece is providing information to people all over the world, who are just as distressed as Australians, as to what’s happened in the last couple of months in our country with these bushfires,” he said. 

He added it was important that all departments of an NFP were across the appeal so it could be as effective as possible.   

“That internal integration is really important to keep on top of as things continue to change rapidly,” he said.  

Where to from here

It could be months before the fires stop burning, but O’Gorman said starting to think about the long-term impacts of the disaster on rural communities and environments was important.  

“Obviously there needs to be an immediate response. But we need to be thinking about long-term restoration and how we restore the wildlife lost and the regional communities lost,” he said. 

Shelley also said that with the donations received and numbers of volunteers now signed up and ready to assist, the organisation was better prepared for what’s to come.   

“It just means that in the future we’ll have more people on the ground to assist more quickly as needed, which is great,” she said.  

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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