Australia’s bushfire crisis: What happens after you click ‘donate’​?

It’s a busy time to be chief executive of a charity. “It seems to be just one natural disaster following another at the moment,” Kevin Mercer, CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society Queensland tells me over the phone.

More than 6,000 registered charities are working in bushfire-affected regions, according to the federal government. Type ‘Australian bushfire’ into crowdfunding site GoFundMe and more than 4,000 results come up.

Two women hug on a backdrop of burnt bushland.

From bake sales to retailers pledging profits, celebrity fundraisers and those donating goods directly to bushfire-affected communities — more than $200 million has been raised. It comes as almost no surprise that Australians are ranked number four on the World Giving Index. Mercer labels the response “amazing”.

But donating and fundraising can be a complex endeavour. Comedian Celeste Barber’s bushfire fund has raised more than $51 million. But red tape and legal concerns over how the funds will be spent have complicated the task of distributing the cash; leading to questions about the efficacy of the donation economy.

So how do charities decide how and where resources are spent? Mercer acknowledges that money being used by government agencies is public money, “so there’s got to be some level of scrutiny and accountability”. Vinnies has members who act in conferences within communities across the country, identifying and assessing individuals in need and distributing funds or material support based on that assessment. “They often know who’s struggling and who isn’t,” Mercer explains. “Those silent people who maybe won’t come forward in a government program.”

Volunteers help prepare meals.

post on LinkedIn attracted more insight into what happens to your money after you click donate. Palms Australia caps donations for any one project at the true cost of that project, shares Rachel Donovan. “We respond to a request, we don’t assume a need.” WWF Australia’s national regeneration effort uses its Impactio platform to gather applications and curate them before allocating funding that can be tracked “with full transparency,” Reece Proudfoot explains. They’re not the only ones tapping into tech. Connecting Up and Infoxchange have created a bushfire support section on the Ask Izzy community services support app to link people to assistance, writes Grant Smyth.

“Charity is about the people and the communities receiving the support, it’s not about the donor.”

How can you help?

  • DONATE CASH: “Cash is always the preference over goods,” the Vinnies chief explains, for the simple reason of flexibility. “We can move cash around to where the need is. When you’re talking to an individual about their circumstances, cash provides flexibility in terms of the response.”
  • DONATE GOODS: Community recovery is a marathon, not a sprint, says Mercer. One that becomes immeasurably more challenging once the headlines vanish and the camera crews pack up. Donating through stores and retail feeds back out into communities and supports long-term recovery.
  • DONATE YOUR TIME: Support centres are being set up and are looking for volunteers. “It’s people in the community helping each other,” which builds camaraderie and compassion and helps communities’ recovery too.
Two volunteers sort food donations.

But do your research. Rosie Keating from The Smith Family encourages well-meaning donors to check the ACNC website and platforms like the GoodCause Co. to ensure the legitimacy of a cause. “Ensure you do your research and make sure the funds are going where you would like them to.”

Wrapping up our interview, I ask Kevin Mercer if there was anything we had missed or that he’d like to share. He had this poignant message:

“We will recover. We’re a resilient country, we deal with crisis well. We will get there. It’s the strength of the community that gets us there.”

I want to hear from you: How would you like to see resources being spent in your community? In a world of social media and immediacy, has the donation economy caught up?

How is your charity supporting bushfire-affected communities? What’s your advice to those who wish to help?

What topics would you like to see covered in the coming weeks? Do you have a story to share? How are you helping those in need?

Share your thoughts in the comments and hit ‘subscribe’.

A night-time shot of Australia's bushfires.

While you’re here, why not consider donating to these registered charities? Don’t forget to check if your employer does gift matching.

This article was first published on LinkedIn

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