Donations pouring in for disaster relief efforts... now what?

Volunteers arranging donated clothes at a centre in Cobargo town in New South Wales state. As bush fires have ravaged Australia, the outpouring of donations from celebrities, business moguls and people around the world has left the country trying to
Volunteers arranging donated clothes at a centre in Cobargo town in New South Wales state. As bush fires have ravaged Australia, the outpouring of donations from celebrities, business moguls and people around the world has left the country trying to efficiently distribute huge sums of money.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY • For the rural firefighters of Australia, no donation is too small. They have long been known to canvass for dollars and cents in town markets, and their collection tins are fondly displayed in local storefronts.

That hat-in-hand approach can now be put on hold. As bush fires have ravaged Australia, celebrities, business moguls and people around the world have inundated the country's fire services and other non-profit organisations with tens of millions of dollars in donations.

This outpouring has presented new challenges for a country more accustomed to handing out largesse to needier nations than to being the recipient of it.

Suddenly, Australia has found itself trying to efficiently distribute huge sums of money and to decipher donors' sometimes vague intentions.

"This is a seminal moment in Australia when it comes to philanthropy and giving," said Mr Krystian Seibert, a fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. "I haven't seen something like it before."

One after another, celebrities have announced large donations or money collection efforts. A Facebook fund-raiser for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service that was started by Australian comedian Celeste Barber has amassed US$34 million (S$46 million). It is the largest fund-raiser ever on the platform.

Fire brigades have received money from actress Nicole Kidman and her husband, country singer Keith Urban, as well as from American band Metallica and media personality Kylie Jenner. American actor Leonardo DiCaprio donated to wildlife organisations.

Writers are auctioning off signed books, musicians are hosting concerts, and athletes such as Serena Williams have pledged to direct their winnings to relief efforts.

Since last September, the bush fires in Australia have incinerated an area about the size of West Virginia in the United States and at least 25 people have died.

  • $90m

    Equivalent of US$67 million - what the Australian Red Cross, which is providing disaster relief, has raised from individuals, groups and companies since July 1.

    $10m

    Equivalent of US$7.5 million - what the organisation raised in its drought appeal last year.

Ecologists have estimated that one billion animals have perished, with some species threatened to the point of extinction.

At least 3,000 homes have been ravaged in dozens of towns, and the economic damage from the fires could be as much as US$3.5 billion.

"We don't normally get phone calls from people who want to give $1 million and beyond," said Ms Belinda Dimovski, director of engagement at the Australian Red Cross.

She said the organisation, which is providing disaster relief, had raised about US$67 million from individuals, groups and companies since July 1. By comparison, it raised about US$7.5 million during a drought appeal last year.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has also seen a dramatic jump in giving, as the world has watched the courageous actions of Australian volunteers called on to fight monstrous blazes.

 
 

In the period between mid-2017 and mid-2018, the fire service raised US$525,000, and the largest single donation was about US$17,000. Now, it is flush with the tens of millions of dollars it has received from the Facebook fund-raiser and other sources.

Legal experts said it would most likely be up to the Rural Fire Service, rather than Ms Barber, to decide whether to distribute money to other organisations.

It is a "nice challenge", said Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, adding that the organisation was considering sending money to funds benefiting victims of the blazes and to fire services in other states. "We will need to target the money to where people intended it to go," he said.

The donations received so far could be enough to fund state-supported fire services in New South Wales for decades. But that would not provide immediate disaster relief.

"This money comes with expectations," said Associate Professor Michael Eburn from Australian National University, who specialises in emergency management law. "It's a dilemma."

The federal government has announced a US$1.4 billion national wildfire recovery fund, and has offered a list of established charities holding bush-fire appeals. The state of Victoria has asked the public to donate to groups that provide "practical" relief.

Australians affected by the fires said they were heartened to know that people at home and abroad had been moved to help.

But some who have lost homes say they have received minimal compensation so far from government agencies and non-profit organisations, although the federal government says it has been processing claims at record speed.

Over the past decade, Australians have been the fourth-most generous givers in the world, according to the 2019 Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index. In recent weeks, Australians have flooded fire stations, town governments and non-profit organisations with contributions of food, clothes and other goods.

The groups are now imploring people not to send any more.

The most efficient way to give during a disaster is to donate cash directly to charities, said Mr Gary Johns, commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission. "Think about what you want to support and give directly to a charity doing that work."

 
 

Beyond the searing images of burning houses and singed wildlife, the attention that the wildfires have brought to the effects of climate change may be motivating people to donate.

"We've been primed to do something about climate change," said Mr Matthew Sisco, a doctoral candidate and data scientist at Columbia University who does research on responses to climate change. "Now, this is an event linked directly to it and pulling at our heartstrings."

Animals, too, have been a major focus of charitable donations. Wires, a wildlife rescue group in New South Wales, raised US$9.6 million in one fund-raiser alone.

"Kangaroos and koalas are highly charismatic," Mr Sisco said. "We can feel empathy for them."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2020, with the headline 'Donations pouring in for disaster relief efforts... now what?'. Print Edition | Subscribe