As Australia’s unprecedented bushfires destroyed over 31 million acres in early 2020, a Facebook fundraiser launched by comedian Celeste Barber went viral. Initially aimed at supporting rural New South Wales firefighters, the appeal eventually raised over A$51 million from 1.3 million donors across the globe. It was the largest fundraiser in Facebook’s history, eclipsing its predecessor by A$20 million.
Online fundraisers have gained increasing relevance amidst the coronavirus pandemic, as millions struggle with health concerns and unemployment. Facebook itself has promoted its fundraising functionality as a shining spot of good as its reputation has taken hit after hit elsewhere. However, the giving spirit can sometimes blind people to exactly what they’re donating to, especially when it comes to viral campaigns.
Many hoped the funds Barber raised would not only support the NSW firefighters, but also those in other states, people who lost their homes or family, and wildlife recovery efforts. Unfortunately, this is not the case, serving as an important reminder to think about where your money is going when you donate — even if it is ostensibly going to a good cause.
For a good cause, singular
On Monday, the NSW Supreme Court ruled the NSW Rural Fire Service cannot legally redistribute the A$51 million raised through Barber’s Facebook fundraiser to other charities. The decision came after officials managing the NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund, the beneficiary of the fundraiser, asked for clarification on how the money could legally be used.
The money can’t be shared because such use is outside the scope dictated in the RFS Trust Deed, a legal document that sets out the trust fund’s rules and prevents donations from being misused. Money in the RFS Fund can only be used for purchasing and maintaining rural NSW firefighters’ equipment, training and supporting them, and paying for administrative fees.
Barber established the on January 3, submitting the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund as the benefiting charity on the page. Donations were collected through PayPal and deposited into the PayPal Giving Fund, another trust fund. Under the rules governing that fund, the money was then forwarded to the RFS as the nominated charity.
Now that the money is in the RFS Fund, it is subject to the RFS’ rules. These rules legally prevent the donations from being shared with other organisations, even if the RFS wants to.
“The Court advises trustees of the RFS Fund that they cannot use the donated money to give to other charities, or to donate interstate, or to help people or animals affected by bushfires,” Justice Michael Slattery wrote in his decision.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that some donors to Barber’s Facebook fundraiser may have intended their contribution to be used for Australian bushfire relief more generally. Further, both the NSW RFS and Barber have expressed a desire to distribute the money to other charities that are also dealing with the Australian bushfires’ aftermath.
However, Slattery maintained that “the law provides principles that ensure a degree of certainty in the application of…charitable trust funds.” Legally, there is little room for creative interpretation in how money donated to charities can be used.
Barber’s Facebook fundraiser quickly went viral after she created it, exceeding its initial A$30,000 goal by a staggering amount. This led Barber to pledge the funds would be shared with other charities in other states, helping people affected by the bushfires throughout Australia, though only the NSW RFS was listed on the Facebook page. Facebook fundraisers are restricted to a single nominated beneficiary.
“So it’s going to the RFS and it will be distributed out,” Barber said in a January Instagram story. “So 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.”
Unfortunately, despite Barber’s evolving intentions, the NSW RFS is the only organisation that will ever see that money.
The problem with sharing donations
Even if the redistribution of funds weren’t prohibited by law, doing so would still raise issues concerning how fundraisers are run.
Think of it like this. Imagine a friend asked you for a bit of cash, telling you they only need it to buy their son lunch. Being a generous sort of person, you fork over a $50 bill and tell them to treat the kid. Instead, they give some of the money to their boyfriend, who proceeds to spend it on a pair of socks.
It doesn’t matter how much your friend’s boyfriend needed the socks, or whether you would have been happy to give him some cash as well. The fact is that your friend solicited money from you with the promise that it would be used for a specific purpose, but then broke that promise and distributed it elsewhere.
In this scenario, Barber would be your friend, the NSW RFS her son, and all the other Australian charities her boyfriends.
Even if your friend’s son received the money and passed it on to his parent’s partner, you may not want to financially support their warm feet. Further, while unlikely to be an issue in this instance, not all boyfriends in all scenarios will buy something as practical as socks. Some might buy nunchucks, or a T-shirt depicting three wolves howling at the moon.
If we allow initial representations to be ignored, then there are no rules for how donated money can actually be used. And if donors can’t be confident their contributions will be used for the purpose stated, there’s little incentive for them to donate in the first place.
What can the money be used for?
The A$51 million raised will still do a lot of good. The NSW RFS plans to spend A$14 million upgrading safety equipment and A$20 million upgrading local brigades, with the remaining sum yet to be allocated. Fortunately, Slattery ruled that the money can be used to support firefighters who were injured while firefighting, as well as the families of firefighters killed in the line of duty. It can also be used to provide firefighters with training and trauma counselling.
What it can’t be used for, however, is helping the Australian Red Cross, animal rescue groups, or firefighters in other states.
“I had hoped, because it was such a big and ‘unprecedented’ amount, that it could have been distributed to other states and charities,” wrote Barber in a released Monday. “[It] turns out that studying acting at university does not make me a lawmaker.”
Bending rules because large amounts of money are involved is generally considered unethical. Unfortunately, in this one specific instance, the protections against misuse are also preventing the donations from doing the most good, despite the wishes of everyone involved. Charities all over the world typically have similar protections in place as well, meaning it’s likely this issue could be repeated. Mashable has reached out to Facebook for comment.
The whole dilemma is a reminder to think carefully about where you’re donating, even if it is to a good cause. This is particularly true of viral donation drives, as it’s easy to get caught up in general sympathetic sentiments and not examine exactly who is receiving the funds, when, and how.
Remember that the charity listed is the one that will ultimately receive your donation, whatever your overall intention may be. Compassion and a willingness to help are laudable, but make sure your assistance is actually going where you believe it can do the most good.