Back in February 2020, in the midst of arguably the worst bushfire season in Australia, an online fundraising appeal went viral, resulting in an unexpected, very welcome, $50M windfall for Rural Fire NSW.
Let’s first deal with the elephant in the room. Had the organiser of the appeal done her homework, sought some qualified advice, then it is likely much of the angst that resulted may have been avoided. That said, the outcome of the appeal is nothing short of amazing.
Yes, the fundraiser was created in a moment of passion, however in emergencies passion is more often the driver than logic. If we took time to think through these things we could become paralysed with inaction.
Irrespective of the issues created by the appeal or the amount of money raised, it is worth remembering that people would have donated money to the fundraiser in any event. We were witnessing a tragedy. fire fighters and front line responders were dying, people were losing their homes, employment and businesses. We wanted to help, and we would do it all over again.
There is a key lesson in here for those engaging in online fundraising. Sometimes its a waste of time, yet when it works it can go gangbusters.
The minute the first donation was made, the minute the first online comment was posted, both the organiser of the bushfire appeal and those that had made a donation become bit players. The appeal become a multi-headed monster with a mind of its own. People began responding as much from FOMO as from a desire to contribute.
The sum of money raised is staggering, and it is that sum that creates much of the hysteria and critical comment. Had the original target of $35,000 been raised and that was all – noone would have given a toss about the legalities, or the right way to do things.
Rural Fire NSW has a significant problem on its hands, one they didn’t ask for. Firstly they have to ensure they have appropriate governance policies in place around financial risk management, investment protocols and distribution processes. The worlds eyes will be upon their governance processes.
They will have to work through constant media attention on how the funds are used, fueled by discontent from those dissatsified with the process and outcomes. They have a major public relations exercise to ensure understanding amongst politicians, media, fire brigades and the public.
Rural Fire NSW have a guardianship role in that the world is looking for reasons to not donate to the next fire season. Any hint of ill informed distribution of these funds will act as a deterrent to future fund raising – as well as have an impact upon fundraising for bushfire relief in other States. This might be a $50M windfall however that doesnt remove from Rural Fire NSW the responsibility for maximising the benefit and the outcome.
Politicians on all sides will likely face heavy pressure to reduce funding to Rural Fire NSW and distribute the money into other areas. This would be a mistake. Rural Fire NSW did not ask for this windfall. It is theirs to keep and to use as they are legally required to do. Punishment would be cruel. Regrettably politicians will look for public sympathy in upcoming elections years.
I am sure there are many within Rural Fire NSW wishing the courts had forced them to hand the funds back, as I am sure there are many donors wishing the same thing. This will change next fire season when fire fighters in NSW have the best possible equipment to fight fires, save lives and avoid the loss of houses and businesses. Afterall, that is exactly what people expected to the funds to be used for when they made a donation.
John Coxon has spent the past two decades guiding social agencies to develop capacity and capabilities through application of his building blocks suite of diagnostic tools and the 4 Steps To Success model. Reach out to John to discuss how he may work with your organisation.