$500 million has been donated for bushfire relief, but only a fraction has reached victims. Here’s why.

Bushfire donations are being tied up by delays. (Photo by James Worsfold, Getty Images)
  • Charities have had to defend themselves after coming under fire for not releasing bushfire funds raised for immediate relief.
  • NSW state MP and Bega member Andrew Constance has lashed the Red Cross for its decision to spread the release of the $115 million it has raised over three years.
  • Other charities have taken a similar view, recognising ongoing support will be required. This is how they intend to spend their donations.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

“Where’s the money?”

It’s the question being asked of bushfire donations, with NSW minister Andrew Constance, local member for one of the worst-Bega, one of the worst-affected areas, calling on charities and government to move quickly.

“The money is needed right now, not sitting in a Red Cross bank account earning interest so they can map out their next three years and do their marketing,” Constance told media this week.

Constance isn’t alone in his frustration. A significant amount of money destined for bushfire-affected regions has been held up, leaving those affected in the lurch.

“The recovery has been too slow and I think that criticism is just,” NSW disaster minister John Barilaro said this week, announcing some Service NSW staff were to exclusively deal with bushfire assistance.

Around $500 million has generously been raised so far for bushfire relief, including more than $50 million by comedian Celeste Barber, multi-million dollar donations by celebrities and companies, and of course, countless smaller individual donations.

Many however are now asking where that money is, how it will be spent, and why it hasn’t in many cases reached the people who need it most.

The Red Cross

Since Constance gave it a tongue lashing, the Red Cross has defended its strategy, explaining that while it has received $115 million, only $30 million will be spent on immediate relief so the charity can guarantee its ongoing support.

“Communities take a long time to recover. So what we are using our donated funds for is supporting our teams on the ground, at the evacuation centres and recovery centres… helping communities with their immediate needs but also their longer-term recovery which will take many years,” NSW and ACT director Poppy Brown told ABC Breakfast on Thursday, noting anyone who had lost a house was eligible for an immediate $10,000 grant.

Those families who have lost a family member to the fires are eligible for a $20,000 bereavement payment to meet unmet needs such as funerals and related expenses, the Red Cross has advised Business Insider Australia. Those two forms of payment have seen about $1 million go “out the door” every day, Brown said.

The Red Cross denied however the remainder was only going to marketing, with Brown revealing a maximum of 10%, or roughly $11.5 million of the money, would be spent on administrative items like fuel for cars and computers.

“Any interest that is earned on those [remaining] funds, those funds are kept entirely separate to the rest of the Red Cross. Any interest earned will go out to those communities affected,” Brown added.

The remaining $73 million or so will be spent on the ongoing recovery efforts over the next three years, in coordination with government and community groups.

“Our recovery programs will include mental health and wellbeing, support for children and people who are vulnerable, community support events and more,” Australian Red Cross CEO Judy Slatyer said in an additional statement issued to Business Insider Australia. “It will be guided by consultations with affected communities and our own extensive experience in disaster recovery.”

The Salvation Army, Saint Vincent de Paul and WIRES have also received millions of dollars worth of donations

While the Red Cross is believed to be the biggest recipient of Australian goodwill, other major charities are in similar boats as they grapple with how to best distribute a record amount of aid.

“Charities may find themselves in an unfamiliar situation over the coming months – a sudden influx of donations and funds means they have greater capacity to provide assistance than ever before, but it can present challenges,” commissioner for the Australian Charities and not-for-profits commission Gary Johns wrote on Thursday.

“At this time, meeting the needs of the community is a key priority, but donors need confidence that their funds are helping those in need.”

A Salvation Army spokesperson confirmed on Thursday it had only received around a quarter of the money pledged to it, hoping Australians and companies would soon honour their commitments.

“To date, we have distributed $8.4 million – [or] 80% – of the $11 million that has been received in funds. Over $42 million has been pledged to The Salvation Army since the Disaster Appeal was launched on 9 November 2019,” it said in a statement provided to Business Insider Australia.

“Money that has been raised during this period will be spent or committed by June 2020 to the immediate and longer-term recovery,” Salvation Army lieutenant colonel Neil Venables said.

The St Vincent De Paul Society has also had to defend itself, confirming on Thursday all donations would be used to support bushfire victims.

“Vinnies will not, and has never kept funds from disaster appeals for any other work or cause,” a statement reads. “No administration fees are taken from this appeal, meaning the money raised goes directly to the relief and recovery effort.”

The charity confirmed its bushfire appeal has raised $12.5 million, of which $2.4 million has been distributed nationally with a further $250,000 to go out in the next few days. Vinnies claimed it was still assessing how to best put the remaining $10 million to good use.

“The process of assessing people and establishing their need does take some time but we are focused on helping as many people as possible as quickly as we can,” the organisation said in a statement. “As we access more communities and establish need, we are also accelerating the rate of response.”

These statements indicate the challenge facing charities, which have found themselves inundated with vast sums of money.

“As a not for profit organisation that has been surviving hand to mouth for the past 34 years, the concern and generosity we are receiving both here and from around the globe is overwhelming, to say the least,” a spokesperson for wildlife organisation WIRES told Business Insider Australia. “Understand we have been dealing with crisis rescues since the fires started and the welfare of injured, orphaned and displaced native animals and our volunteers have been our primary focus.”

The organisation said it had committed $3 million into three different emergency wildlife rescue and care programs. WIRES said it had established a $1 million national frontline fund to cover the costs of rescuing and caring for animals affected and another $1 million to the Australian Veterinarian Association (AVA) to support vets and practices affected during the crisis. WIRES has also distributed $1 million over the last two months to 28 of its branches across NSW.

“It is vital that we immediately get the funds out to those wildlife volunteers taking care of animals that are injured and/or orphaned,” WIRES CEO Leanne Taylor said in a statement. “Nationally, vets provide vital support to the wildlife sector and we want to ensure that veterinary hospitals/clinics operating within fire-affected regions or providing specialist services are well supported to assist with rehabilitation efforts.”

Small charities have been left exasperated by funding delays

But while charities are undoubtedly facing challenges, so too are those they seek to help.

“Families can’t access money quickly enough to help them. Every service has barrier after barrier. And then there are the cases we’re seeing now getting again and again of people who don’t exactly fit what Find a Bed is offering but desperately need help,” Erin Riley, founder of group Find A Bed tweeted.

Riley set up Find A Bed on New Year’s Eve in response to the needs of bushfire victims, with the simple goal of “matching people who had spare beds with people who had been displaced”.

Now it’s moved into working with communities to meet various other needs, providing items to victims who have lost everything.

“They are full-time carers for three kids with NDIS plans. They have not seen a penny of Red Cross money. They have been living in a tiny cabin in a holiday park. Getting them into their new rental was urgent. It couldn’t wait,” she tweeted, speaking of a family her group had recently assisted.

While operating on a much smaller scale to large charities, she too has run into issues accessing donations the public has made to her via crowdfund site Gofundme.

“We have 6k in the GoFundMe, but it’s locked up for another few days,” Riley said.

When contacted by Business Insider Australia, GoFundMe defended its policies, insisting it has to verify recipients – Find A Bed, for example, is not a registered charity.

It also confirmed it had looked into the Find A Bed situation, was now in direct contact and had provided an extra layer of support to help its cause. Riley confirmed this but said it looked like the money would still take some time to come through.

It’s yet another example of a messy, multi-pronged recovery effort which is trying, with great difficulty, to assist those in need.

Have you been affected by the bushfires and struggled to get the assistance you need? Get in touch [email protected]