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Celeste Barber raised $51 million to support communities and victims of the Australian Bushfires.

But spending the money has not been straightforward.

Whilst campaigning for her monumental fundraiser, Barber told the world the money would be distributed across multiple states and charities for bushfire relief. However, the nominated beneficiary of Barber’s fundraiser was the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and Brigades Donation Fund.

Why is this a problem?

The RFS donation fund is governed by a “trust deed”. The fine print limits what the Trust can use donations for.

…to or for the brigades in order to enable or assist them to meet the costs of purchasing and maintaining fire-fighting equipment and facilities, providing training and resources and/or to otherwise meet the administrative expense of the brigade which are associated with their volunteer-based service activities…

Effectively, Barber’s $51 million dollar fundraiser can only be spent on equipment, training, resources or administrative costs for RFS brigades. In other words, it cannot be distributed amongst other states or charities as Barber intended.

Given the intense global attention on the issue, the RFS sought the advice of the NSW Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in May, that despite the expectations of Barber and the million or so donors – the money can only be spent as set out in the RFS “trust deed”.

The decision disappointed many donors and Barber herself.

In an attempt to loosen the strict terms of the RFS Trust Deed, the NSW Green Party introduced The Rural Fires Amendment Bill 2020 to the NSW Parliament to change the Rural Fires Act.

Greens MP and justice spokesperson David Shoebridge said:

“We want to ensure the intentions of the more than one million donors are respected and this record donation is able to be used to do more than offset government expenditure on the RFS,”

However, documents tendered to NSW Parliament revealed the RFS have already spent about $20 million of the cash.

Barber has recently spoken out about the Amendment Bill.  

“My concern is that if it is not possible to help these people have their money allocated to where they want it to go in this unprecedented instance that this may be the last we see of such generosity on such an international scale”.

The RFS are arguing that the Amendment Bill will undermine public confidence in charities.

What lessons should we take away from this?

1. If you’re setting up a fundraiser – do some due diligence first.

2. Read the fine print.

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