Celeste Barber’s staggering $51.3 million bushfire appeal demonstrates just how generous, compassionate and supportive people can be in times of need. However, the need to ask the Supreme Court of NSW’s for guidance as to how the funds can be spent also demonstrates the complexity of the laws governing charities in Australia.

During last summer’s catastrophic bushfires, Australian comedian Celeste Barber launched a Facebook fundraising campaign, nominating the Trustee for New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) and Brigades Donation Fund as the beneficiary.

Initially, Barber aimed to raise $30,000, however, the fundraiser went viral and attracted millions of donations from around the world. As donations continued to pour in, Barber informed her followers on Instagram that she planned to distribute the money: “So I’m going to make sure that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died from these fires, the wildlife.”

Barber’s dedication to raising money to support firefighters, victims and communities across Australia affected by the bushfires was inspiring. Ultimately, Barber raised more than $51 million – the largest fundraiser in Facebook’s history, which was then passed on to the NSW RFS.


So, what happens with the $51 million?

The NSW RFS and Brigades Donation Fund is governed by a “trust deed”, which limits the donations to being spent on purchasing and maintaining firefighting equipment and facilities, training and resources, as well as administrative costs. As such, donations cannot be provided to fire services in other states or to other charities.

However, given the RFS’ gratefulness of Celeste Barber’s efforts and the generosity of persons around the world, the RFS sought the advice of the NSW Supreme Court to provide guidance as to how the funds could be spent.


Advice of the NSW Supreme Court

Justice Slattery of the NSW Supreme Court recently ruled that the money could only be distributed to the NSW RFS and Brigades Donation Fund, and could not be passed on to fire services in other states, to volunteers, victims or shared with charities.

The Court also found funds could be used: to support rural firefighters injured while firefighting and the families of rural firefighters killed while firefighting; and, provide physical and mental health training, as well as trauma counselling.

This decision disappointed many, particularly those who donated on the belief that the funds would not only be distributed the NSW RFS, but also to other causes such as victims who had endured suffering or loss as a result of the fires, or wildlife charities such as WIRES.

While Barber had the best of intentions for distributing the funds and not fundraising for such a limited purpose, the NSW Supreme Court’s ruling highlights the intricacy of charities law and teaches charities, fundraisers and donors some important lessons.


Lessons for charities, fundraisers and donors

Barber’s fundraiser is an example of the sheer generosity and support of persons from around the world in the face of disaster – it is truly a wonderful reminder of human compassion. However, it also highlights the complexity of the law governing charities in Australia.

Here are some lessons charities, fundraisers and donors can learn:

1. Due diligence

Before giving to a charity, fundraisers and donors should do some due diligence and read the fine print. Fundraisers and donors should look at the charity’s trust document or constitution to see how the funds can be used – noting that funds can only be spent to further that charity’s purpose. All registered charities are required to make their governing document publicly available by uploading it to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission charity portal.

2. Consider why you are donating money

If you are a donor, take the time to consider where you are sending your money and whether the charity’s purposes suit your purposes. Donors must understand that when they donate to a particular charity the charity is limited to spending that money according to its objects.

3. Purpose of fundraising

For charities (and individuals and organisations) who fundraise, you are obligated to ensure your campaign is honest and transparent, and you are not misleading donors about how donations will be utilised. As such, you must articulate the purpose of the fundraiser and how you intend the money be spent. Remember that charities are purpose-driven and therefore they can only use donations that are consistent with the purpose of the charity.

4. Changing the scope of a fundraising campaign

If you undertake a fundraising campaign, just like Barber, and decide to change the scope, you should seek legal advice and/or speak to other charities you intend on donating to.

For more information, please contact our Charities & Not-For-Profits Team.

Interested to find out more? Feel free to contact us today.