Australian bushfires: Where $500m in donations went and what's next

The 2019-20 Australian bushfires were a national tragedy, and became worldwide news.

The crisis prompted people across the world to donate generously, from celebrities giving six figure amounts, to sports events such as the Rally for Relief tennis competition that raised $5million.

Here, we take a look at what happened to the money that was raised, and how you can donate to bushfire appeals again during this bushfire season.

Amy and Ben Spencer sit at the show grounds in the southern New South Wales town of Bega where they are camping after being evacuated from nearby sites affected by bushfires. Source: Getty
Families were forced to evacuate their homes as the bushfires raged on New Year's Eve. Source: Getty

How much was raised for the appeal last year?

Over $500 million was donated to bushfire appeals during the 2019-20 fire season, which is believed to be the biggest ever amount raised in response to an Australian disaster.

Around $282 million of that was received by three main charities; The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and St Vincent de Paul.

Many large donations came from individuals and businesses, such as mining magnates Andrew and Nicola Forrest who donated $70million, Commonwealth Bank who donated $11million, and Ellen de Generes who donated $1.5 million.

Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraiser contributed $51.2 million for the cause.

Firefighters hose down trees as they battle against bushfires around the town of Nowra on December 31, 2019. Source: Getty
The 2019-20 Australian bushfires were a national tragedy, and became worldwide news. Source: Getty

How was the bushfire appeal money spent last year?

In January 2020, the Australian Charity and Not for Profits Commission stated that they would be helping charities manage their money, as some charities simply weren’t used to receiving money in such magnitude.

By June 2020, around half of the money raised had not been spent – raising concerns that charities were ‘holding money back’ for future disasters, and not giving it to those in immediate need.

The Red Cross Director of Australian Services, Noel Clement, was forced to deny this wasn’t the case.

“The balance of those funds is for the bushfires,” he said.

“What we’re talking about is further immediate relief so as we become clearer on needs, we will announce further support and longer term support.”

Since then, The Red Cross, Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul, have explained that because fire recovery can take years, they need to be able to provide money throughout the whole process.

“Our long experience responding to disasters, including the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, has shown us that recovery, including rebuilding, dealing with trauma and other mental health impacts, re-establishing strong social networks and having access to information and services takes many years," a statement from The Red Cross, who have a three-year program in place, said.

Some of the money has also been held back because Covid-19 has prevented charities from travelling to very rural areas to find out what help people need.

Celeste Barber speaks during the Fire Fight Australia bushfire relief concert at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
Host Celeste Barber energised the crowd during the nine hour long Fire Fight Australia bushfire relief concert. Source: AAP

Did the money go where it was promised?

Yes. But it hasn’t been straightforward.

When Celeste Barber started her $51.2 million fundraiser, she originally stated that NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donation Fund would receive the money.

But, as the donations grew, she told people she wanted the funds to be spread between other states and given to the families of some of the victims.

However, the NSW Supreme Court ruled that the money could not be given to any other charities as that had not been in the original fine print. However, the judge did permit some of the money to be given to the families of firefighters who were killed, and those that were injured.

A Rural Fire Service (RFS) firefighter conducts mopping up near the town of Sussex Inlet on December 31. Source: Getty
A Rural Fire Service firefighter mops up near Sussex Inlet, NSW, on December 31. Source: Getty

How do I donate to:

Fire agencies

Donating to the NSW RFS and Brigades Donations Fund can be done by credit card, cheque or bank transfer. There’s a list on their website of where funds are allocated, so you can see where your money is going.

The CFA Victoria have two funds; the Country Fire Authority Public Fund, which supports CFA’s provision of volunteer-based emergency service activities such as community engagement, mental health programs and volunteer leadership development; and the CFA and Brigades Donations Fund, which is used to fund fire-fighting equipment and facilities. You can donate to both via bank transfer, or to the Brigades Donation Fund via Paypal.

You can donate to the South Australia CFA by direct debit, to the Queensland Rural Fire Service by cheque or bank transfer, to the WA Rural Fire Division and its subsidiaries by direct debit.

A wildlife rescuer carries a koala out of a burning forest on Kangaroo Island. Source: AAP
Adelaide wildlife rescuer Simon Adamczyk is seen with koala rescued at a burning forest near near Cape Borda on Kangaroo Island. Source: AAP

Animal Rescue organisations:

The WWF is still offering people opportunities to donate or fundraise specifically for bushfire affected animals. You can also adopt a koala to help injured koalas be released back in to the wild.

WIRES are currently working on a range of projects to support wildlife recovery from the bushfires, including koala research and restoring wildlife habitats. You can donate by credit card, EFT or Paypal.

The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, and St Vincent de Paul:

At the time of writing, it’s not possible to donate specifically to their bushfire appeals. You can donate to all three charities, although your money is likely to go to more general use at the moment.

If you need assistance after being affected by bushfire, it’s still possible to apply for a grant from The Salvation Army, Vinnies, and The Red Cross.

Can I donate clothes and other goods, rather than money?

Unless charities specify that they need items such as tinned food, baby wipes or bottled water, money is always preferred.

“The best way to support people affected by the bushfires is to make a financial donation,” Vinnies explains.

“Transporting material goods to emergency zones comes at a cost. Wherever possible, purchasing items locally in an affected area is a much better option, as it supports the local economy and small businesses.”

Eight year-old Jarrod McInnes walks next to the remains of a house that his family was about to buy and was destroyed by bushfires in Rappville, NSW. Source: AAP
Eight year-old Jarrod McInnes walks next to the remains of a house that his family was about to buy and was destroyed by bushfires in Rappville, NSW. Source: AAP

How do I make sure I’m donating to a legitimate charity?

All registered charities will appear on the Charity Register on the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission website.

This gives you details about the charity, information on its annual reporting, and lets you know if any action has been taken against the charity for not complying with obligations.

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