“An online campaign led by comedian Celeste Barber to raise money for volunteer firefighters has raised more than $10 million” reports Andrew Taylor in the Sydney Morning Herald (4 January 2020). That is indeed amazing and from what I have seen the money will go to The Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund.
I have previously written about NSW Rural Fire Service brigades and their ability to raise funds in their own name – see Should a NSW RFS brigade retain its incorporated status? (February 16, 2018) and the posts that are linked there.
Some brigades can receive tax deductible donations (https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/volunteer/support-your-local-brigade). For others, the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund was established (see https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/about-us/fundraising and https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/about-us/fundraising/brigades-and-donations-fund-reports):
Brigades may join the fund, allowing them to receive tax deductible donations without the costs and compliance issues of managing their own Deductible Gift Recipient status or fund.
The fund can also receive donations for the benefit of the RFS generally, rather than particular brigades. The fund was established by the RFS and is managed by the trustees. The Trust’s 2017-2018 annual report says:
The purpose of the Trust is to make available to brigades the ability to accept tax-deductible donations, both in person and online, with as little administrative burden as possible. It was established and is operated solely for the purpose of supporting the volunteer-based fire and emergency service activities of the brigades.
Further, the Trust, as described in the Deed, is to pay or apply the income or capital from the Trust Fund, and such parts of the capital from the Trust Fund as the Trustees at any time and from time to time think fit as follows:
- To or for the brigades in order to enable them or assist them to meet the costs of purchasing and maintaining firefighting equipment and facilities, providing training and resources and/ or to otherwise meet the administrative expenses of the brigades which are associated with their volunteer-based fire and emergency service activities…
The entire donation pool in 2017-18 was $768,044.00, less than one tenth of the amount raised by Ms Barber.
The trust is registered with the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission. The registration page says that the trust helps ‘People in rural/regional/remote communities; Victims of disaster; General community in Australia’. It does this by utilising donated funds ‘to purchase equipment for use by NSW Rural Fire Brigades across the State.’ An equipped brigade assists the community
The Trust is very specialised, it does not make direct payments to those affected by the disaster. Rather it receives donations made to individual brigades that are then used for the benefit of that brigade. It also receives funds donated to the RFS which are held in a Central Fund (Annual Report, [4.2]) to be used for the purposes of the RFS. One cannot imagine that Ms Barber is going to nominate which brigades are to receive money so I would infer this donation will go to the Central Fund to be used for the benefit of the RFS and brigades across the state. It doesn’t mean brigades will be able to go and buy equipment not previously supplied by the RFS. It may allow the RFS to elect to supply equipment that it did not previously supply but it will be a matter for the RFS (in collaboration with the trustees and in accordance with the trust deed and any conditions attached to the donation).
The RFS is of course a state government agency funded by the state government, local councils and insurers (Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) Part 5). My reading of the annual report of 2017/18 is that the RFS had an income of $424 407 000 (ie $424 million) and expenses of $370 504 000 ($370 million). Interestingly there have been demands for better funding for the RFS. Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons has said that despite claims, the RFS budget has not been cut, and ‘we are enjoying record budgets’ (‘Cuts to firefighting budgets described as “rubbish” Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons’ 7NEWS 10 November 2019).
I’m all for community fundraising and supporting local fire brigades but I do hope people understand what they are donating too. Fire brigades in Australia are largely government funded. True enough brigades solicit donations, but the bulk of material is provided, and expenses are met, by government and the insurance sector. A $10 million donation to the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund will provide a massive pool to support brigades but some may view it as funding a service that governments should and do fund – see Ros Gittins ‘Why I didn’t donate to the Rural Fire Service this time around’ Sydney Morning Herald (Online) 1 January 2020.
As I say I’m all for people making donations and choosing who they wish to donate to. Donating to the RFS is commendable given the work that the RFS does. My point in this post is to argue, to those that perhaps don’t understand, that the RFS is not an organisation run by volunteers and funded by community donations. The RFS is not a volunteer organisation, it is a government organisation that relies on volunteers. No doubt the trustees, the RFS and brigades that benefit from the fund will put $10 million to good use and the trustees of the fund will do their best to ensure that it is well spent to advance the RFS abilities in coming years but people should understand, before they make their donation, that fundamentally they are making a donation to the NSW government.
Having an impact! This post was:
- Republished (with my permission) on The Big Smoke as ‘Charity or government: Where will the money raised for the firefighters go?‘;
- Extensively quoted in The Guardian – Ben Doherty, ‘Bushfire donations: where will the millions that have been given be spent?’ The Guardian (Online) 7 January 2020;
- Reported on Canadian TV (CTV) – Christy Somos ”This is terrifying’: Aussie comedian’s wildfire appeal raises millions‘ CTVNews.ca (6 January 2020).
Dear Mr Eburn,
Great post and very timely.
Only thing I would add is that many Brigades (including ours) have DGR (Deductible Gift Recipient) status which essential means we can issue a tax receipt in our own right.
Giving direct to say ones local Brigade means that 100% of a given donation benefits that Brigade, rather than being washed into some vast pool of money not knowing what it’s eventually used for.
In our case we use donated funds to buy items of need not supplied by the RFS.
Many thanks & best regards,
Thanks Simon and I do appreciate that people can donate directly to brigades as is explained here https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/volunteer/support-your-local-brigade – but of course this donation will not be split as donations to individual brigades but will go to the Central Fund and from there.
The individual brigades are meant to be legal entities and each is meant to charge members a nominal membership fee – was $2 annual back when I joined.
For want of a better way to explain, essentially every brigade subcontracts to the NSW RFS. They do get issued a baseline schedule of vehicles and equipment reflecting their local population and coverage area, but anything they need or want beyond that standardized schedule must be purchased or received with brigade org funds.
Brigades are not legal entities; they are owned, created and managed by the RFS – see https://emergencylaw.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/how-autonomous-are-nsw-rural-fire-brigades/
In your blog post of 2015 you state that “in reality, there are no such brigades”. This is incorrect. Each of the 3 brigades I was in over my 20 year membership was formed before the RFS act was brought down in 1997.
Each had a committee (President, treasurer, secretary etc) and ran independently. Granted they weren’t dealing with much money, assets or equipment but they existed and membership by dues was required.
I cannot speak for the restructure of 2 that merged, but one remains as it was. Whilst their issued equipment and issued vehicles remain the property of the NSW RFS, anything donated or bought by the independent organization would need to be donated liquidated if the brigade ever lost endorsement due to membership dropping below the required minimum.
Historically Brigades formed themselves or were formed by councils, but that’s not the case now. That may be there historical roots but there are no longer brigades operated by local authorities. The Brigades are not legal entities so anything donated is the property of the state. I’m not going to trace all the transitional arrangements that brought bush fire brigades into the RFS but it’s the State of New South Wales that is the legal entity that owns and operates brigades.
I know the history. I was there in 1997 when our Brigade secretary, also a solicitor, briefed us all on the changes. I believe our definition of a brigade differs – the NSW may own the vehicles and equipment, even the equipment beyond the scheduled equipment that gets donated, but the people are the brigade.
If the brigades are part of the RFS, why do my former brigades retain active ABN registrations? If it is one entity, they would not need individual ABN registrations and they could be allowed to expire.
I have thought on it and when the brigades i was a part of merged (actually they simply decided to dissolve one brigade and become part of the larger) there was no permission needed for the people side of this to happen. The brigade committee did advise the local Superintendent what had happened and the vehicles and equipment was transferred across but the service had no control over the committee decision. Yes they could have withdrawn the assets, but they didn’t.
I have seen some instances of equipment being withdrawn from a brigade where the required certifications were not maintained (breathing apparatus, chainsaws etc) however in those cases the equipment remained in district and the brigade committee was advised that due to the equipment being bought via community donations, if the brigade returned
Brigades are not seperate legal entities. With the passage of the RFS Act ‘A bush fire brigade formed or organised for a bush fire district under the Bush Fires Act 1949 immediately before the commencement of section 15 is taken to be the rural fire brigade for the district as constituted as a rural fire district under this Act. (Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) Schedule 3, cl 5(1)). As a rural fire brigade it is subject to the direction and control of the Commissioner noting that the power to form and disband brigades has been delegated to him ‘Under section 4.2(a) of the Rural Fire District Service Agreements (RFDSAs) and sections 15 to 17 of the Rural Fires Act 1997 (the Act) the functions of the Local Authority in the formation and disbandment of Brigades has been conferred on the Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS).’
Sure the people are the brigade, but they are members of the Brigade because their names is recorded by the RFS (s 20). The brigade constitution is set by the RFS, the members are subject to the orders and discipline of the RFS etc. I have no idea why your former brigades retain an ABN – see https://emergencylaw.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/1792/
‘The amount of freedom left to a brigade is determined by the Commissioner …’
I would suspect there is a very good reason. If you do an ABN search for fire brigade or fire service there’s lots of them, and I’m sure if it’s not required, the accountant who does the audit every year for the brigade would tell them “hey you don’t need this anymore”.
We were always told that anything donated to or purchased with money donated to the brigade did become the Property of the RFS, but it would remain assigned to that brigade unless the brigade was disbanded. Anyhow I would suspect the existence of the Trust indicates this has been thought out.
As a volunteer, I can promise that lots of the equipment that civilians think “should” be part of a brigades standard equipment, most definitely isn’t and the sudden influx may in fact allow the trust to expand on their charter of providing disaster relief, along with provide extra funding to equip brigades with things like respirators that don’t require air cylinders or training to use but do improve health and safety, or camelbacks for hydration that would otherwise pose an insurmountable financial impact.
An ABN is required if ‘if the Brigade wishes to accept tax deductible donations in its own right’ (Brigade Constitution cl 10; https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/8842/2.1.2-Brigade-Constitution-v3.0.pdf). That does not make the Brigade a legal entity. An ABN is not the same as incorporation.
How the money to the trust can be spent will depend on the terms of the donation; but the donation won’t be to particular brigades. If it’s to the RFS then it can be spent on RFS purposes, so if the RFS says ‘great, let’s supply respirators that we weren’t providing before’ they could ask the trust to fund that. But the RFS says it’s not supplying respirators as it hasn’t done the assessment required and they think PS2 masks are adequate; not because they haven’t got the money. So if a brigade (or brigades) asks the trust to buy them but the RFS says ”we’re not going to issue them’ then several possibilities arise. First the trust can’t use money donated ‘to the RFS’ for that purpose if the RFS says it doesn’t want to spend it that way (any more than the trust can use money donated to a brigade in ways not requested by the brigade). Or if the trustees think that within the terms of the trust deed and the donation they can spend it that way there’ll be two entities supplying the RFS. That may well lead to conflict if, for example, the trustees buy equipment that the RFS as the PCBU says cannot be issued to firefighters. That sort of money would certainly give the trustees a lot of influence but they cannot simply start funding brigades without regard to the wishes of the RFS which are based on issues other than money.
Remember that the ‘government’ does not actually decide how the RFS budget is spent. The money goes to the RFS and the RFS makes decisions on how to spend it. If there’s equipment that should be provided that isn’t then it’s the RFS making that decision rather than the Premier and Cabinet. A donation of $12m (or more) to the Central Fund is a donation to the RFS. The RFS and not the brigades will (in collaboration with the trustees and in accordance with the trust deed and the terms attached to the donation, if any) get to decide where the money is spent.
Well I’m glad I read this, thank you!! Amazing how much stuff can change in 5 years after not changing for so long.
I have been trying to find a charter for the Trust online but nothing shows up. The description of the trust includes disaster relief and implies Australia wide, not just NSW. Given the magnitude of the incoming donation compared to their 2019 financial statement I’m sure there will be some VERY strong scrutiny of how the money gets disbursed.
I’m curious the impact this may have on RFS funding in the future. What is the likelihood in future years that the treasury will look and see they have enough money sitting in the RFS bank accounts and their cut funding?
That is indeed a critical question and the point made by Gittins in his article linked to from my post.
Money in brigade bank accounts from fund raising tends to be only around the few thousand dollar mark. At my brigade that has to pay for the likes of the brigade computer and internet conection in order for incident reportsd to be lodged as well as station furniture including lockerss and any additional equipment that the RFS RFFF is not able to supply due to insufficient funding allocation..
It’s interesting the NSW ambulance also solicits and accepts donations. https://www.ambulance.nsw.gov.au/get-involved/donations-and-sponsorship
And they don’t have the guaranteed funding that agencies like NSW RFS, FRNSW and SES have where the budget, once approved must be met at least in part, by local government and insurers.
NSW SES as well accepts monetary donations. https://www.ses.nsw.gov.au/get-involved/donations/
Thanks for your article – interesting as always. I note your key point (and Ross Gittins) that RFS is or should be government funded.
Whilst I am from another state, the RFS is probably in the same boat that we are. It is not possible for Government to fund everything. Therefore, volunteers have to fundraise for themselves. Necessary equipment paid for by volunteer brigades includes some things you might consider basics, such as chainsaws (and the associated protective clothing) and, where not otherwise provided, breathing apparatus.
Where a brigade only has one government-issue tanker, which can be deployed elsewhere at any time at the direction of the fire service management, the brigade may deem it prudent to protect their community by purchasing another tanker. That won’t be funded by Government.
One issue in particular is the vital command vehicles used by strike team leaders and division commanders. These are rarely, if ever, funded by the Government. The volunteers have to fundraise to purchase these vehicles themselves. In addition, they often have to fund the basic maintenance of these vehicles – for example, a full set of tyres on a 4WD ruined on a deployment is a substantial cost – and is not always covered by Government.
Forward communications vehicles are often not funded by Government. And these vehicles, with their increasingly sophisticated information and communications equipment, are not cheap.
So whilst it is correct to say that all these things should be funded by Government, this is often not the case. Volunteers are not out there fundraising because they want to or because they enjoy it – it’s because they have to in order to protect their communities.
So spare a thought for the volunteer firefighters – and a dollar or two – next time you see them out there shaking the tins. It’s you they are thinking about.
Eric, I agree with most of that. I’m not sure what state you are in, and I cannot say for sure but what I know of the RFS I would suggest that command vehicles, tyres etc are paid for by the RFS. But the issue is that the massive fund currently being raised for donation to the RFS fund is not being donated to particular brigades it is said it will be donated to the RFS. The trustees will ultimately decide what it is spent on but if it is for the RFS it will go to the RFS who are still subject to all the constraints of spending in effect public money. Putting money in the bucket that is being held by a local RFS member is quite different to donating $12m (now more) to ‘the RFS’.
This post was not about putting money in a bucket (though Gitten’s article was) but about donating a huge some of money to one government agency, in one state.
I and my firefighters have deployed into areas of QLD and NSW as part of this Nation Wide Disaster and it is disheartening to see that none of this money will ever benefit my firefighters or any firefighters in any agency outside of NSWRFS.
In other words, CFS, CFA, WAFB, ACTRFS TFS or RFSQ will dip out.
When you consdider that NSW RFS is the best funded volunteer fire service whose Commissioner has already made it very clear that they have more than enough funds, it means that those who need it most get nothing.
Totally agree, Ned. I was searching for more transparency of this particular donation process and came across this excellent article by Michael Eburn. Kudos to Ms Barber for galvanising the public to donate to such an extent, but I don’t think she understands the nature of trusts in general and the RFS in particular. I wish she’d read the article! As a resident of Victoria I will donate directly to CFA and local wildlife rescue organisations.
Having donated a small amount via the Facebook campaign this morning (to ask a question of the Facebook campaign you need to donate something), I note that it’s not clear whether the PayPal Giving Fund (ABN 65 106 950 945) will siphon of fees of around 30c per donation plus 1.75%, or whether these don’t apply. The documentation is anything but clear, with different rules for different countries, and variations depending on whether the charity is registered with PayPal. Facebook itself doesn’t appear to put their hand in the jar. The average donation at this time is around $40 which is both considerable and commendable, but with over 20M raised, the prospect of a credit card merchant taking such a large slice should also be scrutinised and disclosed upfront.
Of greater concern however, is the lengthy time the funds will take to be disbursed to the RFS. My receipt indicates it may be transferred as late as April, by which time I’d expect the fires will be out.
According to https://m.facebook.com/help/2265228917040271/ if the charity is a verifiable charity via public records and gets themselves registered with the PayPal Giving Fund, Facebook covers all the fees so 100% of donation goes to target.
Celeste Barber is a third party who raises donations for registered charities. Her fundraiser has raised an amazing amount of money for the fires. The $40 million raised can take up to 90 days to be passed on to the relevant charity via the PayPal Giving Fund. Where does this money sit in the meantime, and who is befitting from it??
Mr Eburn, this piece is wonderful and pointed. I’d very much love to republish it on our site. If you are interested, please contact me on the supplied email! Thank you!
So far I believe RFS QLD Has received 1/2 mil. Considering how EFSQ is far less funded than NSWRFS, that we have been fighting these fires here and south of the border since August, there I thought maybe this links would be appropriate
If you designate a brigade, 100% of all money will go to that brigade.
Our association is self funded and employs local people.
This year, the association has donated 6 light attack appliances to brigades without a truck.
Thank you for this. My household was only just wondering where the money goes.
Thank you, I’m glad people are being so generous but can’t help but think maybe this one should be closed now. Another more specifically for victims and paying volunteers over their 20 days should be created as i dont believe people understand who they are donating to.
There’s a problem coming up that needs to be addressed: the fundraiser Celeste has now put out on Instagram that she will be splitting up the donations and doling it out to various OTHER charities, not just the RFS NSW. She said people have asked her to give some to the Red Cross, WIRES, Vic and Qld firies, and direct donations to families of firefighters killed in action etc. That is not what my donation was for. I want donations to fund the actual Rural Fire Service of NSW as stated on the fundraising page.
Is that legal? Is that obtaining money for one reason and using it for another, is that obtaining money under false pretences, is that not fraud? Is that right?
Why on earth does this bother you? It seems to be the most logical conclusion to this complex issue. Do you really believe that all 35 million of this money should go to nsw and none to any of the other hard hit communities. RFS is the most heavily funded fire service in the country and tehir commisionar has stated they have more than enough funds. if it makes you feel any better just assume your monies are going to nsw and other peoples are going elsewhere.
I can tell you that Many many people donating were under the assumption this money was going nationwide.
Ryan, I don’t understand your question ‘Why on earth does this bother you?’ Nor your comment generally. I’m not sure who you are addressing. I appreciate that ‘Many many people donating were under the assumption this money was going nationwide’ hence this post addressing the issue. I’m really not sure what point you are making.
Celeste has said on her Instagram page that the money will now be dispersed across all states and towards different things 🤷🏼♀️
Does the Trustee have discretion to use funds raised for disaster relief?
Prima facie, no; but one would have to see the trust deed to know for sure – see https://emergencylaw.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/diverting-facebook-donations/
I just want to confirm if the Trustee has the ability to donate any of this to the communities that have been almost wiped out, or families who have lost their home, or is it in fact only for the Fire Brigades and equipment/personnel etc?
No, the money is only for the RFS brigades, see https://emergencylaw.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/diverting-facebook-donations/
Thanks very much!
Michael Eburn, thanks very much for this informative and timely article!
The amount of this fund which is going to the “well funded” NSWRFS NOW EXCEEDS the entire budget of Queenslands RFS
A really important issue is raised here. The RFS does a stella job. But what about the communities and people left behind beyond the fires. Directing donations to communities would empower their recovery. We are working with organic & biodynamic farmers, shoulder to shoulder. Support direct action, where the majority if not all funds gets to those that need it most.
This was identified and sadly the choice of Ms Barber of where the crowd funding went was originally the right one which was to benefit the NSW Rural Fire service volunteers, however, amidst the fanfare of her success in attracting some huge donors, Ms Barber did not change her funding.
NSWRFS were very clear and upfront about the trust into which his donation was being made and could not breach the terms of the trust.
Ms Barber had a few people telling her that the money was going somewhere that had very specific rules around the use of it’s funds but she failed to act. She could have closed that fundraiser when she reached the 30k goal. and started a new one with a different beneficiary but she did not.
The NSWRFS has always wanted to be able to distribute such a large amount beyond the constraints of the funds guidelines and chose to take the matter to the courts in order to do so.
Unfortunately the court could not force the change.
I think it is unfair to blame the NSWRFS for their part in this. They are very aware of their need to be accountable to ethical standards especially with such a high profile and large dollar amount.