Celeste’s mistake in $51m drama


It's a simple mistake that's left bushfire victims reeling.

But nobody really reads the fine print, do they?

Comedian Celeste Barber certainly didn't do her due diligence before she announced the mammoth amounts of money she was raising amid Australia's bushfire crisis could go to other states and victims, other than the NSW RFS it was originally intended for.

To be fair, Barber only set out to raise $30,000 and ended up with $51.3 million.

Earlier this week the NSW Supreme Court ruled that the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and Brigades Donation Fund could not pay money to other charities or rural fire services - whether in NSW or elsewhere in Australia - to assist people or animals affected by bushfires.

"Some donors may have intended or hoped the money they donated would be used for purposes beyond those which the court has advised are permissible," Justice Michael Slattery said.

"Despite the trustees' wish to honour those intentions or hopes, the law provides principles that ensure a degree of certainty in the application of trust funds … and the court has applied these principles".


Celeste Barber speaks during the Fire Fight Australia bushfire relief concert in February. Picture: Joel Carrett/AAP
Celeste Barber speaks during the Fire Fight Australia bushfire relief concert in February. Picture: Joel Carrett/AAP


Victims said they were "appalled" by the decision, many of them still without homes after they were decimated in the fires.

Chris Darman lost everything in Malua Bay on the NSW south coast and thinks all of the money raised should go to the victims.

After the fundraiser went viral, Barber had indeed intended for money to go to victims.

"I'm going to make sure that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died in these fires, the wildlife," she said.

"I'm hearing you all. I want you to know that, otherwise why raise this money if it's not going to go to the people who absolutely need it."



But Barber fired off too early, and the problem in the outcome was hidden in the fine print.

"It's important to read the fine print and to understand what you can and can't do as part of a fundraiser," Krystian Seibert, of the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology, wrote for The Conversation.

"The main lesson is that if you're setting up a fundraiser, or looking to donate to a particular charity, do some due diligence first."

Mr Seibert said the national charities regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, had a free public register where you can look up information about individual charities.

Charity Commissioner Dr Gary Johns said people should always check where their money was being spent.

"If you're going to raise funds on behalf of a charity, then make sure you tell the story accurately, about what that charity will do with the money," he told Triple J's Hack.

"For the donor, take the time to just go one step beyond the immediate visual response, or response to the story, (and ask) … What charity am I really sending the money to? And does that suit my purposes?"

Barber never expected her fundraiser to attract $51.3 million. Picture: Hugh Stewart.
Barber never expected her fundraiser to attract $51.3 million. Picture: Hugh Stewart.


Mr Seibert said the issue also highlighted the need for simpler donation laws.

"Laws governing charities and philanthropy in Australia are complex," he said.

"If the federal government introduced simpler laws to regulate 'deductible gift recipients' (organisations that can receive tax deductible donations), then it's likely the problem with Barber's fundraising would have been easier to resolve.

"This is because the activities of organisations wouldn't need to be as tightly confined as they are currently required to be."

Mr Seibert said while it was important to do due diligence, celebrities could play an important role by using their platform to promote giving.

"Barber's bushfire fundraiser was a powerful example of this, and we shouldn't let the legal issues detract from it," he concluded.

The NSW RFS went to court over the enormous donation because it was trying not to "alienate a proportion of the population that gave so generously".

The law however, will allow the RFS to give some of the $51.3 million to the families of NSW volunteer firefighters killed during our horrific bushfire season.

RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers told the ABC Barber would have "full visibility" of where the money was spent.

"We express our extreme gratitude to Celeste Barber," Commissioner Rogers said.

"She did an incredible task, raising a huge amount of money for the RFS.

"I think I along with the community would join in thanking her very much and we will look forward to working with her and her team and making sure that she has full visibility of where all this money goes, so that she can report to her followers as far as who is given the money and what it's being used for."

Dr Johns said with about $500 million donated for different charities during the crisis, collectively it would all work out and it was unlikely anyone would miss out.


Originally published as Celeste's mistake in $51m drama

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