2019-2020 Australian bushfires – 12 months on

Australian bushfires are a widespread and regular occurrence, shaping our culture and landscape throughout history. Every year experts set out to learn and improve fire management practices for the future.  In the wake of the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, what we knew of bushfires changed forever.

The bushfire season started earlier than usual in 2019. Reports of the first major fires started coming in around June. Fortunately, firefighters were able to keep these unseasonably early fires under control. By the beginning of September 2019, the situation had worsened. Existing conditions were already dangerous and the continuing extreme drought affected 95% of New South Wales (NSW). The parched conditions and summer heat made the likelihood of a large-scale bushfire far greater. As the fires continued to spread and became uncontrollable, the devastation escalated quickly.

For the communities, landscape and wildlife, the aftermath was difficult to comprehend. By March 2020, over 17 million hectares of land had been destroyed, over 3000 homes lost, and there were tragically 35 deaths. Authorities also estimate 1 billion animals were killed in the fires. In addition to the fires themselves, the resulting smoke plumes severely impacted air quality across the country. The long term impact on health from the smoke alone is unknown. One thing is clear, the environmental and social impact of the Australian Bushfires in 2019-2020 will be with us for many years to come.

Australian bushfire donations

In such desperate times,  bushfire relief donations provided much-needed hope for causes and communities in need. The intensity and scale of the fires was an incredible motivator for generosity from donors in Australia and around the world. From children selling cakes, to large corporations and celebrities, people showed their support through charitable giving. Authorities estimate the total amount raised is over $640 million, a significant amount of funding for charities supporting those in need.

Perhaps the most heart-warming statistic about Australian bushfire relief donations is the record levels of participation.  A survey undertaken by the Fundraising Institute of Australia in January 2020 indicated that 53% of Australians donated to a bushfire relief appeal, giving an average of $50 each. It is unlikely we have ever seen participation rates on that scale ever before.

With such generosity comes a longer-term opportunity for charities. Remarkably, 37% of donors during this period donated to and built new relationships with charities they had never engaged with before. In addition, 88% of donors said they would give to the charity they supported again. As recovery efforts continue in communities affected by the Australian bushfires, charities would be wise to continue to engage with these new and willing donors.

Charitable giving and international support

The sheer scale of the Australian bushfires in 2020 also stimulated global generosity. Live footage of the bushfires on news channels and social media gave people heartbreaking insight. With our citizens, iconic bushlands and wildlife under threat, international donors were motivated to take action.

The outpouring of support from around the globe was extraordinary. CAF America and Charities Aid Foundation in partnership with Good2Give, enabled donors from the US and UK to deliver $3.6 million AUD ($2.6 million  USD) to Australian charities supporting communities impacted by the bushfires. In a time of great crisis, the outpouring of international support, and international donations, was remarkable.

International grantmaking, particularly from the United States, is a very complex and detailed process that takes time. US law requires extensive due diligence processes before granting to foreign organizations. This can create significant challenges in facilitating disaster relief grants as quickly as possible. The partnership between Good2Give and CAF America was crucial in rapidly delivering large volumes of relief funding to communities in need. Through our expedited grantmaking partnership, CAF America granted over $2.2 million AUD ($1.7 million USD) to Good2Give, who managed due diligence and distributed funds locally.  The importance of our international network cannot be overstated, particularly in expediting disaster relief grantmaking.

Australian bushfire charities

With such a fast, and massive, growth in donations, some organisations found the initial influx of support challenging. Approximately a third of all donations went to larger more well-known organisations such as Australian Red Cross, The Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul. Whilst they already had staff and systems in place, ensuring donations went quickly to those in genuine need was still an enormous undertaking.

Undoubtedly the most high profile charity recipient was the NSW Rural Fire Service Trust (NSW RFS Trust). With distressing scenes of bushfire affected areas being shared on social media in real time, the work of the Rural Fire Service was in the spotlight. Thanks to high profile support from celebrities such as Celeste Barber, funds rolled in from around the world. The influx of donations in early 2020 required the NSW RFS Trust to change rapidly.

The volume of donations, and what those funds could be used for, was bound by legal requirements. This highlighted the need for clarity, and strong governance, to ensure donors understood what was possible.  Since their inception in 2012, up to this point NSW RFS Trust had distributed approximately $1.5 million.  Thanks to much high profile support, they are now tasked with distributing over $116 million in Australian bushfire relief charitable donations. They have worked steadily to ensure changes in processes and governance are up to the task.

Governance for bushfire charities

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission conducted a review of three Australian charities. With giving reaching record levels, it was both a positive time and one of great challenge. For organisations such as the Australian Red Cross, with existing access to skills and expertise, the release of funds and information was relatively smooth. Smaller organisations such as WIRES, were less familiar with the territory.

WIRES has been rescuing and caring for Australian wildlife for almost 35 years. When the impact on wildlife became public knowledge, charitable donations skyrocketed. The amount of donations was a staggering thirty times more than the previous year. Such a rapid increase in available funds also came with a new-found international profile. As a result, WIRES, like many other charities, have refocused on expanding their operations and activity to ensure funds are managed and distributed appropriately.

Australian Bushfires 2020 facts

$640 million donated to charities, Of the $8 million donated via Good2Give: 45% of donations came from CAF America and Charities Aid Foundation (UK), 40% were workplace giving donations, 92% of employee workplace giving donations were matched by companies, 28% of all workplace giving donations were recurring donations to support ongoing bushfires relief efforts

Bushfires donations have brought hope

Australian Red Cross Bushfires Support

In their recent Australian Bushfires Report, the Australian Red Cross shared the impact bushfire donations have made to the individuals and communities in their care.

To date, Australian Red Cross has distributed a remarkable $207 million, the majority of the $240 million they received specifically as a result of Australian bushfire relief donations. These funds are providing both immediate and longer-term support.

During the fires, the Australian Red Cross supported almost 50,000 people at 176 evacuation and relief centres, as well as via phone support. They have now distributed grants helping almost 6,000 people meet urgent medical needs or secure a safe place to live.

Their focus was not only on the immediate needs of communities affected, but on the lengthy recovery process ahead.  Red Cross developed a dedicated program, which has helped almost 22,000 people get back on their feet. They have supported training for over 5,000 government and community services staff as ongoing support for disaster-affected communities.

Australian Red Cross: Peter and Nirbeeja’s Story

Last summer’s fires destroyed almost half of Kangaroo Island. Peter and Nirbeeja escaped with their lives and some essentials, everything else was lost. “Going through a disaster affects you so much more deeply, mentally and emotionally than you could ever expect,” says Peter. “Surviving day to day, staying sane, staying positive and just looking after your own wellbeing takes so much of your energy.” Yet Peter and Nirbeeja are quick to speak of good things, too. They’ve taken comfort in the generosity they have seen.  “Complete strangers who donated to the Red Cross, who wouldn’t know us from a bar of soap, but they’ve all given financially, that has been an amazing help for us this year, because it has taken the pressure off,” Peter reports. “Whenever we’ve needed money to do things, it’s been there.” The bushfire grants the couple received helped them to rebuild their shed - where they will live in until they can get their house rebuilt – install a solar system, rebuild their orchard, and buy essential household items, such as a fridge, beds, and tools for rebuilding. “We’ve had amazing help from everyone … the giving from humanity has really blown me away, and Red Cross has been a huge, huge help,” Nirbeeja concludes.

Australian bushfire charities working for the future – WIRES wildlife recovery efforts

As Australia’s largest wildlife rescue organisation, WIRES are an ‘always on’ organisation.  Their dedicated 24/7 Rescue Office operates all year round, with over 3,000 volunteers available to help the community.  In the prior year, WIRES had received $3.4 million in donations.  As a direct result of the Australian bushfires 2020 their donations topped a staggering $91 million. With so many animals and ecosystems affected by the bushfires, there is a huge task ahead for organisations in this area.  WIRES have refocused their efforts on short and long-term projects and are using the incredible resource their Australian bushfires 2020 donations provided.

Following the Black Summer bushfires last year, WIRES have invested significant resources into developing projects that will protect our native animals. With the main goal of the protection and conservation of Australian fauna and habitat, WIRES have established programs and partnerships with other organisations. They have also dramatically improved their emergency response capacity and their programs to support threatened species programs. Donations have enabled them to significantly upscale support for carers and vets nationally, funding much needed research and training more wildlife volunteers. WIRES have commented “We are extremely grateful for the support received both here in Australia and internationally and we are fully committed to using this opportunity to improve the outcomes for our native animals now and in the future. As the largest wildlife rescue organisation in Australia, WIRES is also focused on developing a national network by enhancing state-based systems and improving the structures and support for wildlife rescue and care.