14 December 2022
Amidst the heart-breaking devastation of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, Comedian Celeste Barber launched a Facebook fundraising campaign that quickly reached record-breaking success, amassing $51.3 million in donations to the NSW Royal Fire Service (RFS) and Brigades Trust. But to what success?
From an initial $30,000 fundraising goal to the receipt of more than $51 million in donations, Barber was clearly an effective spokesperson who leveraged her social platforms to great effect. By drawing on her supporter network, Barber demonstrated the power of using public channels to amplify a message and mobilise people around an emotive story. But what began as a desperate attempt to help a family living on the NSW South Coast soon became much more complicated as laws governing how donations can be spent limited the use of the outstanding sum, and Barber struggled to manage the enormity of the donations.
As donations rapidly surpassed Barber’s stated target, it became apparent funds outstripped the needs and capacity of the NSW RFS, which had already received significant donations from other campaigns to establish a $10 million fund “for volunteer brigades to tap into for firefighting equipment, resources and training”. If reaching her target wasn’t a sufficient endpoint, one might ask why Barber didn’t close the fundraiser down as the perils of its popularity came to light. Indeed, this decision prompts the question as to whether, in the end, the campaign became more about ego than a clear objective to direct funds where they were most needed. Why set up a new fundraising page rather than encourage followers to donate to existing organisations?
Despite these teething problems, how the campaign coped under pressure highlights the limitations of the campaign. As the fundraising target blew out, many donors began expressing hopes the funds could be on-donated to other charities supporting affected wildlife, families of people who died in the fires, and interstate fire services. Despite the fundraiser clearly stating that the recipient of all funds would be the NSW RFS and Brigades Trust, Barber took to Instagram to say, the funds would go to the RFS to be distributed to other organisations in need:
“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 [and] the wildlife.”
This on-donation arrangement, however, was simply not viable. At the request of the RFS, who were trying to honour the misguided intentions of donors, a NSW Supreme Court decision highlighted that under the legal parameters of charitable trusts, the funds could not be on-donated. Meaning all donations received via the campaign were left in limbo for months, and the funds were restricted to use only for the purchase and maintenance of fire-fighting equipment, training resources and facilities, and payment of administrative costs. Which is a stretch from the fundraising aims to provide immediate disaster relief for communities and wildlife affected by the fires.
Effective advocacy campaigns have the potential to raise the profile of important issues, mobilise public support, and organise action. However, as the Celeste Barber case highlights, if not bounded by adequate strategic planning and appropriately resourced with relevant expertise and capacity, campaigns can quickly spiral and risk having a detrimental impact on communities and personal brands. So, how do you ensure your campaign is both ambitious and manageable?
Though important to seize moments of public interest and leverage current affairs, it is equally critical campaigns are developed strategically to target the right audience, work to clear objectives, have consistent and clear messaging, and effectively utilise available resources. Whether fundraising for a cause or agitating for policy change, it is important to think about the longevity and sustainability of an advocacy campaign, as well as what your objectives are, and how the campaign strategy helps achieve them. To get you started, we’ve put together a few guiding questions to help you think about your strategy, messaging and resources: