Advocacy 101: Harnessing your campaign’s ambition, lessons from the 2019-2020 bushfires

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: 

  • Do your research. Look at the issue from a range of perspectives and investigate who is already involved, and how you can amplify existing voices or contribute to an outcome by filling an empty space. In some cases, being an effective advocate may involve using your platform to encourage people to support an existing campaign. In others, effective advocacy may look like establishing a new campaign that leverages your unique skills to fill a void.
  • If you’re fundraising for a particular cause, scope out which organisation most needs those funds or is best placed to distribute them. Consider how you can work with them to ensure they have capacity to receive the funds.
  • What is your goal and is it realistic? This includes consideration of both whether you can achieve your goal and whether you have the expertise and resources to manage the size and scope of the campaign. When you reach your goal, take a moment to reflect on your journey, whether the campaign has effectively ‘ended’ or can continue in some form.
  • Identify your target audience (decision makers) and your supporter audience. Depending on who you’re engaging in the campaign, you may find these thoughts on the best leverage points for change and a useful explainer on how to identify what policy portfolio or level of government you need to approach when beginning your advocacy journey useful. 
  • Use consistent and unambiguous messaging, don’t let the campaign or the message get away from you. 
  • Think about the opportunities for collaboration and support networks. Setting up a team can be useful for avoiding burnout and maintaining momentum. You can have a look at our last edition of Action Matters for more advice on staying motivated in advocacy. 
  • Evaluate your progress as you go and learn from your mistakes. If you don’t appear to be getting anywhere, take a moment to reflect on your goal and your messaging and consider recalibrating. Remember, sometimes what is needed for your campaign to succeed is simply outside of your control (ie. a change of government for example).  


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