“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 (at the time of writing, the figure is closer to $25 million – Ed.) That is indeed amazing and from what I have seen the money will go to The Trustee for the 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? and the posts that are linked there.

Some brigades can receive tax-deductible donations. For others, the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donations Fund was established:

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, ) 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).

 

Discussion

I’m all for community fundraising and supporting local fire brigades but I do hope people understand what they are donating to. Fire brigades in Australia are largely government-funded.

True enough brigades solicit donations, but the bulk of the 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.