FIA is calling for ‘shut down’ powers against illegal fundraisers and for the record to be set straight about the fundraising efforts of major bushfire relief charities.

bushfire fundraising scamsThe horrendous bushfires of this past summer took a dreadful toll on lives, livelihoods and property.

Fundraising was also damaged by an unprecedented level of online scams.

FIA is taking the opportunity provided by the ‘Bushfires’ Royal Commission to help plug the flow of donations to fake fundraisers, to address inadequate regulation of digital platforms such as crowdfunding, and to seek redress for charities unjustifiably targeted by politicians seeking a scapegoat.

The Royal Commission is both timely and appropriate. Its remit is broader than the 2019-20 bushfire disaster itself. By the end of August – in time for the next bushfire season – it is required to report on National Natural Disaster Arrangements as a whole.

FIA’s submission will highlight how a combination of circumstances hampered and undermined the fundraising efforts of major bushfire relief charities.

Natural disasters attract the worst of scammers. Australians still gave generously throughout the summer, but how much was lost to the bottom-feeders cannot be known.

The increase in digital fundraising and the Australian trend toward ‘need giving’ make natural disaster events an even bigger target for unscrupulous operators. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair, Rod Sims, issued a warning on 6 January this year about fake websites and social media sites, revealing how pervasive and insidious the charity scammers are and the problem they pose for genuine fundraisers. And it continues, as demonstrated by the more recent ACCC statement on COVID-19 scams.

“At best it was an untimely distraction; at worst a slur which threatened to undermine trust and confidence in all fundraisers and fundraising activity.”

The Royal Commission is charged with investigating what powers the Commonwealth needs to better address and respond to national natural disasters. FIA is recommending that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) be given powers to shut down and take civil action against illegal fundraisers and to regulate digital fundraising in conjunction with the states and territories.

The ‘shut down’ powers FIA is recommending are based on those already in existence for the ACMA to control and regulate illegal online gambling. The ACMA has had these powers for more than three years and has used them to shut down 16 of the most popular offshore wagering sites and 31 gaming sites targeting Australians. This will prevent scammers from creating lookalike sites and siphoning off much-needed donations to local charities.

FIA believes that the role it is recommending for the ACMA would provide effective natural disaster fundraising regulation and stem the leakage of donations to scammers.

We also hope the Royal Commissioners will condemn in the strongest terms the ill-timed and misinformed political campaign aimed at high profile charities that were front line responders to the disaster. At best it was an untimely distraction; at worst a slur which threatened to undermine trust and confidence in all fundraisers and fundraising activity.

The accusations ranged from failing to distribute funds quickly enough to damaging allegations that donations were being deliberately withheld from immediate relief work. The organisations robustly defended themselves and justified their actions at the time, but mud sticks.

This is why FIA is calling for the record to be set straight. A clear statement in that vein with the authority and prestige of a Royal Commission will be the best way to redress the damage and discourage this kind of gratuitous behaviour in future.

Katherine Raskob is the CEO of Fundraising Institute Australia. Previously she was Director of Communications and Customer Experience at the Australian Alliance for Data Leadership and Head of Group Marketing at SBS. Katherine is also a member of the board of directors of Girl Guides Australia.

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