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Charities give assurances on the distribution of donations to bushfire appeals

Fighting hard: NSW Rural Fire Service crews work to save properties from looming fires along the Old Hume Highway near the town of Tahmoor, south-west of Sydney, on December 19. Photo: CNS/Dean Lewins, AAP via Reuters

FIRE-affected communities and members of parliament have taken out their frustration at what they labelled the sluggish pace of funds distributed from charities after months of bushfire appeals.

Speaking at a press conference in Bateman’s Bay, State Member for Bega Andrew Constance took aim at the charities for taking too long to distribute the money.

“The money is needed now, not sitting in a Red Cross bank account earning interest so they can map out their next three years and do their marketing,” Mr Constance said.

“We need a very real change, very quickly so that the money can get to those who need it most … people are on their knees and we can’t have a drip-feed.”

Mr Constance challenged the managing directors of the major charities to show up to Bateman’s Bay so he could personally drive them the “300km of devastation on the far south coast”.

“I’ll show you the people, you can look them in their eyes and you can see their despair and the destruction that this firebomb brought to our region,” he said.

“They better turn up, they better have the guts to show up and be with me … I’ll show them communities which haven’t been on the map, like Kiah, like Nerrigundah, like the back of Bemboka, like Cooma.”

St Vincent de Paul Society’s NSW and Canberra chief executive officers Jack de Groot and Barnie van Wyk accepted the invitation.

Both CEOs had already been visiting communities in the South Coast region prior to the invitation.

Vinnies issued a statement ahead of the Australia Day nationwide bushfire collection assuring donors that all the money donated would go to bushfire victims.

“Vinnies will not, and has never kept funds from disaster appeals for any other work or cause,” the statement said.

“During the bushfire crisis, Vinnies volunteers are on the ground in hundreds of communities across the country, helping people as they deal with the immediate aftermath of fires. 

“Our volunteers live and work in the impacted communities and will stay alongside those people affected for the long months of recovery ahead.”

Prior to the Australia Day collection, Vinnies’ bushfire appeal had raised $12.5 million and has distributed $2.4 million nationally.

The reason for the slow pace of delivery was because it took time to assess an individual’s need for the correct allocation of funds, the statement said.

Vinnies said no administration fees were taken from the appeal.

Getting the money to those who needed it was not as simple as mailing cash out, though.

So far the Australian Red Cross raised more than $115 million, with about $30 already allocated to grants.

On Twitter, the Red Cross said it was trying to make it as easy as possible to get money to bushfire victims but “sadly we’re also getting lots of fraudulent applications”.

The charity said they were getting about $1 million out each day, helping ease the process by heading out to affected communities with iPads and verifying applicant details. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was important the funds got to people as quickly as possible.

 “We are working with the state governments to assist the charities to do just that,” Mr Morrison said. “These are the charitable organisations that Australians have always had deep trust and respect for. 

“The Salvation Army, the Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul – these are trusted, respected, good-hearted organisations that have proved themselves in so many disasters, and that’s why we rely on them.”

Fears were stirred in part by an online fund started by comedian Celeste Barber that topped more than $50 million and had hit a standstill on delivery due to a 15 to 90-day processing period.

Many overseas donors believed the fund was a national bushfire appeal, not realising Australia’s fire services were directed state by state.

The online fund was directed towards The Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service and there remained a great deal of uncertainty about how the money would be spent.

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