November 29, 2016 – The Daily Telegraph published an exclusive by Kelly Burke that sent ripples through the commercial fund raising industry in NSW.
On this occasion, the fund raising activities of the Rural Fire Service Association (RFSA) were under attack.
The flow-on effect from this article serves as a reminder for all fund raising groups to ensure that they are operating with a clear conscience.
This series of posts will attempt to pull back the covers on the RFSA fund raising activities and share stories from others who raised concerns long before the VFFA began to poke it with the media stick.
Splash & Burn
This story by Kelly Bourke was the catalyst for further debate, it lead to numerous radio and television interviews and a number of reactive media releases and replies from those in the firing line.
The front page of the Daily Telegraph had this to say:
Cash meant for hero volunteers goes up in smoke
A staggering $20 million in public donations meant to help volunteer firefighters has been swallowed up by private telemarketers or poured into shares and property.
The Daily Telegraph can reveal up to 58c in every dollar raised for the Rural Fire Service Association through raffle tickets and donation drives – a whopping $13.7 million over three years – has been chewed up by fundraising company Contact Centres Australia.
The association, set up to support NSW’s 75,000 battling volunteer fire fighters, has ploughed a further $7.7 million into a bulging investment portfolio. Fuming volunteers say they cash is being raised in their name but brigades see only a tiny fraction.
Rural Fireys’ Smoking Fund
Call centres cash in as front-line brigades lose out
Rural fireys have slammed a funding debacle in which only 16 per cent of the $25 million raised to support volunteer firefighters in the last three years has gone to help the 75,000 men and women in the state’s country brigades.
Instead almost 58c in every dollar donated via raffle ticket sales and donation drives — $13.7 million — has gone to commercial telemarketer Contact Centres Australia.
The NSW Rural Fire Service Association, a registered charity set up to support volunteer fireys in the Rural Fire Service, has also spent a further $7.7 million on a substantial property and shares portfolio.
The figures, reported in the 2016 financial statements disclosed to the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission, have the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, furious.
“If the public knew how little we get and how much money they are sitting on, I don’t think they would give so generously,” said Mick Holton, captain of the Cooma RFS brigade and president of the breakaway volunteers association that now has almost 10,000 members.
Note: Mick Holton is not the captain of Cooma RFS brigade but he is the president of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (VFFA). Mick is a volunteer attached to the Dry Plain rural fire brigade (near Cooma).
When approached for comment, both the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and the Emergency Services Minister David Elliott distanced themselves from the NSW Rural Fire Service Association, claiming that the charity had nothing to do with the government.
The association (RFSA) was established by the government’s then director-general of the NSW Bush Fire Service Phil Koperberg 20 years ago.
In addition to the 75,000 volunteers, 855 public servants employed by the government’s NSW Rural Fire Service automatically become members of the association when they are employed.
The NSW Rural Fire Service’s budget for 2015-16 was $362 million. The namesake association, through its fundraising activities, performs a similar role to a public school’s P&C, filling the funding gaps. The charity’s executive vets the grant applications and disburses the funding as it sees fit.
“The money just goes into a big slush fund and they divvy it up from there,” Brian Williams, captain of the Kurrajong Heights brigade, said.
“We’ve tried raising funds ourselves locally but the common response from people is ‘but we’ve already given’.”
At a meeting at Parliament House on November 10 last year, three Volunteer Fire Fighters Association delegates attempted to raise their concerns with the minister.
But the meeting came to an abrupt end after Mr Elliott was accused of insultingly referring to volunteer fire fighters as “dad’s army”.
In its spruik to charities, Contact Centres Australia, which lists Rio Tinto and Colgate among its commercial clients, states “every dollar counts so our focus is to deliver highly effective campaigns and maximum value for money.”
It is the responsibility of the charity, however, to ensure it brokers a reasonable deal when outsourcing fundraising to commercial operators.
According to the Charitable Fundraising Act, a charity “must take all reasonable steps to ensure the expenses payable in respect of the appeal do not exceed 50 per cent of the gross income obtained, whether the appeal is conducted house-to-house, in a public place, by telephone canvassing or in any other manner.”
The charity’s CEO, Bernard Cox, said the call centre was hired to “maximise economies of scale in overheads”.
“The association focuses on supporting its members as opposed to operating a call centre,” he said.
The Daily Telegraph has spoken to the captains of a number of volunteer brigades across the state, with numerous tales of grants rejected.
“They are raising money using our good name, and most of the members don’t even get a say on where the money goes,” Glossodia brigade captain Graeme Jay said.
“What business has a charity got with property investments and share portfolios?”
But Mr Cox said income from investments was part of the charity’s policy to “diversify its fundraising activities”. In addition to the grants scheme, he said support was also provided to members through programs such as volunteers’ family days and scholarships.