Australian Bushfire Crisis Update

Newsflash: We’ve had such an overwhelming response to this Blog & provided with new information and insights.  Therefore, this is an updated blog of the one posted on 13 January.  We can only work with information as we find it, and things are changing daily. Thanks everyone for your contribution – this is community & compassion in action!

This blog is for:

This blog is for professionals working within the corporate & business sector – read this blog and send it to your CSR or Sustainability Manager (if you have one), Head of HR/People, Head of Marketing/Corporate Affairs/Comms – and get it to your Leader.  A response to the Australian Bushfire Crisis needs to be significant and swift. Tokenistic and slow may result in reputational damage, so the Leader (CEO/MD) must LEAD in this instance (and be seen to be leading) by staff and the community.


2019 ended with Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year being ‘climate emergency’.  This nomination reflects a sharp increase in global usage of a particular term or word.

Like you, I’ve struggled to come to terms with the devastation wreaked by fire across our beautiful land. It’s left an indelible scar on the nation, and the scale is immense. Nearly 11m hectares burned; more than 2,000 homes destroyed, 23 lives lost and an estimated 1b animals dead. Insurance claims have hit $700m[1], but the true cost will only reveal itself in time, and whether directly affected or not, you only need to look at the Twitter or Facebook feed to see how EVERY Australian is feeling.

Initial feelings of horror, helplessness and anger have transformed into an outpouring of community spirit, compassion and generosity.  Our resilience has shone through, the world has shown their love & support and true heroes & heroines have emerged.

There is still anger – and don’t underestimate the depth of it – this crisis has brought up a lot of pent-up anger & resentment about inequality, lack of bush fire preparedness, inaction on climate change and underpinning all of this is the highest levels of mistrust in the Government and Corporate Sectors [2]. Our PM underestimated the anger and it has damaged his reputation enormously, perhaps beyond repair.

Murals like this are appearing across Australia

Scott Morrison has pledged a $2b relief package to be injected into the newly formed national bushfire recovery fund over the next 2 years.

I’ve had a few phone calls from former clients wanting to know how to respond and, how to communicate the response. So, I’ve written this blog to provide a little guidance. I hope it helps, and my door (well, email) is always open to any company that wants to schedule a 1-hour call to chat through their strategy. No charge until the end of January 2020. This is the best way I can help and feel less useless, as I too watch in horror the aftermath from my green sanctuary in the Yarra Valley (we’re safe, for the moment anyway).

Why should your CEO read this?

I’ve spent 24 years at the frontline building 50 partnerships between companies & causes investing over $40m into the community sector. I have my finger on the pulse of the non-profit sector and I’ve worked with global CSR leaders such as Westpac, Disney Australia & Mondelez. I’ve authored 7 publications based on rigorous research (and tracking consumer attitudes towards corporates & Social Good & CSR for 2 decades). My recent book, Talking the Walk® – how to tell your Social Good story to resonate with Millennials (2019)[3], features over 200 stats from research reports around the world. I’d recommend that you grab your copy now as it has all the stats that back up much of what I’m about to say. And I’ll be straight with you, as always, so there is no ambiguity. Until the end of January 2020, use this code (TTWfree) and you won’t be charged the usual $79, it’ll be free.

The Business Response

 A co-ordinated response

Let’s bring you up to speed with the business response to date. The Business Council of Australia (BCA)[4] is co-ordinating the business response and they’re in collaboration with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency[5] headed by Andrew Colvin – so they have a good idea of what is really needed.  To date Business Council members have donated over $33m in cash & are providing much more in on-the-ground, practical support. Whilst the crisis has triggered a generous response from Australians, many of the organisations at the frontline are getting distracted with unskilled volunteers and products they can’t store.  So, the first and most important thing to do is ask what is needed, listen and then deliver.  Watch the BCA video here.

The BCA has founded the Australian Volunteer Support Trust to assist the families of volunteer firefighters who’ve lost their lives. They aim to raise $25m. So, if you would like to donate this is a good place to start. They have also set up a Community Rebuilding initiative chaired by General Sir Peter Cosgrove, which will act as an interface with federal & state authorities & established recovery agencies. It will run for 5 years and will include employment opportunities, financial relief and reconstruction support.


Support to date

  • Coles has contributed $3m including Gift Cards to more than 6,000 rural fire brigades, is collecting donations at checkouts and providing essential supplies to Foodbank
  • Energy Australia pledged $100,000 and suspended accounts of affected business & families
  • Vodafone Foundation is matching donations up to $250,000
  • AGL donated $200,000 & bill relief
  • BP Australia $635,000
  • Stockland $500,000
  • BUPA $140,000
  • Australian Unity $100,000
  • Bechtel Group Foundation donated $300,000
  • Brambles donated $500,000 across 4 charities – Foodbank, Australian Red Cross, Landcare & NSW Fire Service
  • Facebook donated $250,000 to the Red Cross and $1m to Global Giving
  • GE has donated $364,000 to the Red Cross
  • Gilbert + Tobin donated $200,000 to the Red Cross
  • HSBC $200,000 to Australian Red Cross and WWF
  • IBM over $1m in cash and in kind
  • JBS $1m to support children of volunteers who’ve died fighting fires
  • Jemena & Zinfra donated $30,000 to Australian Red Cross
  • JP organ $300,000 to the Red Cross
  • Lendlease $500,000 to the Red cross and have pledged to match a further $500,000 from staff donations
  • Lion Dairy & Drinks have pledged $1m
  • Optus have a range of initiatives: matching staff donations, waived bills for all volunteer & SES firefighters, a hotline for volunteer firefighters as well as providing financial help, providing comms at evacuation centres and pre-paid mobile phones to those in crisis areas & offering counselling services

Many of these companies have also pledged to match staff fundraising/donations, are providing uncapped leave to volunteers, and pledging to hold company meetings & events in affected areas.

Beer community

In the true Aussie spirit, The Beer community are co-ordinating numerous events and fundraisers as well as brewing a bespoke Resilience Beer.



Erin Lehman managed to keep her kids busy by drawing a thank you sign for the CFA

  • EY has donated $100,000
  • Light n Easy has donated $450k
  • Deloitte has raised over $200k through staff
  • Lendlease has pledged $500k in matching staff donations
  • The AFL has pledged $2.5m plus a one-off State of Origin match next month & collect donations during the 2020 season.
  • McDonald’s has donated $500k to the Australian Red Cross Disaster Relief & Recovery fund and are matching employee donations. They’ve set up in-restaurant donations to enable customers to donate and have provided 20,000 free meals in impacted areas and distributed thousands of bottles of water to firefighters

McDonalds Fire & Rescue

  • Citi Foundation has pledged $360,000
  • Clayton Utz $200,000
  • Downer have donated $50,000 to the BCA Rebuilding initiative
  • Dulux Group is donating $200,000 to the Red Cross and RSPCA $100,000
  • Zurich & OnePath are matching 50c for every $1 donated to the Red Cross up to $500,000
  • Cotton On have contributed over $670,000 through the Foundation and staff & customer donations

Coca Cola is working with Foodbank to distribute food, discounts to affected small businesses, warehousing & logistics team to provide relief as well as donating $1m from the Foundation for The Salvos, $250k for rural fire services and matching up to $375k in staff donations.  Officeworks is delivering food & water to volunteers on the ground, Qantas & Virgin are providing free flights for volunteers.


PayPal sent out a direct mail confirming a donation of $500,000 to Red Cross, Vinnies & WIRES on 18 January and yet are embroiled in controversy over Celeste Barber’s Appeal due to their policy of withholding funds for 90 days.  This is seen as ‘giving with one hand and taking with the other’.

Hopefully PayPal will overturn this policy on this occasion to ensure funds are released asap to avoid a PR disaster.

An inspiring response has come from individuals.

  • The Hemsworth’s, Sir Elton John & Kylie Jenner donated $1m
  • Pink, Nicole Kidman/Keith Urban, Justin Hemmes & the Minogue sisters have each pledged $500k
  • Rock band Metallica pledged $750k
  • Others are using their influence and reach to raise money – the legend that is Comedian Celeste Barber has a Facebook fundraiser which to date has raised a staggering $51m (which is incredible, but to put into context, it costs $30m to run our fire service for 2 weeks)[6]. She’s also called out the billionaires who donated to the Notre Dame fire to step up. There’s some controversy around it however (see above), hopefully this will be resolved soon

Celeste Barber Facebook Fundraiser Australian Bushfire Crisis

  • Mining billionaire Twiggy Forrest has donated $70m to bushfire relief with $50m earmarked for preventative efforts & research
  • The Paul Ramsay Foundation has contributed $30m
  • Crown/The Packers donated $5m
  • Leonardo DiCaprio $3.4m
  • Nick Cave & Warren Ellis have donated $500k
  • Bette Midler donated $500k
  • Shane Warne put his baggy green cap up for auction. It was bought for $1,007,500 by Commonwealth Bank (CBA). They plan on taking the cap on a national tour to raise additional funds, before donating it to the Don Bradman Museum.

If you are a small business, I’d recommend donating to one of the credible appeals featured here, and you’ll receive a tax donation. To donate to the volunteer fireies in the affected states go to CFA Vic, NSW Rural Fire Service, SA CFS Foundation and Queensland Rural Fire Brigade

At the beginning of the crisis in November 2019, John & Pauline Gandel donated $1m and the Pratt Foundation has tipped in $1m.

CEO of Apple, Tim Cook (who donated $7m to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey and $10m to victims of earthquake in China), said on Twitter in December that he’ll donate to bush fire relief but with no mention of how much. On 10 January Apple declared they were ‘accepting’ donations from customers but so far there’s been no mention of Apple’s direct contribution. This is a PR stuff up, you do not go public with a pledge to donate and then 3 weeks later become a portal for donations.

Small companies are stepping up

Peter Sheppard footwear gave $50 for every pair of shoes sold on a weekend.

The Petbarn Foundation have pledged $1.2 to animal welfare organisations and are donating food and supplies to wildlife rescue & emergency sites for vets volunteering.

I acknowledge all those companies that have contributed but have done so quietly.

The retail sector

45 local and international retailers banded together to donate all profits from sales on 9 January to the Australian Red Cross.  Called the “ALL IN” initiative it included Afterpay, the Iconic, Stussy, Lacoste, eBay, Temple & Webster, Wrangler, Ugg, General Pants and numerous others.

JB Hi-Fi donated $150k and matched donations made by staff.  Just Group has donated $250k. Myer donated $470k combining corporate cash & customer donations, Rebel Sport and Supercheap Auto have donated $250k. Outdoor retailer Kathmandu is donating $20k of products to the Red Cross and is matching customer donations. Country Road has donated $100k and the UK’s Marks & Spencer donated 100% of profits on 10 January to several charities including NSW RFS and Red Cross. Jeff Bezoz, CEO of Amazon, has pledged $1m on behalf of the on-line retailer and Mecca, the Aussie beauty retailer, has donated $100k to the Australian Red Cross. David Jones donated $100k, L’Oreal $100k, The Bodyshop $25k, The Accent Group $100k.

NSW Rural Fire Service volunteers Bob (left) and Greg Kneipp, a father and son, embrace after successfully defending a property in Torrington, near Glen Innes.

Big charities under fire

As of today, 23 January, 3 charities that have raised the most money for Bushfire affected communities are under fire for ‘stockpiling’ the cash – The Australian Red Cross, The Salvos and Vinnies.  The Australian Red Cross CEO, one of the largest Bushfire Appeals to date collecting over $115m, went on the Today show to address these concerns.

This is the second time that Australian red Cross have been under fire for withholding funds the last time was after the Bali bombings when a large chunk of the money donated for the victims remained unallocated 2 years later. Only time will tell what impact this has on the reputation of Australian Red Cross and the entire charity sector, and the generosity of the Australian public.

My only comment on this situation is to quote the famous saying from Paul J Alessi “there are two sides to every story and the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle”.

The fact is, the general public don’t understand the complexity of getting money to people in a crisis, and the importance of ensuring that the right people get it, not scammers.  The Red Cross would be criticised for handing out money without doing due diligence.  People also don’t understand that charities must use some of the funds for administration – it’s simply naive to think that they should pay their staff wages and costs from other appeals.

On the flip side, having worked with numerous non profit organisations over 24 years, I’ve noticed that some of the very large charities have significant hierarchy and unnecessary procedure, and can be frustratingly slow compared to entrepreneurs & business.

I believe that non-profits have a great deal to learn from business (efficiency, use of technology, future planning, change management, automation, scalability, monetising IP), just as business has a great deal to learn from non-profits (compassion, listening, empathic leadership).  I see partnerships in the future being far more integrated with exchange of skills not just resources, and I look forward to playing a role in that.

What you CAN do

√  Donate money and tell people how much.  Giving firm Benojo have produced an excellent guide on all the credible organisations that you can donate to, and ProBono have a Giving Guide.

√   Support staff to fundraise for a credible appeal and match the donations

√  Give paid leave to any staff who are volunteer firefighters, are directly affected by the fires or have family that are directly affected

√  Support any staff that are directly affected – ask what they want/need and provide it

√  Ask your staff what they want to do and if they want to raise money, match it. If they want to volunteer, liaise with the Business Council of Australia (as many of the relief agencies don’t have capacity to train or co-ordinate volunteers)

√  Look after all staff wellbeing – even those not directly affected may be traumatised and require counselling, compassion and possibly some leave. Read the blog by Wild Women on Top

√  Initiate and encourage conversations about staff mental health, so they know it’s safe to talk about it, develop a plan with your HR team

√  Identify what you’re good at – whether it be infrastructure, building houses, transport, logistics and so on and offer that – for example Airbnb using its platform to offer a roof for volunteers from o/s and people who are displaced

√  Place environmental footprint and climate change at the top of your CSR agenda as the conversation will turn to this once the immediate crisis is over

√  Provide specific & clear information in easy to digest formats (infographics etc)

√  Show your human face and make a stand

√  Get involved in the discussion around climate change and other social issues – whilst the Government thinks corporates should ‘stick to their knitting’ consumers don’t, they expect and want corporates to apply their intelligence and resources to solving societal problems[5]

√  Keep employees up to date with corporate efforts and staff volunteering hours/fundraising – they’re your best communication channel to the rest of the world

√  Use your reach – whether organic through retail stores or online presence as well as donating advertising and social space to relief agencies to amplify their fundraising

√  Provide resources – if you have resources that might be useful – apps, communication, rebuilding materials, car parks, trucks etc – liaise with the Business Council of Australia which is co-ordinating the effort

√  Support local businesses by buying products – Turia Pitt has set up ‘Spend with Them’ to help rebuild towns & businesses affected by the bushfire and you can support businesses in East Gippsland with ‘It’s My Shout’.

√  use first-person plain English so ‘we’re supporting people impacted by the fires’ as opposed to ‘supporting those impacted by the fires’ -it’s far more personal and relatable

√  Think differently, do things you’ve not done before

√  Download Cavill + Co’s e-book Talking the Walk® 2 – How to tell your social good story to resonate with Millennials which features the new model for communication – which I’ve made free until the end of January ( and put in the code TTWfree).

What you SHOULD NOT do

X   Pledge an unspecified amount and then don’t follow through (as Apple has done)

X   Link your ‘donation’ to a product without any narrative. I am a huge supporter of Cause Related Marketing as a great way to generate income for great causes. However, it’s fraught with danger in times of crisis when people’s emotions are at an all-time high

This is not an opportunity to sell more products or services or for opportunistic marketing. If you want to donate through your business – donate. If you want customers to donate invite them to.  If you are going to link donation to a product do it very carefully and sensitively. Ensure that there is humanity and authenticity – lessons to be learned from Mastercard on this.

X   Abandon or redirect your current philanthropy, CSR or sponsorship contributions. In a crisis you don’t abandon your partner or those that rely upon you, and those organisations that are not receiving donations right now will undoubtedly suffer in the coming months as consumer donations are exhausted

X   Set up a separate or new fund – this is not the time for duplicating effort or trying to ‘own’ the space

X   Spend half a million dollars on tv ads telling everyone what you’re doing, this is not the time to boost your reputation. Only use your current channels to inform customers about how you are helping and use any advertising or marketing budget to raise funds or share important information. If there’s something else you can contribute find out what is needed and then galvanise your workforce to make it happen. Animal hospitals and wildlife centres need medicine and volunteers. During the rebuild people will need building materials, furniture, white goods

X   Underestimate how angry consumers are. The PM copped most of it and now people are focused on helping the relief effort.  In time, I have no doubt, fingers will turn towards the corporate sector for using natural resources for profit and not taking enough responsibility for the resulting damage

X   Declare vague promises or complex detailed plans that no-one understands – instead use clear, plain English

X avoid clichéd statements that lack authenticity such as ‘a great cause’, ‘much needed funds’ derogatory terms such as ‘victims’ and vague descriptions such as ‘part proceeds’

If there was ever a time for Corporates to step up, be a shining beacon to all Australians, it’s NOW. My research shows that whilst consumers do not trust government OR corporates to do what is right by society, they at least believe that business HAS THE RESOURCES and intellect to make social change. If that’s not an invitation to step up, I don’t know what is.

If you would like to chat through your Action or Communication strategy regarding the Bushfire response, email me directly on There’s no charge until end January.

And stay safe,



Matt Roberts, a photographer for the ABC, took these photos of his sister’s property, which was lost in the fires

Kangaroo Island, before & after

Additional Resources

  • Probono on the complexities of giving











About Hailey

As Fearless Leader of Cavill + Co, Hailey has advised blue-chip companies and brands on CSR & Social Good for over 20 years. She’s built over 50 cause partnerships for clients including Disney Australia, Vodafone Foundation, Mondelez Australia and SEEK. She also teaches non-profits how to partner with corporates through online training program,®

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