Comment

Forget bushfire donations. Change a little

"We can’t keep contracting out of all the hard work with our credit cards", writes Nathalie Whitaker in this guest commentary

At the beginning of the last decade, I was focused on increasing generosity in New Zealand. 

We were growing Givealittle.co.nz and it was teaching us a lot about how good people rally around eachother at tough times - one person, one family, one community, one cause at a time.  

It was feel-good work and I loved doing it. Kiwis have beautiful giving hearts, and it was a privilege to manage the plumbing for all that goodness.

But despite witnessing Kiwi generosity at its best for nearly 10 years, there were frustrating gaps that we couldn’t close.

Time after time, we saw that the majority of Givealittle pages were not lucky enough to receive the avalanche of donations they needed and deserved. Crowdfunding is kind to those with a crowd. But what if your hard predicament meant you were isolated to start with? 

What if your story was similar to the one featured by the Herald a week earlier, and was now old news? 

What if your page erupted in Facebook debate about economics and entitlement in a game of left/right, up/down politics, forever in digital limbo?

Gradually we worked out that some causes were too confronting, too big or too political for the Kiwi public to take on. 

A page often needed to be the right shape, size and colour to be amplified in the media. The formula would benefit some, while others would plead with us through the helpdesk to make connections with the top publications.

Sometimes, the personal pain driving the need for fundraising was so overwhelming that quantifying the page support in dollar terms made us feel ill and frankly ashamed to be displaying a sum publicly. Like money could ever place a value on how precious life is. 

We cried a lot in the Givealittle office.

It was especially agonising to see so many Kiwis try to reach the radar of a politician using their page link. Cynicism became an occupational hazard. Without negligence involving death, unimaginable tragedy or a state of emergency, it is hard to sustain public outrage for long enough to create a policy shift.

Harder again when international users tried to launch their case. The Givealittle system requires a NZ bank account. I felt like the helpdesk managed an island compound for digital refugees who would never see their page verified. 

Most donations are made at highly emotional times, when we are at our most human but also our least analytical. 

As a team, we wanted to find ways of measuring the impact of giving through the platform so we could encourage more punchy and positive campaigns, but it wasn’t a priority for anyone. Least of all, donors. 

The breakdown with online donations is understandable. Peak personal satisfaction occurs the instant money leaves your credit card. Giving warms the soul. Kiwis have put the accounting profession firmly in buzz-kill territory, and it takes the mind of an accountant to actually follow up all the kind gestures in your last tax year to see if your gifts actually made a difference. 

But the heaviest realisation from my time as Givealittle’s founder has been harder to unpack - that generosity is totally insufficient for solving our problems.  We desperately need unity.

The simple fact is that the most important issues we face need us to change how we live, more than they need our donations. 

Does it require generosity to give up luxuries because there is a future cost just too big for someone else to have to pay? Or is that unity?

Are we generous when we share something within a group so that we don’t need to own the same thing individually? Or is that a sense of real community? 

What about working for less than your market rate for a plucky startup hoping to create social or environmental impact? Could you live on less to make yourself available for bolder work opportunities? Is taking a career risk generous?

Surely, there is no bigger gift than precious time? Especially when it results in dirt under your nails from practical work repairing the land. Is it generous to plant a tree that will sequester carbon that you and everyone else on the planet will benefit from?

When faced with great suffering like the Australian bushfires, I wholeheartedly believe that the most impactful thing we can do is give up some of our comfort in solidarity. From here it’s only a hop, skip and jump from generosity to unity.  Unity doesn’t campaign as well as charity. 

We’re facing massive challenges that need us to invest our time and effort - to help test solutions, pester a politician or apply our professional talent to power-up fledgling grassroots initiatives. 

It should feel inconvenient to show that we truly care. Our day should roll differently when we give from a deeper place. It most definitely should involve less time worrying ourselves sick on Facebook and Twitter. 

This is the sort of generosity that I am now committed to scaling with Toha.nz. - impact investment that amplifies a sense of unity. 

The plan is to power-up finance to mobilise grassroots action, starting with the messy groundwork to regenerate our whenua, biodiversity and communities. We’re expecting all sorts of hard yakka on the platform and hope it will inspire the citizen scientist in each of us to prove we can turn things around in our own patch of Aotearoa. 

For a brighter future we must act now, and together. The transformative solutions to climate change need money for sure, but they mostly need us to engage our minds and manpower. We can’t keep contracting out of all the hard work with our credit cards.

So yes, please donate to the Australian bushfire appeals. 

But please know that generosity won’t stop the fires. Charitable donations will only rescue and rebuild a fraction of the lives destroyed by the fires. The appeals won’t fill the gap left by a market that won’t insure rural properties or a government that won’t pay firefighters volunteering on the frontline. 

What happens next summer? 

Australia’s strongest public response can’t be powered by donations and no-one should be able to buy peace of mind with a charitable gift if they’re not also prepared to welcome in the economic shifts required to pivot out of climate breakdown. 

For those asking what can we do from NZ in response to Australian bushfires, my humble recommendation is that we double down on efforts to regenerate our land here throughout 2020.

What if we pledged to re-plant millions more natives here in NZ and helped every Kiwi farmer adopt regenerative agriculture practices as a pledge to support our neighbours in Australia? 

Here are 10 actions you can take in the coming weeks and months as the fires continue to burn in Australia:

- Find your local planting group and commit to go out eco-sourcing native seeds this February to help supply future planting seasons.
- Start your own backyard native nursery from the seeds you gather.
- Find local native tree nurseries in your region and offer them investment to start scaling up their operation. Native seedlings need 24 months to mature in the nursery before planting.
- Map all the public spaces, local landowners and farmers who want to do some native planting this coming season (April - October).
- Teach yourself what’s involved in project managing a tree planting at scale. Get your workplace, school and friends together to plan all the trees you will plant in response to the bushfires.

- Alternatively fund others to plant native trees through treesthatcount.co.nz
- Start asking for products from farms that adopt regenerative agriculture practices. Their hard work needs to be rewarded by stronger consumer demand because the way they farm rebuilds critical biodiversity, uses less water, and is more resilient to floods and drought. 
- Get a notebook and start writing your own list of important climate change questions for every NZ politician this election year and start asking them publicly now. At every spare moment send an email, a Facebook message or tweet. Turn up to public events and be that person that asks the awkward questions. Channel Greta for your poker face.
- Instead of having conversations about the bushfires with friends and family, start sharing how worried you are about climate change and share any practical steps you are taking in everyday life.  This will change things faster than you can imagine.
- Research nonviolent resistance and how 3.5% of any population has never failed to bring about change. Find massive hope in this and get cracking. 

In 2016, New Zealanders rallied together via Givealittle to buy back a beach in the Abel Tasman National Park so that it could be guaranteed for everyone to enjoy in the future. 

What campaign will we ask each other to donate to when the beach at Awaroa Inlet is under water? It’s a seriously bleak idea that I have never verbalised until now. Plainly not worth thinking about. 

Unless of course you intend on doing nothing to prevent that from happening. In which case, I suggest you think long and hard about it. 

It’s okay to weep about it too. I have found that’s part of the process of building a personal plan to start fighting hard for our future.

For our Australian neighbours, let’s pledge to plant natives like crazy this year. 

It can be like group therapy.

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