Drought charities defend spending as donations pour in
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Drought charities defend spending as donations pour in

Skin-and-bone lambs, cracked earth, grim farmers: the images of drought prompted Australians to give millions of dollars in recent weeks.

But as $2 coins fell into tins and corporations wrote large cardboard cheques for the cameras, two of the country’s most prominent drought-relief charities have been forced to defend the way they spend their money.

One has raised questions about the other’s administration. And the former colleagues who founded the charities dispute who should lay claim to “Buy a Bale”, a scheme that has proved enormously popular with those looking to help during the worst drought in five decades.

A farmer feeds his sheep on a farm near Bollon, Queensland, this week.

A farmer feeds his sheep on a farm near Bollon, Queensland, this week.

Photo: AAP

“Let’s answer some questions people have been asking over the last couple of weeks,” Brian Egan tweeted on Monday, linking to a long post on the Aussie Helpers’ Facebook page.

Founded by Mr Egan, a former farmer, and his wife Nerida, Aussie Helpers delivers fodder for livestock, groceries for farmers' families and education for children in the bush.

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It is also now expanding its Virtual Psychologist remote counselling service to prevent suicide, with $1 million in funding announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in June.

As far back as March 2015, Mr Egan was calling for funds to help farmers “on death row” in the worst drought for 120 years, saying the dry had taken a toll on the charity’s finances.

That financial year, the organisation received $2.4 million in donations and spent $1.5 million delivering services and donations.

In the past five years, Aussie Helpers has achieved annual surpluses of up to $2.6 million, leaving it with $6.3 million in the bank in 2016-17.

Of the $14 million it has received in mostly private donations in those five years, $6 million has been spent or donated, according to accounts provided to the charity watchdog and the Herald.

Mr Egan, in his Facebook post addressing financial questions, said cash in the bank was to fund ongoing programs.

He told the Herald it was important to have reserves for unforeseen natural disasters such as floods, safeguard the long-term sustainability of the charity, and provide the ability to invest in projects like Virtual Psychologist.

Aussie Helpers charity founder, Brian Egan.

Aussie Helpers charity founder, Brian Egan.

Photo: AAP

“We don’t just use money because we’ve got it,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next year or the next year or the next year.”

On Facebook, Mr Egan also addressed property assets, saying “YES we have some” before referencing warehouses and depots in multiple states, vehicles and a new national headquarters.

Aussie Helpers owns upwards of $2.5 million in property, plant and equipment, which also includes a small home for the Egans in Charleville and two other homes in the town which Mr Egan said were to house volunteers.

A $399,000 home near Bundaberg with four bedrooms and a pool had been bought as a holiday spot for farmers last year, Mr Egan said, but they had decided to sell it as too few farmers could leave their properties.

Aussie Helpers employs the Egans' daughter Sam Price and another part-time staff member, spending about $75,000 on wages.

Neither Mr Egan nor his wife had ever received any wages or payments, he said, although he often worked from 6am to 10pm.

Another charity forced to defend itself was Rural Aid, sponsored by Woolworths, Qantas, the Commonwealth Bank and the Penrith Panthers, which faced qustions about wages.

Rural aid CEO Charles Alder.

Rural aid CEO Charles Alder.

Photo: Supplied

Mr Egan said after a farmers meeting in Canberra this week, he expressed concerns to Senator Jim Molan’s office about expenditure by Rural Aid, which he said has used intellectual property meant to belong to Aussie Helpers.

Rural Aid, which denies any wrongdoing, was founded by Charles Alder, who used to do marketing work for Aussie Helpers.

Mr Alder told the Herald his charity now employed 17 people, and had taken in more than $5 million in the past six months, much of it in recent weeks.

His Facebook post addressing financial questions on Thursday said Rural Aid had that day allocated $300,000 in gift and fuel cards from Woolworths and Caltex and organised 15 hay drops.

“At the moment, all charities are trying to run as fast as they can to provide assistance in what is almost a panic state in our rural communities,” he said.

But questions have been raised about 2016-2017 employee expenses - $354,000 of the total $951,000 taken in that year.

That money went to six full-time employees, including $110,000 to key management personnel, according to accounts.

Mr Alder said the $110,000 was paid to him as chief executive, a salary the charity’s board considered fair given his skills and hard work.

He would not say how much his wife Tracey, also a full-time employee, earned but said the pair worked 120 to 130 hours a week.

“We certainly don’t overpay ourselves, that’s for sure,” he said.

As the sole shareholder and director of another entity, Charity Hub Pty Ltd, Mr Alder earns more income from Rural Aid.

Charity Hub, a company providing shared or temporary work spaces for not-for-profits, subleases part of its Brisbane premises to Rural Aid for about $4000 a month, which Mr Alder said was board approved and at market rates.

A dispute between Mr Egan and Mr Alder arose over the trademark “Buy a Bale”, the name of a scheme that allows donors to purchase hay for farmers for $20 a bale.

Rural Aid now runs the scheme. But Mr Egan said Mr Alder, after undertaking marketing work for Aussie Helpers, trademarked it in his own name without permission.

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There was “absolutely no truth to that,” said Mr Alder, who told the Herald he had created the logo as well as domain names for the tagline.

Mr Alder also went on to register Buy a Bale of Hale Pty Ltd, which was owned by another Alder company, The Give Back Campaign Pty Ltd.

The parent company, which ran a platform meant to incentivise donations from businesses, went into liquidation in 2016 owing $29,000 to a digital advertising company.

Mr Alder said the company did not have enough money in its accounts at the time.

The chief executive said he did not know why Mr Egan would have conveyed concerns about the charity’s expenditure to Senator Molan and that Mr Egan had never raised such concerns with him.

“We’ve got nothing to hide,” Mr Alder said. “We’re all good.”

In response to the charities' posts, many supporters expressed disgust that the founders felt the need to defend their expenditure.

Do you know more? patrick.begley@fairfaxmedia.com.au