Lifeline defends decision to sell donated items intended for Lismore flood victims

Former Lifeline store manager Ethan Smith says he resigned in disgust after boxes of donated items were sold in Lifeline stores when they were intended for flood victims.

For five years, Mr Smith worked his way up the ladder at Lifeline to become a shop manager.

After a year-and-a-half, he was one of the managers who was enlisted to run the Lifeline distribution centre established at the Lismore Showgrounds a week after the February floods.

Mr Smith was one of the thousands of people across the North Coast who lost their homes in the floods but he continued to work, knowing he was helping others.

“It was definitely stressful. But knowing we were doing the right thing, and helping the community, got me through it,” he said.

After a few weeks and thousands of tonnes of donated items being trucked to the distribution centre each day, Mr Smith began to notice things change.

“I started to notice that there were tubs being put aside with the names of the Lifeline shops on them that were still open,” he said.

“So Ballina, Byron, Casino. And from there I noticed that was what they were expecting us to do.”

A Lifeline distribution centre was set up at the Lismore Showgrounds, days after the February 2022 floods.(ABC North Coast: Miranda Saunders)

Concerns raised

Mr Smith said he became concerned that the culture of the charity was being eroded with a handful of staff pressuring others to put items of value aside.

three stacks of boxes containing items donated to flood victims.
Boxes of donated items ready to be sent to North Coast Lifeline shops. (Supplied: Ethan Smith)

“You’ve got brand-new pallets of clothing … amazing items that are meant for flood victims, but to see them basically skimming off the top — keeping it for themselves and then whatever’s left going to flood victims — I found it disgusting and ridiculous,” he said.

Mr Smith took his concerns to Lifeline chief executive Robert Sams, who, after meeting with him, engaged a third party to investigate Mr Smith’s concerns.

“The people who are donating these items are donating them specifically … to go to flood victims for free,” he said.

“No matter if it’s a brand-new Calvin Klein shirt or a box of tissues, it’s all specifically donated to go to flood victims and to see certain people in Lifeline basically play God and say ‘No, we’re going to do with this what we want to do’ was such a slap in the face.”

But an independent investigation wasn’t enough.

Mr Smith said he wanted no part in an organisation that condoned this type of behaviour.

So he resigned.

A pallet of kettles.
Thousands of tonnes of goods were donated to Lismore flood victims(ABC North Coast: Miranda Saunders)

“It isn’t the Lifeline I started working for where we were helping the community and it went against everything I was there for,” Mr Smith said.

“From a moral standpoint, I had to move on.”

Lifeline defends decision

Mr Sams says Lismore lost three Lifeline shops during the floods and the organisation relies on those shops for about 50 per cent of its funding.

Robert Sams
Lifeline chief executive Robert Sams defends the organisations decision to allow donated goods to be sold in its shops.

He said the distribution centre was set up at short notice by Lifeline at Lismore City Council’s request.

Lifeline management admits in the first three weeks of the centre operating, items were taken from the distribution centre to be sold at its Ballina, Byron Bay and Casino stores.

“Those items were ones that we thought would sell in those shops,” he said.

“But all of the funding that comes from those shops funds our local services in Lismore, so our suicide [prevention] and mental health services,” he said.

Mr Sams defended the decision of the charity and said it was the right decision at the time.

“And I want to assure both those people and organisations who donated items; nobody missed out on items when they came to the distribution centre,” he said.

Lifeline engaged a third party to conduct an independent inquiry into the claims. The inquiry findings were in Lifeline’s favour.

“We received advice that there was no illegal activity by Lifeline or its staff in relation to the distribution centre,” Mr Sams said.

Brown box that has a label saying "Byron Bay store.
Boxes of donated goods earmarked for North Coast Lifeline shops.(Supplied: Ethan Smith)

Mr Sams admitted there was much criticism on social media about staff taking items for themselves.

But he says 12 of his staff lost their homes in the floods.

“They were entitled, very entitled, as much as anybody else in the community to take items from the distribution centre,” Mr Sams said.

“We made a decision early on that we wouldn’t run a very bureaucratic process so we made it very easy for people to come and get those items.”

So will things change in the future?

“Of course with the benefit of hindsight, there are lots we can learn out of this and we will,” he said.

“But I’d like everyone to know that our intention, and certainly our conviction, and certainly decisions as management, was to do what we could to look after our staff and their well-being, the community, and what we could do for them and our national service.”

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