The police are investigating two reports of misuse of money collected during fundraising activities.

The ongoing investigations concern two reports received in 2021 and this year, a police spokesperson said.

The issue came to the fore last week when a couple – Ryan Debattista and Nicole Bezzina – admitted in court to gambling away €35,000 in funds raised to help their son fight cancer. Debattista later told Times of Malta in an interview that he had only pleaded guilty to the charges to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.

Times of Malta had been the first to reveal that a significant portion of the funds defrauded came from Malta’s footballing community, which banded together to drum up funds to help the couple and their young child.

Angelo Chetcuti, general secretary of the Malta Football Association, said this one-off case would not deter the football community from supporting good causes.

“This case was the exception,” he said.

“There are genuine causes which the association will continue to support. If there was a lesson learned, it was to be more vigilant and work more with registered associations.

“However, we must not lose sight of the fact that there are many genuine good causes that need support,” Chetcuti added.

Rennie Zerafa, chief executive of the Puttinu Cares Foundation, agreed.

“Thankfully this is very rare,” he said.

“Most fundraisers are genuine but people who wish to make a donation should always check before.”

The foundation offers support to people undergoing cancer treatment in the UK as well as their relatives.

Zerafa said that the foundation was set up to stop abuse by centralising the support offered – accommodation in the UK during medical treatment.

“We used to get people collecting money and claiming they were staying longer than required. While others who were less vocal ended up with nothing,” he said.

“Through Puttinu, now, everyone gets the free accommodation for as long as they really need it.

“There are many genuine fundraisers out there – by people, for example, collecting for a prosthetic limb – and we support them. But there are the few people who abuse the system and there is nothing worse than abusing a child’s illness to pay debt,” Zerafa said, stressing he was not referring to the recent court case.

What does the law say?

Voluntary Organisation Commissioner Jesmond Saliba explained that public collections are regulated by two laws: the Voluntary Organisations Regulations are enforced by the commission he heads and the Public Collections Act is enforced by the police.

“Both legislations are intended for the same scope, that is to regulate and assure transparency of any public collections to be carried out for a public social purpose,” he said.

Essentially, the laws state that any individual that is not enrolled with the NGO commission must follow the regulations issued by the commission but must obtain a licence from the police commissioner.

The law binds the promoter to, within one month after the last day of the collection or on the day the licence issued expires, publish a statement declaring the total proceeds in two different newspapers and deliver the statement to the police.

The police are then bound by law to certify the veracity of the collection.

Online crowdfunding

Nathan Farrugia, an entrepreneur and board member of Inspire, LSF and Academy of Givers, said that while the voluntary organisations commissioner and the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector were doing their best to prevent unlawful use of charitable funding, it was up to the individual to be more discerning on who they give their charity to.

“Choosing an organisation that clearly states its registration with the commissioner helps reduce risk and gives more peace of mind,” he said.

“These registered organisations have much more rigorous accountability requirements than individual fundraisers,” he said.

As for crowdfunding initiatives, he said the same rules apply.

“This still needs to be done on a legitimate platform, registered with the right authorities,” Farrugia said.

For example, he added, UK crowdfunding website JustGiving requires applicants to declare the charity benefitting before they can start a page.

The charity will automatically have access to the back end to monitor the funds coming in.

Malta’s crowdfunding platform Zaar, that focuses on business start-ups, is a member of Eurocrowd, registered as the European Crowdfunding Network, an independent, professional business network promoting adequate transparency, regulation and governance in digital finance.

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