A social media entrepreneur who shot to fame off the back of her cancer survival story failed to hand over thousands of fundraising dollars promised to charities.
Melbourne businesswoman Belle Gibson, founder of food and health app The Whole Pantry, solicited donations from a loyal following of 200,000 people in the name of at least five charities that have no record of receiving money from her.
The 26-year-old’s popular recipe app, which costs $3.79, has been downloaded 300,000 times and is being developed as one of the first apps for the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch. Her debut cook book The Whole Pantry, published by Penguin in Australia last year, will soon hit shelves in the United States and Britain.
Immediately after questions from Fairfax Media late last week about her fundraising activities, Ms Gibson promised donations to some organisations that have not been paid since she hosted a fundraiser in 2013. She blamed her company’s “cash flow” problems for the 15-month delay.
Ms Gibson has publicly claimed to have given away 25 per cent of her company’s profits and in her book writes that “a large part of everything” earned is donated to various causes. Last year she said $300,000 had already been given to charity but now says these contributions were never made because app sales were not as high as forecast. Ms Gibson was unable to provide a list of organisations that have received money or say how much has been donated to date.
She launched her business and her app off her story as a young mother diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who rejected conventional medicine and is healing herself with a healthy diet and lifestyle.
The popular app developer gives nutrition advice online and says she has helped countless people dump conventional medicine to treat ailments including cancer.
Ms Gibson has run two campaigns purporting to raise money for five charities, but Fairfax Media has confirmed that none has a record of receiving a donation. Four of the organisations, including Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, had no knowledge fundraising drives had taken place.
In the first fundraiser, in December 2013, Ms Gibson hosted an exclusive event in St Kilda to raise money for three charities.
Melbourne-based charity One Girl, which runs education programs in Sierra Leone, was promoted as one of the fundraiser’s beneficiaries but said repeated attempts to contact The Whole Pantry about the promised donation more than a year after the event had been unsuccessful. Chief executive Chantelle Baxter confirmed Ms Gibson donated $1000 following questions from Fairfax Media.
In May, Ms Gibson ran a second fundraiser pledging to donate proceeds from app sales to two charities working in south-east Asia, in which she praised her supporters for raising a further $5000 for the cause.
“Don’t forget – for every app downloaded until this Sunday, your purchase goes straight to The 2h Project and the Bumi Sehat Foundation to prevent maternal and infant deaths,” she said on social media during the campaign.
Ms Gibson now says the week-long campaign raised $2800 and that she felt it was not enough to divide between the two organisations. The money, she claimed, was “allocated” to the Bumi Sehat Foundation.
A spokeswoman for the Bumi Sehat Foundation said: “I can say with confidence that we have never received a donation from Belle Gibson”.
Neither Ms Gibson nor her companies are lawfully registered as fundraisers. Consumer Affairs Victoria said organisations found to misrepresent fundraising events could be in breach of criminal and consumer law. Companies face penalties of up to $28,000, while individuals risk 12 months’ jail and a $14,000 fine.
Ms Gibson said money from the two fundraisers “sat with the company finances, which were a mess”. She also said The Whole Pantry was running at a loss and that profit margins had been overestimated.
“We have not yet donated the naive, yet confident amount of $300,000, considering the very quickly [arising] issues with cash flow versus growth, providing content, managing external expectations,” she said.
Confirmed donations from Ms Gibson and her business total about $7000.
“It was with nothing but good intention that we publicised that a percentage of profit from the app will be donated to charity. The intentions always were and still are to give back. The execution of this has obviously been flawed.”
She said she intended to support the nominated causes “when the cash-flow management is stabilised”.
A spokeswoman for one of the charities said: “You don’t take charitable funds and put it into the cash flow of your own business”.
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