Matt Nippert is a business investigations journalist.

Charity fundraisers ducking for cover

Kidney Kids defends decision to spend $21,000 on 10,000 rubber ducks, now in storage after law prevents harbour release.
Ten thousand rubber ducks bought by Kidney Kids have spent three years in a Takanini storage unit. Photo / Getty Images
Ten thousand rubber ducks bought by Kidney Kids have spent three years in a Takanini storage unit. Photo / Getty Images

Ten thousand rubber ducks bought by Kidney Kids have spent three years in a Takanini storage unit after the charity was refused permission to release the toys en masse into Auckland Harbour and let punters gamble on the results.

The children's health charity has risen to nationwide prominence in the past decade, largely on the back of campaigning by its late patron and All Black legend Jonah Lomu.

Kidney Kids chief executive Keith Mackenzie said members of the public concerned their donations might have been wasted on unused rubber ducks need not worry. "They may think that now, but when those ducks turn into dollars they'll be very pleased," he said.

An investigation by the Weekend Herald into the saga has revealed that in late 2013 Kidney Kids paid $21,275 to a company run by the charity's chairman at the time, David Baty, for 10,000 yellow and 200 white ducks, along with a website and a large inflatable duck, but plans to deploy the flock in fund-raising ventures ran fowl of authorities.

Mr Baty, who still serves as a Kidney Kids' director, defended the purchase and said it had board approval. "At the end of the day the rubber ducks were bought with the best of intentions - no one was forced to buy them," he said.

As he tells it, the plan was adapted from overseas ventures and would have seen a duck race run on Auckland Harbour at the Viaduct with a website allowing people to adopt individual ducks with the winning bird coming with a prize of $1 million.

Mr Baty said getting event permission and consents from Auckland Council to dump thousands of rubber toys into the harbour had proved an "absolute nightmare", and Internal Affairs also had unkind words to say about his online plans.

"Internal Affairs scrubbed it. Apparently it's called 'interactive remote gambling', which you're not allowed to do in New Zealand," he said.

These problems saw tentative dates for the event - initially January 2015, then Labour Day, then the recent Auckland Anniversary Day - pass without any resolution of the problems.

In the middle of last year, Shelley Cunningham of CD Event Management was contracted by Kidney Kids to assess the situation.

She said she was confident of an event taking place before the end of the year, now at Judges Bay instead of the Viaduct, but was unwilling to name a date. "It has been a very slow process, but I do feel now we are essentially on to a winner," she said.

According to documents obtained under the Official Information Act the duck purchase had sparked complaints to the Charities Service alleging conflicts of interest.

Kidney Kids responded to official inquiries by saying the payments were signed off by people other than Mr Baty and it had since established a register to record conflicts of interest.

Information supplied by Kidney Kids led the watchdog to conclude in 2014 that a formal investigation was not required as "there was no evidence of serious wrongdoing".

Approached by the Weekend Herald this week asking whether it was concerned the ducks had failed to be used in fundraising in the two years since this decision was reached, a Charities Service spokesman said it was "assessing this additional information".

Mr Baty blamed complaints about the ducks on a feud with former members of Kidney Kids, and claimed the Weekend Herald's interest in the matter was only due to his controversial handling of a marlin fishing contest that saw him insist the winner take a polygraph test.

After becoming aware of interest in the ducks, Mr Baty said he would be happy to buy the rubber flock back off Kidney Kids, and then resell them when authorities finally gave the event a green light.

"I did this with the best of intentions. No one foresaw these delays," he said.

But until then, the little ducks wait. Mr Mackenzie said they were safely nested. "They're in a storage unit, one of those commercial storage places, out in East Takinini," he said.

According to audited charity accounts the ducks are depreciating at the rate of 13 per cent a year and by December 31, 2015 were only worth $10,861.

Mr Mackenzie said interest in this quacking yarn was unwarranted. "It's just a sad reflection on storytelling."

- NZ Herald

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