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Restoring faith in Irish charities

As the season of goodwill approaches, the outlook for Irish charities is bright again

Do you hear what I hear? Christmas is fast approaching, and you can track its approach by the familiar seasonal sounds: the jingle of sleigh bells, the jangle of Christmas pop tunes – and the rattle of collection boxes under your nose as charities line up to persuade you to part with your hard-earned cash. The festive season is a good time for guilting people – after all, who but a complete Scrooge would begrudge a few bob to help those less fortunate than themselves at Christmas?

Sometimes, though, it seems we’re under constant siege from a horde of volunteers, clogging up the shopping thoroughfares and lurking outside the doors of the department stores, a constant reminder of how lucky we are to be able to do any Christmas shopping at all. Soon, we’re reaching for excuses not to reach into our pocket, and one of the big excuses gaining traction is, “sure, none of the money would get to the poor, anyway – aren’t they all corrupt?”?

In the past few years, the public’s trust in charities has taken a knock thanks to some high-profile scandals. In 2016, bereavement counselling charity Console shut down after it emerged its founder and chief executive Paul Kelly and his family had run up credit card bills of almost €500,000 on items such as groceries, designer clothes and foreign trips. And earlier this year, Oxfam was accused of covering up an investigation into sexual exploitation involving staff in Haiti.

As we face into another season of goodwill hunting, the public are beginning to ask more and more, can we trust charities to do the right thing?


The good news is that most charities want to do the right thing – and Ireland’s Charity Regulator has just issued a new governance code that will help them maintain the highest standards of probity and trustworthiness.

The code sets out six principles for charities to abide by, and 32 core standards they need to meet in order to live up to those principles, with an additional 17 standards at higher level to ensure best practice among larger, more complex organisations. With more than 9,600 registered Irish charities, it’s important for them all to have a single, easy-to-interpret hymnsheet to sing from, says Eamon Timmins, the Charities Regulator’s head of communications and stakeholder engagement.

‘Accountable and transparent’

“One of the core principles is to be accountable and transparent,” says Timmins. “Make sure your name and that you’re a registered charity are on all your written material, including your website. Identify your stakeholders and decide how you will communicate with them and how you will involve them in your planning, decision-making and review processes. Make sure you have a procedure for dealing with queries, comments and complaints.”

A worrying trend, says Timmins, is the reluctance of some charities to submit full and unabridged financial accounts. Under current legislation, charitable organisations can submit abridged accounts, but new reporting and accounting regulations due to come in over the next year or two will mean the end of abridged accounts, says Timmins. “If you’re out there looking for people’s money, you need to be transparent about it.”

The biggest problem with Irish charities, however, is not dishonesty or corruption, but a simple lack of communication. In most cases, a charity’s biggest crime is not getting their message across clearly.

“They’re so focused on their charitable purpose, they forget how to engage with their stakeholders. When you get so tied up with trying to reach your targets, sometimes communication and transparency fall between the gaps.”

These days, the public has higher expectations of charities, says Timmins. They want to know what charities are doing with donations they receive, and they want to be assured the trustees are absolutely trustworthy. For their part, charities want to win back the public’s trust following recent faith-shaking events, and they want to prove to potential donors that they are above board and up to standard. So, the new code will be beneficial to both the public and to the charities themselves.

It’s hard to measure the reputational damage to a charity from bad practices, but it’s also hard to quantify the kudos a charity receives from following best practice. The Carmichael Centre, an umbrella support group for the Irish charitable sector, held its 2018 Good Governance Awards on November 15th, handing out awards for annual reporting/ financial statements, and for best governance improvement initiative, in categories ranging from small (below €250,000 turnover) to large (more than €15 million turnover). This year’s winners included Care Alliance Ireland, Proudly Made in Africa, Irish Girl Guides, Aidlink, Trócaire and the Central Remedial Clinic.

With nearly 10,000 registered charities in Ireland, each of them battling to get their share of people’s disposable income this Christmas, there’s also a clear and present danger of donor fatigue. To combat donor disengagement, smaller charities are coming up with smart new ideas for fundraising, and finding ways to grab people’s imaginations and get their buy-in. Brothers Calvin and Andy Sweeney, founders of the Scoop Foundation, have put their clubbing background to good use in their charitable work, organising club events with the goal of raising funds to help build schools in war-torn Syria. Calvin started out as a house DJ and formed the now-legendary Bodytonic club collective. These days, however, he can be found driving ambulances in bombed-out villages in Syria, and helping people in the sprawling Bajed Kandala refugee camp on the border with Iraq. Meanwhile, Andy organises the various Scoop events in Ireland and the UK from his Bournemouth base.

Donors become part of the Scoop Crew, gaining free entry into Scoop events, and enjoying other perks such as "scoopons" for the charity's annual Better Than Socks Christmas auction, and invites to art exhibitions, freebies from sponsors and, of course, the knowledge you're helping a good cause without having to break the bank. This year's Better Than Socks gala dinner was held in Smock Alley on November 23rd, and auction prizes included dinner cooked by a Michelin-starred chef, meet-and-greet with Game of Thrones actor Liam Cunningham, a rugby training session with Leinster star Ross Byrne and a walk-on part in Fair City.

“It’s an engaged community of monthly donors, and we try to give them as many perks and awards as possible. And it started with free Scoop events, but then we started talking to a lot of independent businesses in Dublin who liked the idea and wanted to get involved. We spotted a gap in the market, that you can get involved in a community and see where your money’s going. We’re not a big, faceless organisation – our members can ask us any question about what we’re doing, and we send out a monthly newsletter, keeping them up to date on our projects, and the door is always open for people to challenge and see just where their money is going. We’ve never received Government grants or official support – we’re running off the back of individual donors, many of whom are our friends, so we’re accountable to them. We want to be really open and inclusive. And that’s the future. It’s unfortunate that people don’t trust charities anymore. We’re trying to turn the tide on that.”

Winning formula

For the Scoop Foundation, small and manageable is the winning formula, and though the brothers are hoping to scale up their charitable work, there’s no danger of them becoming too big for their desert boots.

“Our members are people in their 20s and 30s that maybe the bigger charities have forgotten about, seeing them as a lost cause. But we’re trying to get the younger people involved, because they’re the ones who have lost trust and faith. They’re the future and if you don’t get them involved then we’re all in trouble.”

Make-A-Wish Ireland is part of a multinational charity founded in Arizona in 1992, but its “permission to operate” is entirely based on the trust of its donors and supporters, says Make-A-Wish Ireland chief executive Susan O’Dwyer. “It’s a trust we have worked hard to build, and protect fastidiously. Governance is at the heart of everything we do, it’s an integral part of the organisation from ensuring that values, systems, processes and behaviours are in place to ensure the organisation is well-run. Like many charities in Ireland doing vitally important work, Make-A-Wish does not receive any Government funding and is solely dependent on the generosity of the general public.”

Make-A-Wish Ireland has one simple idea at its core – to grant a wish to a child living with life-threatening illness. Whether it’s visiting Santa Claus in Lapland, having a princess party with your favourite Disney princesses, or meeting up with Roy Keane, Make-A-Wish puts all its resources and energy into making it happen for a sick child.

“Every charity should have one set mission, and everything about the organisation should be focused on delivering on that mission,” says O’Dwyer. “Whatever a charity’s size, it is crucial that efficient and effective processes are core to the running of the organisation. For mid- to larger-size charities, a mix of funding is key. For example, the support of our corporate partners is key to our success in being able to grant the wishes of 221 children living with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy all across Ireland last year. Our Corporate Christmas Appeal, which is currently under way, is a very important fundraising programme for Make-A-Wish. We are thrilled to have Mitsubishi Electric Ireland supporting our Christmas fundraising drive this year, which aims to raise valuable funds so that we can continue to grant magical wishes for children, providing respite from their normal routines of hospitals, doctors and treatment.”

Overall, then, the picture for Irish charities is looking bright, and the introduction of the new codes will help inform people about what good governance is and give charities the tools to help them be the best that they can be.

“It’s a very diverse sector, and I suppose in Ireland we’re very lucky to have this diversity,” says Timmins. “Last year, we registered 1,700 new charities. I think it’s a sign of a healthy society that people want to get involved and set up charities and help each other.”

“I always had this vision of the moment you die, and the only person you have to answer to is yourself, and your last thought is, did I live a good life” says Andy Sweeney. “And when it comes to that moment, it all boils down to, did I help someone in need, someone in distress, who needed my help?”

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist