Special Report
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Charity sector struggling and in urgent need of donations due to pandemic

Families facing challenges we have never seen before, warns Barnardos director

The arrival of the pandemic last year created immense difficulty for charities. For some, 2021 has been harder.

“It has been a mixed bag of a year,” says Ivan Cooper, director of public policy of The Wheel, the national association for the sector. “Innovative fundraising charities who work online have seen their income increase, while traditional face-to-face charities, the kind that rely on street or door-to-door collections, saw their income decrease.

The Gift of Giving special report looks at how the arrival of the pandemic last year created immense difficulty for charities. But for some, 2021 has been harder.

“While many statutorily funded charities saw their funding increase, some social enterprises, which earn income from trading, had to stop altogether. Others saw income rise along with demand for their services,” he explains.


The Covid-19 Stability Fund, introduced by the Government in response to the pandemic, helped enormously as more than 600 organisations secured funding under the scheme.

But how the sector fares as such supports are withdrawn over the coming months is the big challenge now facing it.

There are 12,000 charities in Ireland. Of these, a third generate income of just €50,000 or less, while another third generate income of between €50,000 and €5 million. Just less than half experienced a decrease in funding in the past 12 months and 46 per cent had to reduce the services they were able to provide.

There were some positives. Charities Regulator research indicates that 91 per cent of the public report a reasonable level of trust and confidence in the charities sector. Some 40 per cent of people donated €100 or more over the past year and, of those, half are donating at least every two months.

But the move to a hybrid working model has put an additional strain on charities, including increased technology costs. The administrative cost of compliance with charities regulation has increased in recent years and, on top of that, are more general concerns in relation to inflation and the possibility of increased pay demands.

Statutory services

Almost 70 per cent of the funds raised by the charities sector comes from the State, in return for the provision of services. These are essential in providing statutory services in the community. The Wheel is advocating for the introduction of multi-annual funding, and for the funding of core costs, such as overheads, to help.

"From a fundraising perspective it continues to be really difficult," says Mary Gamble, director of fundraising for Barnardos Ireland, the children's charity. 
"This time last year we hoped the pandemic would be all done and dusted by now, but from a fundraising perspective, that just hasn't happened. Our long-term planning has been thrown up in the air and we still don't know how things will land. Fundraising is still very challenging and what is most difficult is not being able to plan ahead."

Barnardos hasn’t held its flagship Christmas fundraising ball for two years, for example. “Those large-scale, in-person public events, like our Big Toddle, represent a big chunk of the money we generate, and it’s really hard to replicate them online,” she says.

Barnardos is the largest children’s charity in the country, looking after children experiencing poverty and welfare issues. A drop in funds means fewer services can be provided. Waiting lists for its services around the country are growing. “In one of our centres alone, one-third of children are witnessing domestic violence in the home but their voice is not being heard,” she says.

Barnardos TLC Kidz programme works with children to help them deal emotionally with incidents of domestic violence, which grew during the pandemic. The lockdowns also had a detrimental effect on children for whom school is a refuge .

Some of the very young children Barnardos works with display the consequences in different ways. “A lot of them regressed very significantly. Having learned to use knives and forks, for example, some have gone back to eating with their fingers or, having been toilet trained, have regressed again. Our staff are dealing with lots of angry outbursts and meltdowns, because of childhood trauma,” she says.

In older children, the charity is seeing a “massive increase” in anxiety levels, she says, as well as a significant increase in school refusals, where children just won’t go back to school. “The repercussions of this pandemic will play out for years to come,” she says.

Like Cooper, Gamble is hoping the Christmas giving period will provide a much-needed fundraising fillip. “We need people to dig deep this year, because there are families facing challenges the size of which we have never seen before,” she says.

Many hope the events of the last 18 months will leave a legacy in terms of greater solidarity. “Last year saw a lot of focus on the importance of the home,” explains Amy Carr, director of fundraising at Focus Ireland.

“During lockdowns, people were thinking, if this is so bad for us, imagine what it must be like to be in emergency accommodation or to be homeless. It resonated with people.”

In other ways, however, the challenges are now set to grow. The moratorium on evictions, which helped keep people in their homes, has ended. Holiday homes that were freed up for families in the crisis are now being taken back for their initial purpose.

The number of homeless families is starting to rise again. The hope is that donations will too. “Everyone can empathise more now,” she says.

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times