Billy Vaughan explores how Irish charities are coping amid recent fundraising scandals and ever-increasing demand for their services.
FEW would deny that the Irish charities sector has been rocked to its core by recent events. Namely the Console saga, and other recent scandals such as the Carline Learning Centre, from which €161,000 was misappropriated by its treasurer. The series of stinging revelations were not even confined to the realm of illegality, with recent disclosures that St. John of God’s Hospital made large and secret top-ups to senior executives three years ago.
The climate that Irish charities are now vying for funding in is one that has been changed utterly. Unquestioning generosity, or even respect, from the general public can no longer be taken for granted, and other charities in the sector are suffering the consequences.
The scandals have had little effect on fundraising at campus level, according to Ause Abdelhaq, outgoing Secretary of UCD SVP. “In our chapter, the recent scandals have had very little effect on our day-to-day operations; on the contrary, in the last two years we’ve seen sharp increases in fundraising income, not in the least thanks to some wonderful work by the respective committees.”
“We at Concern still find that the generosity of the Irish public is outstanding”
Eithne Healy, Communications Manager at Concern Worldwide, says that fundraising levels are very much linked to the reputation a charity upholds. “The public needs to be able to trust charities with their donations and have confidence that their money will be spent wisely, appropriately and effectively.”
Aside from possible financial implications, it is important not to forget about the effects the scandals have had on the reputations of Irish charities. Unfortunately, the sector has had a long history of murky finances. The Irish Hospital Sweepstake was one of the first major charities to divert large amounts of funds to its senior staff, beginning in the 1940s. It is estimated that over the years, less than one-tenth of the money it raised actually went towards the funding of Irish hospitals.
More recently, the 2014 Central Remedial Clinic scandal is also fresh in the minds of the public, in which Paul Kiely was given a €742,000 severance package. Are recent events yet another damaging blow to the sector? Healy disagrees and says that the Irish public’s willingness to give has been enduring. “We at Concern still find that the generosity of the Irish public is outstanding, especially given the challenging economic situation here at home and we hope this continues in spite of recent revelations.”
Abdelhaq notes that “people nowadays are more wary of donating to charities”, but considers this a good thing, as “it means that the public are getting behind causes which they believe to be important, and they feel the impact of their donations more fully.”
“The public needs to be able to trust charities with their donations and have confidence that their money will be spent wisely, appropriately and effectively.”
The government has recently announced measures in response to the crisis, including giving more power to the charities regulator. Could the scandals ultimately be a good thing for Irish charities in the long term? Healy says that Concern is fully behind the new measures. “Charities need to be accountable, transparent and effective, and Concern has been calling on a regular basis for the implementation of the Charities Act enacted in 2009, especially for those issues around openness and accountability.”
She notes that Concern’s annual accounts have won the Published Accounts Awards for charities in Ireland for the sixth successive year. “Charities generally make good use of the resources entrusted to them. Most do high quality work and are staffed by genuine people who work and volunteer for those charities because of a shared vision.”
Another element currently hindering Irish charities is the ever increasing demand for their services against a backdrop of government funding cuts. “Cuts in funding are crippling, and directly affect how many people receive assistance. The reality is that all any charity (not just SVP) can do is continue helping as many people as possible with whatever funds are available,” says Abdelhaq. “Rates of homelessness across the country have skyrocketed.”
“Rates of homelessness across the country have skyrocketed”
Abdelhaq also mentions how SVP has adopted innovative new ideas to try to address the funding shortfall. “Instead of focusing on traditional methods such as door-to-door campaigns or charity auctions, organisations (including SVP) began to try more innovative, outside-the-box fundraising techniques, aimed at raising money while having fun.”
Overall, Healy reflects the general consensus in that it is “still too soon for us to evaluate what impact the Console revelations have had on our public donations.”
Most charities are careful not to dwell on recent events, and are looking towards the future, innovating and changing how they interact with the public. “One needs only to look at the success of SVP’s annual Homeless Week, or Pieta’s Darkness into Light campaign, to see that the public are very much buying into the idea of social fundraising”, says Abdelhaq. “I believe that the future of fundraising lies in attracting people to your campaign, whether for fun or self-betterment – or even just the pictures.”