In the charity sector, let’s not punish the many for the sins of the few

Opinion: If charities are to raise money successfully, they need to professionalise

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 00:01

In the book Connected: the Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nick Christakis and James Fowler trace the fascinating ways in which we are influenced by others. For example, a “knocking on doors” project urging people to vote for a recycling initiative was likely to win the support of 10 per cent of those who answered the door. Interestingly, the partner who did not answer the door was 6 per cent more likely to support the recycling initiative, simply from chatting to the other partner about it.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising. The authors conclude that, far from being atomised individuals, we are more like flocks of birds who, without any apparent central controller, swoop and climb in unison. That’s why something like the salary top-ups and the controversy surrounding the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) are so damaging: they ripple out to all charities.

It is not logical, because only a tiny minority of charities are so big that they function almost as arms of the State in providing services. On a logical level, people also know that if they curtly refuse to buy the Santa bears sold to support the CRC’s work it is children and adults with disabilities who will suffer.

However, people give to charities primarily because of emotional reactions, particularly empathy. But just as positive emotions spur giving, negative emotions such as disgust or dislike block it.


Lack of resources
Tom Clonan argued passionately on RTÉ’s Prime Time last Tuesday that there is a political element to this scandal, because just as hospitals were saying that they can’t cope with any more cuts, these revelations about top-ups were leaked, and meant that all attention was deflected from the lack of resources.

In a similar way, he argued that the culture of politically influenced appointments to boards and elsewhere is toxic. All of this may be true but it leaves the problem of how to mend the damage.

Ironically, after numerous attempts over decades to frame legislation, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter decided last July, long before this controversy, to begin a phased introduction of a charities regulatory authority. Charities want regulation. They had been to the forefront in demanding it. While waiting for legislation to commence, a voluntary code for charity fundraising was framed by ICTR, the representative body for Irish charities. The code came from a coalition of charity fundraising practitioners, donors, auditors and lawyers, along with support from the Government.

The core principles in the statement of guiding principles for fundraising are respect, openness and honesty. In a sector that depends completely on securing public trust, these values are vital.

That is also why it is so important that the regulatory authority works well. It was initially delayed because of the recession and because of the Government’s obsession with getting rid of quangos. The compromise is that the authority will be staffed by 20 civil servants. It is essential that this body has appropriate expertise and resources, because if it fails to restore public confidence, it will be disastrous.

People also need to become more realistic about charities. There is often a sense that all work for charity should be done on a voluntary basis. Of course, much of it is and the sector could not survive without the input of more than 560,000 volunteers and some 50,000 people serving on nonprofit boards.

However, the need to employ staff is a sign of success. Just like businesses, many charities are set up and fade away rapidly. Those that thrive need to professionalise, however, and part of that is paying fair wages.

The public tends to want every cent donated to go directly to the cause, but if you give someone €5 for your favourite cause you should know how that money is spent, and that costs money. Some administrative costs are inescapable.

The key point about expenditure on salaries and administration is that they should be transparent.

If all charities followed the example of organisations such as Concern and the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, and were absolutely open about their finances, the public could judge whether they wanted to donate or volunteer to any particular charity.

While some would prefer to see all such services delivered by the State, that attitude ignores the social capital generated by small groups of passionate people coming together to find solutions to difficulties.

Charities often do something unique: they connect relatively privileged volunteers with the reality of life for people facing poverty, illness, disability and many other challenges. That experience softens people and makes them more supportive of social justice. So you see charities such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul not only helping people out of immediate difficulties, but also lobbying for structural change to create a more equitable society.

The cynic believes everyone is corrupt and motivated by selfishness, but that corrosive attitude is no more realistic than naivety, and has far greater negative consequences. Realism rather than cynicism should prevail.

Let’s not punish the many for the sins of the few. Dig deep this Christmas. Your charity needs you.

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