Crunch time for charities


The size and importance of the role of charities in Ireland is never more apparent than at Christmas, when the need for support for the less well off in society concentrates minds, and stirs consciences.

The spirit of Christmas moves those who can do so to help those in society unable to help themselves – whether by making a charity donation or by participating in voluntary activity. Since 2008, the number of volunteers registered with Volunteer Ireland has doubled to 14,800, a remarkable transformation in difficult times. However, five years of fiscal austerity have hit the revenues of the charities sector, which relies on public contributions for much of its financial support.

Charities have also become victims of the economic downturn; charitable donations have fallen as incomes have declined and unemployment has risen. In 2009, the Revenue Commissioners refunded €31.6 million to charities that benefited from tax relief on donations. In 2011, the figure had fallen to €26.3 million.

This revenue shortfall has forced all charities to do more with less, just when public demand for their services has soared. By how much can be seen from the workload of one of Ireland’s largest charities, the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Last week, over five days, its Dublin office received almost 4,000 calls from distressed individuals seeking reassurance and financial assistance – an 80 per cent increase on three years ago.

There are some 8,000 registered charities in Ireland which, given that very large number, involves duplication of charitable effort by some. Are quite so many charities really needed to cater for a limited number of aims in serving charitable needs at home and abroad? A survey, in a report published recently by Advocacy Initiative, found most charities and non-governmental agencies were critical of the Government’s quality of decision-making, and its lack of expertise in this area. Their criticism may have some merit. However, these organisations might be better placed to make it, having first sought and secured some consolidation within the charities sector, to eliminate duplication of effort, to secure greater economies of scale, and to project a clearer image to the public.

The Charities Act was passed in 2009, but full implementation of the legislation has been deferred until the budgetary situation improves. The moratorium on public service recruitment has meant the establishment of a new regulatory body for charities has been deferred. In the meantime, while they wait for that legislative change to come into effect, the charities could do more to help themselves; by engaging in discussions on the consolidation and rationalisation of their sector to minimise the impact of the charity crunch. That said, so many of them provide a critical support role in Irish society.

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