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Barretstown chief Dee Ahearn: ‘It needed to be run like a business and it wasn’t run like a business’

From the outset, Dee Ahearn has focused on making the charity’s income sustainable and its governance irreproachable so that its campers can rely on it

When Dee Ahearn arrived at Barretstown, the camp for children living with serious illness and their families was catering to 1,700 people annually: last year that number had multiplied tenfold to 17,000, and the ambition is to hit 33,500 by the end of 2027.

That transformation over the past 13 years has only been possible, she argues, because of a relentless focus on running the charity as a business.

That was the mandate from the time Danuta Gray, outgoing chairwoman of Barretstown and a former head of the O2 mobile phone group, got in touch asking her to come on board.

It was all a far cry from the rollercoaster world of Treasury Holdings where she was at the time international sales marketing director, but a previous stint with the Make a Wish charity – including a spell as its chairwoman – meant she was not entirely blind to the challenges ahead.


“It needed to be run like a business and it wasn’t run like a business,” she says. “I think the organisation had done very well, but it was starting to come into a little bit of pressure financially.

“So [then chairman] Maurice [Pratt] and I decided to carry out a full strategic review of the organisation and we looked at a number of things – well, three things in particular. One was, ‘How could we have the greatest impact?’ I knew from talking to the consultants that there were so many sick children out there who could benefit from Barretstown – so, ‘How do we make sure we get to those families?’

“Then it was, ‘How do we make our fundraising more sustainable?’ When I joined here, 40 per cent of our income was coming from corporate partners, of which 70 per cent was just three companies. So, it was a very risky situation to be in from a fundraising perspective.

“And also we knew that we needed to focus on governance and transparency, because at that time there were some issues in the charity sector.”

Barretstown sits on about 60 acres of a 500-acre site in rural Co Kildare. Capacity during the summer months is 125 children at any one time, with 30 families accommodated at weekends at other times of the year. Expanding the season, as she has done, only goes so far. Much of the balance has been made up with an increasing focus on outreach activities in hospitals and schools.

On the funding side, the requirement was diversity. With just 2 per cent of funding coming from the HSE, Barretstown is almost entirely reliant on private donations.

I suppose my job here in Barretstown is to make sure it [a scandal] doesn’t happen here. It’s the board’s responsibility with me to make sure it doesn’t happen here

Ahearn and Pratt decided that focusing on a wide group of small donors – those making regular monthly payments from €25 upwards by direct debit – was the way to go. These donors now account for about 44 per cent of revenue, bringing in €200,000 every month, up from €17,000 when she first arrived. During Covid, the charity was careful to keep in touch with these donors and, with just a handful of exceptions, Ahearn says all have stayed loyal to the charity.

Corporate donations now account for 20 per cent of income, but spread more broadly, followed by big donors – high net-worth individuals, trusts and foundations – who contribute about 10 per cent of funds raised. Later this year, to mark Barretstown’s 30th anniversary, the charity will host a gala ball.

The rest of the funding comes from a variety of sources, including gifts-in-kind from corporate suppliers and from renting out the Barretstown facilities to corporates at times when there are no children or family events on site. Barretstown is also active on the fundraising side in the US and Britain.

Legacies are also a significant contributor to finances, although they are ringfenced for future capital investment and are not part of the day-to-day budget. The diningroom/restaurant on site that can accommodate 250 campers, staff and volunteers was funded entirely by a bequest from Ballsbridge woman Elizabeth Burke, who never saw Barretstown herself but was a fan of its founder, the actor Paul Newman.

The more recent staff accommodation block was funded through the Government’s Immigrant Investor Programme, which allowed people from outside the EU to access visas in return for investment in Irish businesses or charity.

Governance was the third leg of the strategy, with the biggest challenge being how to put best practice in place without the ready paid access to advice you might have in the corporate world.

The management set up a thoroughly professional structure of committees covering risk and governance, development, nominations and remuneration alongside the childcare advisory and finance/audit groups already in place. At least two and more often three board directors – all of them senior business leaders in their own right, acting in a voluntary capacity – sit on each committee.

Ahearn then tapped a network built up over 15 years in the corporate world, including former Arthur Cox partner and Treasury Holdings general counsel Rory Williams, who undertook “a deep dive into all our governance”.

“Our governance had to be robust,” Ahearn says. “PwC recently came in and did governance training for everybody. So, we’re always trying to stay ahead on the governance side of things, and obviously we’re signed up to Charities Institute Ireland’s governance code. Accountability and transparency were so, so important to us.”

All the more so against a background of recurring high-profile crises of governance at charities in recent times.

“There’s no doubt it is a shame but, I think to be fair to charities, resourcing is a huge issue for charities. I would believe that our governance is probably as good as any business, if not better than any business in Ireland, and I think that’s the challenge the charities face – especially because they don’t have access to the resources.

“Mistakes happen. I don’t think anyone goes out to create a charity scandal. I think it was the same in the [recent] Peter McVerry Trust [financial crisis], very well-intentioned people who just want to do so much good but not really understanding what the limitations are.

“I also believe that one of the challenges that the Charities Regulator has is that there are a lot of charities doing very similar things, smaller charities set up by very well-intentioned people who may not have experience of running a business. Like, it’s a business at the end of the day, and they have to be run like a business.”

As part of that, Barretstown has introduced an internal audit. In size terms, the charity is not required to, but it is bringing in someone independent to look at elements of the charity’s finances.

“At the moment, it’s the fixed asset register. Last year it might have been expenses. They’ll do a deep dive, and they’ll do a report back for our board. And I would far prefer somebody making a recommendation and finding things that we can improve on than to end up in a situation where something has gone wrong because it’s been an oversight. It’s my job to make sure that there aren’t any of those oversights.

“I suppose my job here in Barretstown is to make sure it [a scandal] doesn’t happen here. It’s the board’s responsibility with me to make sure it doesn’t happen here.”

Which brings us to the issue of pay – always a thorny subject in the charity sector. Some people seem to assume people taking jobs running charities should do so on no more than the average national wage. Ahearn earns somewhere between €150,000 and €160,000, according to Barretstown’s most recent annual report. A further two staff earn between €100,000 and €110,000, with three more earning above €80,000.

All the figures are published in its annual report.

Our energy costs are incredibly high. They’ve increased by about 160 per cent over the last couple of years. Insurance costs have jumped by over a quarter over the past four years

“We are accountable and we’re responsible. I think it’s very important for the general public to know that people who make the leap of faith and decide to join a charitable organisation aren’t doing it because it’s going to be easier. I can tell you honestly I work harder than I did when I was in Treasury Holdings and when I was in CBRE, because the buck stops with me.

“And I think if organisations want people who are good businesspeople to come in and run them, yes, the salaries might be higher, but you must bear in mind, those people could leave the organisation, go into the private sector, and earn significantly more.

“It’s important to look at the impact, the role of the person coming into the organisation,” Ahearn says. “Like I said, the board wanted Barretstown to be run like a business, and I think the results speak for themselves. We’ve increased camper numbers by 1,000 per cent, we’ve increased income by 125 per cent.

“We’re very careful about how we spend money,” she says. “We had a strong year last year, ending the year about €1 million ahead of where we thought we were going to be on income, which is fantastic.”

That brought revenue within touching distance of €9 million, up from €8.1 million in 2022. The target for this year in €9 million, and “we’re going to need to be raising €10 million by 2028″, she says.

On the costs side, however, the pressure keeps mounting, as for any business.

“We’ve had significant increases in costs,” Ahearn says. “Our energy costs are incredibly high. They’ve increased by about 160 per cent over the last couple of years. Insurance costs have jumped by over a quarter over the past four years and salaries are up as well.

“When it comes to increases in minimum wage, it’s great for bigger organisations, but it’s crippling for smaller organisations,” she says, reciting a view widely held among small and medium-sized enterprises across the State.

To try to manage energy bills, Barretstown is focusing increasingly on sustainability, and wants to be carbon-neutral by 2030. As part of that initiative, the charity has planted thousands of saplings on the estate, a move that will also feed into fundraising, as people can purchase or gift one of the trees for €75. It is also looking at installing solar energy on site to cover a chunk of its energy costs.

Ahearn’s background is in marketing. A Tipperary native, she left school with little idea of what she wanted to do. She applied for and secured a visa for Australia, only to be overcome with a dread that she might find herself homesick there. Instead, she went to London. The buzz at the time was marketing, so she sent what she describes as her “very sparse” CV off to about 200 agencies. One agency bit, and Ahearn quickly showed a flair for marketing, winning a retail award for an early campaign for Procter & Gamble.

When her mother became ill after a transfusion of contaminated blood, she decided to return home and, despite a total lack of knowledge of power tools, landed a job with Black & Decker’s Irish operation. Four years later, she was headhunted by estate agent Gunne as a marketing manager working variously in their residential, commercial and new homes departments, just as the Celtic Tiger was beginning to roar.

She retains very fond memories of Fintan Gunne and, subsequently, his son Pat, as they ran the business which ultimately went on to become CBRE. She credits the latter with the advice of always surrounding herself with the best people – advice she says she continues to follow at Barretstown.

One day Richard Barrett, whose Treasury Holdings was a CBRE customer, rang to see whether she would be interested in joining them as marketing director. Her mentor, Pat Gunne, encouraged her, but warned: “Be prepared, it’s going to be a rollercoaster.”

And so it was. One week she would be in Shanghai marketing a big mixed development, then she might be in Russia.

“I loved it. It was a rollercoaster, it absolutely was. I admired the vision of Richard and Johnny [Ronan, his partner in the business]. No matter what they tried. If it didn’t work out, they’d try it again or they’d try a different way to make something happen. They taught me a lesson that you just don’t give up.

“Richard was the exact opposite of Johnny, but then Johnny had the vision and he brought everybody with him. He was a whirlwind. He’d come into the office and he’d have this idea and everyone was going ‘Oh God . . .’ You’d kind of steady yourself and then you’d go ‘Okay, yes, we can do this’. That was just the way it was. I loved it.”

Barretstown’s traditional target audience has been seriously ill children between the ages of zero and 17. The majority have cancer, but just under half are being treated for other conditions. The charity also runs camps for families of ill children and for siblings (both in the company of and without the ill brother or sister) who are working through what can be four-year programmes of therapy for their child, brother or sister.

It also runs bereavement camps. “Thanks to advances in modern medicine, over 80 per cent of the children will go on to make a full recovery, but there are still 20 per cent where the outcome won’t be successful,” Ahearn says. “So, for those families, we run a bereavement programme. To me, that is one of the saddest programmes we run.

“Barretstown is a very, very happy place, but behind it there’s a family here who’ve lost a child, and it’s so hard to sort of get your head around that.”

More recently, the charity has started running a young adult programme for people between the ages of 18 and 24 living with illness.

“That’s a very important cohort, because they fall outside the children’s services, and they’re into adult services,” Ahearn says. “If you’re a child in hospital, you get all the wraparound supports automatically. But if you’re 17 or 18, you end up in adult services, and it’s not as conducive to that age group. It’s a very, very, very different environment.”

And then there are the outreach programmes in schools and hospitals, which is where the bulk of the growth is expected to take place between now and 2028, when camper numbers are expected to rise to 33,500 from 17,000 last year.

Managing the camper numbers is a big logistical operation. Barretstown has a staff of about 60 that expands to 100 during the summer months, when camps for ill children take place. Alongside that are about 2,000 volunteers, all of whom need vetting.

In a sign that Ahearn and her team must be doing something right, about 50 per cent of volunteers return each year, with numbers bolstered by recovered children and parents who have previously enjoyed the Barretstown experience.


Name: Dee Ahearn

Age: 55

Position: Chief executive, Barretstown

Family: Married to Ciaran, they have an adult daughter, Millie

Outside interests: I’ve semi-taken up golf, but I’m not a golfer. I play golf like it’s snooker. And I like to walk and just take in the countryside.

Something you might expect: She spends a significant amount of her time focused on fundraising at home and abroad for the charity’s ever-expanding range of services.

Something that might surprise: Ahearn’s earliest ambition was to be a rally driver, following in the footsteps of her hero, Rosemary Smith.