American Ireland Fund 'a broker' between Irish projects and US philanthropists


BACKGROUND:The fund is now one of the largest private bodies supporting economic and social development in Ireland, writes CARL O’BRIENChief Reporter

WHEN HE visited Ireland in 1963, US president John F Kennedy and president Éamon de Valera formed the American Irish Foundation, aimed at fostering connections between Irish-Americans and their ancestral homeland.

The group’s membership and mission expanded over the years. Today, after merging with the Ireland Fund in the late 1980s, it has become one of the largest private organisations supporting economic and social development in Ireland.

Of the 12 funds that make up what is known as the Worldwide Ireland Fund, the American Ireland Fund is the largest.

These are private fundraising entities whose purpose is to generate support for charities in Ireland on both sides of the Border, and for needy members of the Irish community abroad.

In the last 10 years, the American Ireland Fund has written cheques for $110 million to 1,200 organisations.

The fund says it organises 100 events across its network, attended by 40,000 guests annually.

Much of its fundraising comes through gala dinners, which can raise tens of thousands of dollars per head. Its most successful single event – the 2007 New York gala dinner – raised more than $4 million.

Much of the American Ireland Fund’s work involves identifying worthy projects in Ireland and then soliciting donors to support these projects.

“As such, the fund is a broker between need in Ireland and philanthropists here in the US,” says Kieran McLaughlin, who took over as the fund’s chief executive last month.

At the height of the boom, the fund raised some $23 million in a single year. Against the backdrop of the recession, this sum has fallen sharply in more recent times. Latest figures, for 2008, indicate that it raised around $15 million.

The fund currently has assets in the region of $11 million. This includes $3.5 million in donors’ funds – which are due to be paid out in the form of grants – and $4.3 million of artwork on public display in Ireland.

There are a further $2.5 million in endowment policies, which will be used to support operational costs as well as discretionary grants, according to the fund.

It has $500,000 in life assurance policies, but they do not become liquid until the holder passes away.

In the context of some of the worst years on record for philanthropy in the US, the organisation says it was one of a minority – an estimated 12 per cent – of not-for-profits due to make a surplus in 2009.

In addition to raising funds, it has put a heavy emphasis on promoting philanthropy in Ireland and other countries in more recent times. It has also focused on developing “global diaspora strategies”, and is advising other countries and governments on this potential.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has praised the organisation as a model for diaspora and philanthropic networking.

At a recent meeting of the American Pakistan Foundation, she said the American Ireland Fund could serve as a “model for effective, far-reaching philanthropy that complements and improves the work of government”.