How to rebuild trust in Irish charities

Government should lay down its hopes and ambitions of the sector in all its forms

Daffodil Day volunteer 83 year old Dora Bracken from Terenure has volunteered for the Irish Cancer Society for over 30 years. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Daffodil Day volunteer 83 year old Dora Bracken from Terenure has volunteered for the Irish Cancer Society for over 30 years. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

The charity sector plays a key role in Irish society every day of every year. Our 9,300 registered charities impact on our lives from children and families benefitting from sporting, cultural and educational services to older people supported by social support and health services. But like many other parts of Irish life, charities face significant challenges.

The attitudes and expectations of our citizens have changed. We are seeing increasing demands for services and greater transparency on the one hand but, on the other, low acceptance of the need to provide the resources needed to deliver on these ask.

The work done by many charities has evolved from a voluntary filling of gaps left by the State to being commissioned by the State to deliver ever-increasing standards of care and service. The sector is also now regulated, providing a level of assurance for citizens and a driver of higher standards of governance.

In late 2017, the Charities Institute Ireland (Cii) published Charities 2037 - a major programme of research undertaken by Amárach Research involving the public, volunteers, those running charities and thought leaders from the private sector, philanthropic organisations and academia to explore how the sector should develop over the next two decades.

Its findings painted some of the challenges in stark terms. The charity sector is like no other; it revolves completely around trust. In the Amárach research, over half (54%) felt they do not know what charities do with the money donated (the same proportion that don’t trust donations are used effectively) and the clear majority agree that transparency is not currently satisfactory for the public (74%). It is also apparent that the general public’s levels of trust in charities has not, and is not, recovering at any significant rate.

So, what can we in the sector do to address this challenge? One initiative the Institute has pioneered is the Cii Triple Lock. Charities who have achieved the Cii Triple Lock can provide stakeholders with an assurance that they are donating to a charity with transparent accounting, ethical fundraising principles and good governance structures. In 2017, the number of charities with the Cii Triple Lock status has doubled and it is a programme we will continue to promote actively. As its usage grows, this will, in turn, encourage all charities in Ireland to ‘up their games’ in order to obtain this mark.

Another challenge for the sector is the disconnect between the expectations for charities and the level of funding which people would like to see allocated to the professionalisation of the sector. As society becomes more complex, so too do its needs. Charities are being asked to provide more and more specialised services and skills. Six in ten believe that charities have an important role to play in Irish society and a large majority agreed with the statement that ‘charities should get the best professionals possible to work with them’. However, in contrast, less than half (forty-one per cent) agree that charities should pay competitive wages for these professionals.

Perhaps it’s time that the charity sector had the courage to argue more vociferously that if we are to retain skilled staff, if we are to attract the best, if we are to deliver the highest quality services -there is a cost that has to be paid. This is not to diminish the vital role that volunteers play in many of our charities but to recognise the transition we are going through and the increasing expectations on charities.

We also need some indication from our political parties on how they see the sector developing in a changing Ireland. Government has many roles in relation to the charity sector. It is the key funder. It sets the regulatory framework. It can provide the incentives to encourage private investment. It can also create the gaps into which charities must step to ensure protection for the most vulnerable in our society. Government can also create huge and unnecessary burdens on the sector, through duplication in reporting, unpredictability in income and confusing its roles as funder, legislator and reactor.

Government should lay down its hopes and ambitions of the sector in all its forms. It needs to promote involvement and engagement. It needs to demand the highest standards of the sector, but also operate to the highest standards of governance and engagement when dealing with the sector and individual organisations.

As more resources become available to the Exchequer, does Government want to use this by outsourcing the role of providing ongoing societal necessities to charities or does it see the state payroll growing to meet needs.

Irish society, Government and the charities themselves need to consider what expectations they have of each other. What society wants and what charities can give needs to be reviewed. We need to both engage and challenge each other on how the role of charitable organisations can develop to the benefit of the Irish people.

Lucy Masterson is Chief Executive of Charities Institute Ireland

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