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Oliver Callan: It’s Christmas, the season of charity guilt-tripping

Ireland’s charity sector is in urgent need of tough regulation and downsizing

Season of goodwill: Christmas is peak season for charities and Ireland has about 24,000 of them. Photograph: Getty

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, please put a penny in the old man’s hat. Once you’ve put a penny in the misfortune’s hat though, 14 others with ailments have gathered looking for theirs. By the time you’ve paid off the hoard, the goose has got so fat, he’s gone to an animal cruelty charity.

They will have to be paid off as well and the goose is now depressed and needs counselling. You’ll be forking out for this too and, at the rate of all the donating, you’ll be the old man with a hat next year. In the meantime, relatives of the goose have set up a memorial foundation and seem to have new cars and take a lot of holidays.

Christmas is peak season for charities and Ireland has about 24,000 of them. Tiny violins will sting your tear ducts, pluck your heart strings and exploit your guilt for daring to enjoy while so many suffer. Buckets clang for attention to help the impoverished, sickened, wronged and addicted.

Irish people remain among the most generous in the world, consistently making the top ten nations in the World Giving Index, which uses data gathered by Gallup. Shouldn’t that be the World Complacency Index? Charities fill the gaps the State cannot or will not provide, and we seem happy to acquiesce.

How have we permitted so many services for the most vulnerable fall to charities, allowing the State to wriggle out of its responsibilities by writing cheques with our money? In Dublin, the Ronald McDonald house supports parents attending Crumlin Children’s Hospital. A fast-food clown doing the work of Government. What next? Tayto Park Nursing Home?

Take Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s involvement in the Ring of Kerry charity cycle. Only in Ireland could we have the leader of the country in Lycra celebrating the need to fill the gaps left by his own cutbacks. I’d donate twenty quid just to never see him in tight shorts again.


Rather than an efficient State providing for the needy, we have thousands of charities fumbling in greasy tills, free from proper oversight, with little evaluation of their work and so many crossovers that most are superfluous.

Minister-sized salaries

There are 75 charities for the homeless receiving €100 million in State funding every year. There’s €150 million in donations on top of that. Given the scale of the crisis, they’re not doing a good job. Wouldn’t that quarter of a billion euro be better spent actually providing homes? Do we really need 75 different bodies doing the same thing, some with executives earning Minister-sized salaries?

This sort of nonsense is repeated across many causes, especially for cancer, mental health, the disabled, the elderly and the Third World. Some are good causes and may offer value for money, but it’s hard to tell. The vast majority are probably as pointless as the reusable seal on a family pack of Maltesers.

The Charities Regulator was established after the Rehab and Central Remedial Clinic payments controversies in 2014. Around the same time, Console’s founders were on a Haughey-esque spending spree that only came to light in a HSE audit. The charities watchdog found out the same way we did, by tuning in to Prime Time.

Perhaps the worst aspect was not the failure to spot discrepancies in time, but that not a single charity publicly condemned it. They knew that to do so would risk more oversight and calls for further transparency.

Some salaries have been revealed but the Console story shows the real meat is in the expenses which are never volunteered. It would rattle the sector to fully reveal the cost of jollies, “entertaining” donors and foreign “fact-finding” trips. Given the ATM of tears that fill its accounts, many of our celebrated charities would make Mary Harney’s wash-and-blow-dry tour of Florida look like a sleety weekend in Lough Derg.

Ring of steel

One lady I spoke to who worked as a fundraiser for many years raising millions for a cause, now says she wouldn’t give tuppence to any charity. In her experience, out of each euro donated, just five cent was used for the actual cause. Depressed? Call any of the dozens of competing mental health helplines.

Charities have a ring of steel around them. There’s a reluctance to risk the insensitivity of being tough on anyone who helps the deprived. They’re also protected by powerful professions who earn income from the industry.

Celebrities are a major factor too, setting up foundations and societies to boost their egos or even their wallets. Legend has it one Irish TV star is the patron of 65 charities, which is a bizarre form of generosity greed. Dozens of tax exiles too litigious to mention hand over a fraction of what they could contribute in tax and then expect praise for doing so.

Our charity sector is out of control, is in urgent need of tough regulation and downsizing. In a system largely left to its own devices, more scandals over the misuse of funds are inevitable.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this column, then please help raise vital funds. All you have to do is shave your head and grow a moustache at a coffee morning after you’ve run the marathon in the dark all the way to the airstrip where you’ll be doing your parachute jump before the trek in Nepal right after our annual Lenten appeal to buy a little badge and a pink bag with a blue ribbon on it. If we don’t raise ten trillion pennies soon, the old man with the hat is goosed.