A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Why Ireland ranks fifth in the world for giving

Small-scale philanthropy is in our nature

‘When it comes to donating money, Myanmar tops the poll and Ireland is seventh.’ Photograph: iStock

‘When it comes to donating money, Myanmar tops the poll and Ireland is seventh.’ Photograph: iStock


The recently published CAF World Giving Index ranks Ireland fifth in the world for giving. The annual survey rates each of the world’s countries on the basis of kindness towards strangers, volunteerism and donating money.

Across all three measures the chart topper is the US, followed by Myanmar. Ireland comes behind New Zealand and Australia but before Canada, the UK, Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

We have never forgotten that people from around the globe helped us in our time of need

The CAF, which is based in the UK, shows China to have the lowest score, at the bottom for all three measures. When it comes to donating money, Myanmar tops the poll and Ireland is seventh. For volunteering time, Ireland is 10th.

To come fifth on aggregate out of 146 countries surveyed is no mean achievement. How it came to pass is only guesswork however, as, according to the CAF, there is no one trait that points to a country’s generosity.

Top-performing companies represent a wide range of geographies, religions, cultures and levels of wealth, it points out. All they have in common is what it terms “an inspiring willingness to give”.

“Irish people are incredibly generous,” says Amy Carr of Focus Ireland. Where the US may steal a march is that philanthropy there, which traditionally relates more to the giving of large sums by wealthy individuals, is a more established tradition.

In Ireland there is some evidence that ordinary individuals are increasingly seeing charitable giving as a way of making an impact investment. “It’s about making the change you most want to see, leaving a legacy of change,” she says.

It isn’t just individuals who are being “more strategic” either, corporate donors are too. Bord Gáis Energy’s recent decision to fund a major piece of research into homelessness, to help Focus Ireland better understand the factors involved in becoming homeless, is a case in point.

The insights it generated helped move the conversation on from talk about people “gaming the system”, by highlighting the economic factors that have resulted in so many people losing their former home.

“Getting to those root causes, being able to identify them, enables us to use these insights to advocate with government and to trial new services, to ensure we are reacting to the homeless crisis in the ways we should be,” she says.

Good givers

Why Ireland scores so well on the CAF Index is open to debate. “Irish people are good givers, and are good at identifying with a wide variety of causes, both domestic and international,” says Richard Dixon of Concern.

Being a small island in the middle of the Atlantic has by necessity made us global in our outlook and attitudes, as has our history of emigration, he suggests.

“We are certainly globally focused in a way you don’t always find elsewhere. Irish people are more globally aware. If you look at RTÉ news or The Irish Times, you’ll see specialist foreign affairs journalists employed. You don’t get that everywhere. I lived in the US for a number of years, and foreign news there meant the next state over.”

That global outlook makes us open to supporting people in distant places. “People talk about charity beginning at home but most people here interpret that as meaning it doesn’t end there,” he says.

The launch of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is helping too, by setting out global objectives. Their launch has helped communicate the message that what charities such as Concern are doing is raising funds for the populations of a shared planet.

“When we talk about the UN’s SDGs we can talk about Ireland’s role in helping to deliver them. It makes these issues local as well as global,” says Dixon.

In relation to traditional philanthropy, as something exercised by wealthy people, he points out that the US experience is not necessarily one we would like to see here. There, hospitals and museums are endowed by individuals, here we expect to share their funding through our tax.

Tax breaks may be helpful, but only to a point, he suggests. “My experience is that tax can influence the amount given, but won’t influence whether or not a person is philanthropic,” says Dixon.

That said, through the work of My Legacy, people are being encouraged to make more structured giving, such as through wills.

For this kind of philanthropy, the UK is a good role model. A country that has been wealthy for much longer than Ireland has, it has a much stronger tradition of legacy giving. It also, incidentally, has a tradition of paternalistic capitalism, as seen in the establishment of worker towns such as Port Sunlight and Bourneville.

My Legacy, a charitable umbrella organisation comprising 65 Irish charities, is working to make charitable bequests the norm in Ireland.

It does this through a range of activities including a national media campaign every autumn, My Legacy Month. It also conducts research into Irish and international best practice.

It estimates that aggregate charitable bequests in Ireland are currently running at about €50 million a year, accounting for about 6 per cent of all charitable giving or about 0.9 per cent of the inter-generational transfer of wealth at death. In contrast, charitable bequests are estimated to account for 9 per cent of all charitable giving in the UK.

It is advocating for a number of policy changes from Government to help boost legacy giving here, including tax incentives for disponers of property, and for inheritors.

In the meantime, Ireland can take some pride in having “a deep history of giving and an extraordinary culture of volunteerism”, says Eamon Sharkey of Goal.

“We’re a country that has never forgotten our history and how we emerged from poverty. We have never forgotten that people from around the globe helped us in our time of need. That memory is reflected in the number of charities that exist in Ireland today. Compared to other countries, one could reasonably argue our philanthropic culture is still only developing but if you collectively look at the impact of Ireland’s reach both at home and across the globe, we are absolutely a nation of carers with an enormous footprint of charitable giving and support.”