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Opinion: We can’t let bad charities sour us on doing good this Christmas

Giving to those in need is a special thing in a world where so much indifference and evil is given free rein; we cannot allow bad apples to shake our faith in good.

Aaron McKenna

“FOR IT IS in giving that we receive,” is a quote from Francis of Assisi. It doesn’t matter if you’re religous or not, the sentiment holds true and has been repeated by many. There is a great sense of contentment that comes with giving, be it through donations to charity or time volunteering.

Christmas is a time when our minds turn to giving. We think of gifts for our loved ones, but so too we open our wallets to those who are less fortunate. For all that we lavish on ourselves and others what are, ultimately, frivolities; we do make an effort to contribute in markedly greater amounts than at other times of the year to charity.

The authors of the scandals that came to light in the third sector last year did incalculable damage to the lives of those who rely on charity from the Irish people. A survey for Behaviour & Attitudes found that 70,000 fewer people gave to Christmas appeals in 2013 versus the year before, and some 400,000 stopped giving regularly to charity. Over half of Irish people indicated that they were less willing to give to charity in light of the scandals.

The well documented happenings at Rehab and the Central Remedial Clinic were a thread which, when pulled, began to unravel years of mismanagement, bloated bureaucracy and inflated costs throughout many other parts of the charitable sector. While I have long argued that you need to pay good wages if you want effective leaders for large organisations – as some of our charities undoubtedly are – the amount of gravy swilling around at some of these organisations was staggering. So, too, the mismanagement of programmes that saw very little of the cash raised getting to the people who needed it was a sickening jolt for those who have or had direct debits faithfully sending their hard-earned money over each and every month.

The Irish people, whom the OECD just this week ranked as one of the most effective for giving charity, naturally recoiled from the horrendous rot that was exposed in the sector. When we give money or our time to a charity, we hope and expect that the majority will go towards helping those in actual need. When it became apparent that this was not universally the case in several well-known organisations, people put their money back in their pockets.

The whole sorry affair has been deeply demoralising for all those who give to charity; those good people who work and volunteer in the sector; and the hard up people who benefit from the good works of the sector each and every day. The money withdrawn by Irish people, as well as that money revealed to have been wasted in the first place, is having a direct impact on the lives of people who already live at the very margins of survival.

The good folks who work hard in the charitable sector have felt dirty by association at times. Decent people with professional skills are often required to make a charity work, and it is hard for them to be tainted with association to the fat cats who brought us this scandal, despite having highly paid PR advisors on expensive retainer. Those who volunteer and give feel betrayed at first, and then disheartened when they see the results that less money ends up having on the people they deal with on a daily basis.

From a young age I have seen the natural ease with which Irish people will lend a hand to those in need. As a young cub with the Scouts I would go knocking door to door to ask people for what food they could spare for the needy. We never came away empty-handed. As a schoolboy I saw the ease with which my fellow students would throw themselves into charitable works. They never questioned why they were putting huge efforts behind various efforts to raise money and volunteer to help those in need: it was the right thing to do, and so obviously they were going to do it.

As an adult I have seen how people who are pressured by all the normal demands of life on their time and their finances still make way for charity. From people with a direct debit through those volunteering and on, quite simply, to the people we see every day buying a cup of tea or a meal and bringing it to a person on the streets. They’re not religous ne’er do wells or rich folks feeling guilty. They’re people from all strata who feel the need to give what they can. As Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one”. So many people, whether they know it or not, are living that creed.

This deep tradition of giving and of caring cannot be taken for granted. It is a special thing in a world where so much indifference and evil is given free rein. That is why the transgressions of those who have mismanged our charitable giving is so jarring. They have successfully managed to shake our faith in our ability to do good things for other people.

We cannot, quite frankly, allow these rotten eggs to spoil our taste for doing good.

As we get through the Christmas season all of us who have second thoughts about giving, thanks to what went on last year, need to ensure that we are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Giving to others is probably the most important and fulfilling thing we’ll do at Christmas, no matter how excited the kids might get about a new games console. For all the joy that giving to our loved ones will bring, the fulfillment of giving to those in need will provide a different kind of joy in our lives that would otherwise be sorely missed.

There are great charities out there. This week, Crosscare has launched an appeal for its food bank. They provide hampers to families that in turn make Christmas. There are many homeless charities working on the streets of our cities and towns worth considering, especially as the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie brought the plight of those sleeping rough into sharp relief. There are many charities with Christmas appeals going that are not difficult to find and research.

Yes, you need to do some more diligence than you should really have to on the charities you choose to give to. Check out their background and become satisfied that they do deliver. You will find many more good ones than bad.

A great way to see if a charity is doing good work is also, of course, to volunteer for them. We will spend so much time shopping and socialising and sitting around enjoying ourselves this Christmas. A few hours devoted to serving those less fortunate will be worth acres and will, I promise, deliver fulfillment to you.

We cannot allow bad apples to shake our faith in giving, or let the overly well fed brass at incompetent charities take food from the mouths of those they purported to serve.

As a most astute young woman named Anne Frank once wrote in her famous diary, “How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world”. I urge you, go forward now in this very moment and find something that will help someone else this Christmas season and beyond.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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