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Column Why are so many vital services being provided by charities in the first place?

We must – of course – question the behaviour and practises of Irish charities, but should also ask why they are providing so many vital services instead of the State, writes Ruairí McKiernan.

IRISH CHARITIES ARE entering 2014 in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. According to Fundraising Ireland, donations to charities were down 40% over the Christmas period. At a time when many people are struggling to get by, people are rightfully outraged that their trust has been abused by a small minority of organisations who took their support for granted.

All of this was a time bomb waiting to happen in a multi-billion euro sector which remains unregulated despite years of political promises and calls for regulation from within the charity sector itself.

According to the now-defunct Irish Non Profits Exchange, there is an estimated 12,000 non-profit organisations in Ireland, 7,000 of them with charity status. The sector employs more than 100,000 people and has over 560,000 volunteers and a total annual income of approximately €6 billion. Non-profits and charities are involved in hospitals, education, homelessness, disability, youth work, overseas aid, sport, culture, the arts, the environment, social justice advocacy and more. They are largely supported by taxpayers’ money and through donations from a public who, according to the World Giving Index, are the most generous in Europe.

Important and timely question

The recent scandals are causing important and timely questions to be asked. Charities don’t deserve our hard-earned money just because they say they’re doing good things. We need to know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and to see proof that they’re actually delivering on promises. At the heart of this is the need for transparency and openness, and for clear and honest communications. Publishing accounts online should be a basic requirement, but charities should go further and consider publishing information such as salaries and regular progress reports.

Most charities have nothing to hide. The vast majority of them are small and fledgling operations often reliant on volunteers and interns. Others have just a few staff and in most organisations staff pay is modest, with many existing on temporary contracts with no pensions or financial perks. Salary levels of €25,000-€35,000 are the norm in most charities and according to a survey by The Wheel, the average charity sector CEO salary among their 1,000 members is €59,000 with no ‘top-ups’ or pensions.

I have worked in the charity sector for over a decade and know for a fact that the majority of people involved are hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and caring people who are dedicated to making a difference. They have chosen work in a challenging sector where burn-out is rife due to the constant pressures of trying to solve difficult social problems while trying to keep their organisations afloat amid government cutbacks of up to 50%. This has been in addition to public funds decreasing and two major foundations, the One Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies, winding down their operations. This has led to wage cuts and redundancies, and many charities have folded or are at risk of doing so.

Like every other sector of Irish society, the charity sector needs massive reform. There is no doubt that increased scrutiny is required and that regulation and better coordination and communication must happen as a matter of urgency. The debate on appropriate salary levels for management in all sectors of the economy must also continue. €100,000+ salaries are rare in the charity sector but where they do exist it is important to ask if they are deserved at a time when so many are underpaid or not paid at all. This debate must also consider that charities are like any other organisation, and often need to pay for skilled staff and to cover administration costs if they are to do their job effectively.

Why are so many vital services being provided by charities?

In the midst of this debate, we must ask why so many vital services are being provided by charities while, in other countries, this work is normally considered a core function of the State. This leads to basic services like schools and hospitals having to beg from an already struggling public in order to keeping going. Meanwhile, many hugely profitable corporations get away with paying little or no tax in a country where philanthropic and corporate giving levels are relatively low.

For now, it is important to treat charities like any other body, to challenge them to be more transparent and demand justice where abuses have occurred. Organisations must also be accountable to those they purport to serve. There should also be an onus on supporters to be more discerning, to undertake questioning and research before committing support.

It is essential that we value and celebrate the great work that non-profits and charities do. Whether we like it or not, charities remain essential the functioning of our country and to important relief and development work in places like Syria and the Philippines.

The massive decline in donations is having a real and devastating effect on vital supports for vulnerable people everywhere. It is understandable that some trust has been broken, but we should keep perspective and remember not to punish the good work of many because of the sins of the few.

Ruairí McKiernan is a social justice campaigner, freelance community worker, and member of the Council of State. He is a volunteer on the boards of the Soar Foundation and Gaisce and his website is | Twitter @ruairimckiernan

Read: ‘I’m the CEO of the Capuchin Day Centre and my salary is nil’

Read: Bullied 15-year-old given free nose job by charity which claims to ‘empower children’

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