Updated: 13/07/12 : 08:00:07
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Charities: A Benefit or Self-serving Hindrance?

By Jim O'Sullivan

“A society that has more justice
is a society that needs less charity”.

Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) report for 2011 puts Ireland second on the world's “most charitable country” list. While at first sight this appears flattering, in fact what it really throws up is that there are an awful lot of charities in Ireland---which in turn suggests that there is much need for them too. At the top of this list Ireland is surrounded by countries noted also for inequity in their societies.

The more socially just and cohesive communities, such as the Nordic countries, are way down the list. This lends weight to the theory that the more charities about, the less justice there is and as charities target symptoms, not causes, they also act as an impediment to tackling inequity. Accordingly Ireland’s lofty spot on this list must give rise for concern above all else.

Add to all this the concerns that arise now and then regarding probity, executive pay packages, internal squabbles and other issues and it makes for a heady cocktail which when viewed in the round gives credence to what many think---our charity sector seems to have become more and more populated with self-interested entities who regard squeezing money out of an unsuspecting, albeit a sometimes irritated public, as their “raison d’être”.

Disquiet expressed a few years ago regarding how charities are run here led directly to the drafting of a new “Charities Act” to regulate the area but this has become stalled in the corridors of power and the guess is that strenuous lobbying by and on behalf of the charity sector is the reason. It appears that someone somewhere wants the covers left draped over this area of Irish life complete with a continuation of the “light-touch” regulation that has become the bane of our wee state.

One of the areas that raised eyebrows in recent times is the remuneration packages that charities Chief Executives Officers (CEOs) receive. The most controversial surrounded the CEO of Rehab with reports of a pay-package ranging from €230,000 to as high as €500,000. The controversy is stoked by the fact that Rehab repeatedly refuse to state publicly what the real amount is; recent correspondence with the current Minister for Justice indicated that the basic pay is of the order of €250,000. Even at this rate it is gynormous when compared with the pay that those with a disability who work for the organisation get. They receive a small top-up to their disability allowance and, as we all know, those allowances were cut from €204 to €188 a week 18 months ago.

While that particular salary is probably the highest in Ireland, most CEOs of other well known charities do very well indeed with most figures over the €100,000 before expenses and other perks. These include the well known Irish Cancer Society (€145,000) Trócaire (€133,605.) Focus Ireland (€146,191.) etc.  A survey of 24 charity CEOs compiled by Catherine Shanahan of the Irish Examiner last September showed that most were in receipt of very lucrative rewards for their efforts. Disconcertingly, 6 of the 24 contacted refused to give the requested information.

 And there is no sign that the growth of this sector is about to slow. Recently we noticed that social housing has now been handed over to private charitable organisations here as was done in the UK by Margaret Thatcher. Last year a UK government study of quangos and charities generally uncovered the fact that CEOs were paying themselves salaries far in excess of the norm. Two private housing associations, “Anchor” and “Places for People”, paid their CEOs £333,000 (€4400,00) and  £288,000 (€350,000) per annum respectively with overall remuneration packages that left Prime Minister Cameron’s looking like that of a junior clerk by comparison.

What private housing associations here, such as Cluid and Respond, pay their CEOs and other individual staff members is not clear but Cluid’s 2010 Annual Report tells us that on pensions, “The Association operates a defined contribution scheme on behalf of certain employees. The contributions made in that year amounted to €212,769 (2009: €167,830)” It does not say who the “certain employee” beneficiaries are but it can’t escape the notice of the observer that such contributions are derived from the rents paid by the lowest paid quintile in society, the vast majority of whom most certainly cannot afford to provide a pension for themselves. In this case the charity is benefiting those running it at the expense of those it is suppose to serve.

 So much for the notion that the charity sector is populated exclusively with people only motivated to serve others. Clearly this is a very lucrative career choice in many cases.

Fund raising methods have also become a source of irritation for members of the public. The very unpopular “chugging” comes immediately to mind--- people going about their daily lives are stopped on the street and urged to sign a direct debit arrangement as a means of “giving” Many people find this very intimidating and some admit to signing the  “agreement” just to get away from the persistent “chugger”. That anyone would be asked to sign such an “agreement” on the public street ought surely to set alarm bells ringing somewhere.

Another method of gathering donations is emerging and unless properly regulated will cause major problems for phone owners. Many mobile phone owners will at some stage have experienced being entrapped in a so called “subscription service”---where they innocently respond to an ad or prompt to enter a competition to win a prize---only to find some weeks later that the Mobile Operator involved has been sending “reverse billing” texts which take money directly from call credit on a regulator basis without seeking any further permission to do so. This practice is, believe it or not, still legal in Ireland.  

A new organisation set up to collect money for a group of 25 charities recently delivered flyers into every home seeking a text donation of €2 a week using this “subscription service/reverse billing” method. Many people will assume that they are making a single donation but in fact once they respond this organisation will take €2 directly from call credit thereafter every week and will continue to do so until the phone owner sends a “stop” text to the relevant number.

This text method can also see a very large slice of the donation siphoned off in some cases. On the Special Olympics site for example people are invited to make a once-off  €2 donation by text with the advisory “min. of €1 goes to Special Olympics” This implies that half the donation goes elsewhere but there is no explanation as to where. It is hardly reasonable to seek a donation on the basis that half will not reach the charity involved and---as with the “subscription service” method which may entrap those not wishing to donate every week---this shows at least a disregard for donor’s interests in general.

Another concern regarding some charities is that they appear on occasion to be merely agents of government---the source of much of their income----assisting in the implementation of policy regardless of whether such policy is acceptable or not. It is understandable that persons associated with “charitable” work would have some “influence” with the general populous as their views and opinions are given more weight because they are perceived as living their lives in the service of others---particularly the most vulnerable in our society. Their motivations are deemed pure and flawless.

The CEO of the aforementioned Rehab, Angela  Kerins, was accused openly of helping Bertie Ahern deliver the controversial Disability Act in 2005 despite widespread opposition from a number of groups who felt it did not provide for the “disability-proofing” of all government legislation which they were promised it would do.

 And the people of the North West will have still fresh in their minds what many regard as a betrayal by the Irish Cancer Society as they fought to try to save their cancer services. The Society not only failed to support the people of the region but they openly cheer-led Harney’s vandalism of the Sligo service. Those close to the campaign will never forget that on the day the Sligo service finally closed it was people attached to the Society that came on the airwaves both welcoming and excusing the move. All of which suggested a too close relationship with government.

 All indications are that the ideology which sees nothing wrong with citizens having to seek the aid of charities to access vital and basic rights, such as healthcare, housing etc, is not going away anytime soon. The new, “we will change everything” government, has simply continued with the previous government’s policies in this regard.

 Is it not time that we at least had an open discussion on such matters? We need to tease out the difference between charity and giving aid. Aid has the potential to raise the less well off to the same level as the wealthy; charity, on the other hand, tends to maintain the difference between them. We should also revisit the simple contention that many of the charities currently in existence should be replaced by ensuring greater justice generally in how we organise and run our affairs.

Every charity should have within its “Mission Statement” a commitment to removing the causes of the need they were set up to address complete with an expiry date. Planned obsolescence is the best objective any charity can embrace.

In the meantime, we should insist that the Charities Act sitting in cold storage is brought before the Dail and enacted---if for no other reason than to help protect the reputations of the well intended.