My Experience as Charity Trustee

As part of our series of blogs for Charity Trustees’ Week, The Wheel spoke to Austin O’Sullivan about his role as trustee of The Wheel. Austin is also Director of Resources at WALK.

Q. How and why did you become a charity trustee in the first place?

My first involvement at Board level was with a voluntary association governed by a constitution. When the association became a Company Limited by Guarantee I transferred into being a director. At that time I wasn’t aware of the duties of a director and for many years I was ignorant of my legal responsibilities. It was only through education in the Governance Code that my responsibilities became clear to me. I now have 30 years’ experience on boards in areas of Equality, Human Rights and Education. There is a close match between by areas of voluntary work and my full-time job.

Q.How have you used your skills, knowledge and experience in your role as trustee?

I have experience in Finance, Human Resources and Organisation Development. I have usually had a Finance remit on the boards I have been involved in as this is an important area in the governance of an orgnaisation.

Q. How has your experience as a trustee helped you in your day job and in your understanding of good governance?

I have been able to bring the knowledge I acquired in my voluntary roles back into my day job, and this has benefited the organisation I work for.

Q. Tell us a little about what you have learnt personally from your experience as a trustee?

Being a trustee has made me aware of the importance implementing robust systems to ensure the Board manages the affairs of the organisation in an appropriate manner. Ultimately, this results in stronger organisations. I have had the opportunity to work in areas of personal interest that I would never have gotten any other way. It is a commitment but the rewards are there when you see how your contribution supports the achievement of the mission of the organisation.

Q. What are currently the key challenges for the trustees of charities and how have these changed since you began as a trustee?

The duties and responsibilities of a trustee in the community and voluntary sector are now the same as those of a corporate board. This means that trustees need to be 100% committed to the role and to educate themselves about their responsibilities. This personal responsibility is a heavy burden, especially in communities where volunteers are scare and the same people end up on many boards in their community. I think we need to look at increased supports for Boards. Resource constraints in smaller organisations mean that education is sometimes forgone for front-line service provision. Support for Trustees should be made available by Charities Regulator, and all Board should be supported free of charge to attain the Governance Code standard.

Q. Would you encourage others to volunteer as trustees and why?

Being a trustee gives you an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the work of the organisation whose work you support. I think it is important that your personal values match the values of the organisation. It provides great networking opportunities and a great sense of community!

Ireland’s first Trustees’ Week will take place from 13 to 17 November.  The week is being organised by the Charities Regulator, The Wheel, Charities Institute Ireland, Dóchas, the Carmichael Centre, Boardmatch Ireland and Volunteer Ireland. For more information visit


A Firm Hand on the Tiller: A Tribute to Charity Trustees

Charity Trustees’ Week is long overdue – trustees are great and their work has gone unacknowledged and unappreciated for far too long. Charity Trustees’ Week will play a small part in putting that to rights!

Ivan Cooper

Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy at The Wheel

The Charities Regulator estimates that there are upwards of 48,000 people doing the voluntary work of unpaid trustees on the boards of Ireland’s charities. It’s the trustees of Ireland’s charities who are ultimately responsible for achieving their organisation’s charitable purpose – usually a vital support or service in their local community. It’s critically important work that often goes unseen and remains unsung.

Ireland’s charity trustees take on major responsibilities for no personal gain. When they do it well they provide energetic and inspirational leadership in their organisations and communities. They put in the time to understand the detail in reports and plans from management and hold management to account.  They immerse themselves month-in-and-month-out in the detail of budgets and reports and they work to communicate the difference their work is making in the lives of the communities they serve. It’s a very demanding role that requires a wide variety of skills to perform – and one of the challenges boards face is to make sure they have the right skills-mix on the board to succeed.

People have all sorts of motivations for becoming a trustee of a charity. Some, active in a cause they are passionate about, will establish a new charity. They face the same challenges any entrepreneur faces as they respond to the demands of the cause and set up an organisation to meet the need. Others may have become involved with an established charity that has paid staff to do the day-to-day work – their job is more about overseeing the staff and providing strategic direction. They face the same challenges as a director of a small or medium-sized firm. In both cases, however, the trustees are responsible for the good governance of the organisation. What does this mean?

The word ‘governance’ is derived from the ancient Greek word for the helmsman of a boat – and that gives us the insight that governing a charity is akin to steering a boat – it’s all about knowing the direction the organisation should be going in, the destination that we want to arrive at (the outcome for the community we are supporting) and having a firm hand on the tiller, so that the organisation stays under control and goes in the right direction. It’s the trustees’ job to make sure these tasks of governance are attended to.  Additionally, governing is about making sure that all the systems and processes that the organisation needs to function smoothly (think “ship-shape”) are in place, and that any regulations that apply (think employment law, health and safety law, charity regulations, company law requirements) are adhered to.  This is the compliance piece of the governance jigsaw.

But that’s not all – everyone has an interest in what charities are doing with the public funds entrusted to their care. In this sense Trustees are like guardians; they are minding something that is important to the wider community, and the mission they direct and the assets they control are not their personal, private property.  And just like guardians, they are responsible for the wellbeing of those in their charge, and for accounting to the wider community on whose behalf they act. So being transparent, accountable and subject to scrutiny are key aspects of effective trusteeship. Why do they take on the challenge?

For many, there is no choice, they are passionate about a cause and they feel it is their duty to respond.  For others, they simply want to make a contribution to society, and for others still, perhaps to give something back.  For all trustees, there is a great intrinsic reward in having played an essential part in ensuring their communities have the services and supports they need to thrive.

But we need to mind the guardians too! Ireland’s charities have been through a challenging time in recent years, and we need to make sure that the brave and courageous people who step forward to volunteer as board members and trustees are supported in the work.  So what can be done? The community, voluntary and charity sector needs to work with Government, the Charities Regulator, and the big funding authorities that benefit from trustees (such as the HSE and Tusla) to raise awareness of the value of charity trusteeship to society at large.

In addition:

  • good quality and accessible information should be available to trustees – from many sources and in many formats – on their role. Information should be in plain English.
  • Charities should make sure that training budgets are in place to support and develop trustees in their roles.
  • Charities should ensure that all trustees are provided with good quality induction by the charities they volunteer with.
  • Term limits should be put in place so that trustees know they can volunteer for a fixed period without there being an expectation that they serve for many, many years.
  • Professional bodies should work to develop more consistent and tailored advice for charity trustees – differentiated from the standard advice they provide to for-profit company directors: the challenge is different for trustees of charities – particularly the accountability challenge.
  • And finally, Charity Trustees Week should be developed further to promote and celebrate the huge contribution that our large army of trustees make every year!

Ireland’s first Trustees’ Week will take place from 13 to 17 November.  The week is being organised by the Charities Regulator, The Wheel, Charities Institute Ireland, Dóchas, the Carmichael Centre, Boardmatch Ireland and Volunteer Ireland. For more information visit

Follow The Wheel on Twitter




Meet The Wheel’s Trustees

As part of Charity Trustees’ Week (13-17 November 2017), we are celebrating the 37,859 people who volunteer their time and expertise each year to direct and run Ireland’s charities.

Charity trustees (commonly referred to as ‘board members’ or ‘committee members’) lead, support and direct the charitable purposes and activities of charities. It is a role that carries great responsibility, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to use your skills and experience to make a positive impact in your community. 

The Wheel is fortunte to have 11 very talented and dedicated trustees. We would like to thank them for their leadership, dedication and passion. Our trustees are:

Mary Cunningham (CHAIR) – Co-opted in 2007, elected in May 2008 & May 2011

Mary is Director and Company Secretary of the National Youth Council of Ireland, the representative body for voluntary youth organisations in Ireland.  She is a member of the Steering Group on Active Citizenship, the National Youth Work Advisory Committee, the National Assessment Committee for the Young People’s Facilities and Services Fund and on the board of Pobal.  Previously the Director of Children in Northern Ireland and Regional Manager with Oxfam Ireland.  Also former Chairperson of the Northern Ireland NGO Forum, Joint Chairperson of the All Party Group on Children and Young People in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Company Secretary of Children in Northern Ireland.

Inez Bailey – Elected in June 2017

Inez has been the Chief Executive Officer of NALA, the National Adult Literacy Agency, for the past 20 years. She is also Chair of the Southside Partnership, Chair of the Mounttown Neighbourhood Youth and Family Project, Chair of the Rockford Manor Secondary School and Member of the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Local Community Development Committee. Previous board memberships include: CORU, the  Health and Social Care Professionals Regulator; the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs; Dublin & Dun Laoghaire Education and Training Board; the Education Finance Board; the National Consumer Agency; the Citizens Information Board; the Information Society Commission; and the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland.

Pat Carey – appointed in May 2017

Pat is Chair of the Red Cross and a former Irish Fianna Fáil politician in the Dublin North-West constituency from 1997 to 2011. In 2007 he was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for Community Affairs & for the implementation of the National Drugs Strategy. serving as the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs from 2010 to 2011. He is Cathaoirleach of Coiste Stiurtha Glor na nGael the all island Irish Language organisation. He is a Board Member of Quality Matters; independent chair of the Dublin North East Local Drugs & Alcohol Task Force & Chair of the Finance and Governance subcommittee of the North East Regional Drugs & Alcohol Task Force. He is a Board Member of the Ballymun Youth Action Project; chair of the Finglas Centre & a Board member of the Tolka ValleyTraining Centre.

John Evoy – Elected May 2014 and again in June 2017

John is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Irish Men’s Sheds Association (IMSA).

Prior to setting up the IMSA in 2011, John served as the manager of the Gorey Adult Learning Centre and a Project Co-ordinator for several adult and community education initiatives. He has also served on a number of interagency steering groups and sub-committees throughout his career, most of which pertained to adult and community education and Community development projects. Recognition of John’s leadership and achievements include: receiving a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Impact Award in 2013; becoming an AONTAS Star Awards winner in both 2009 and 2011, and; becoming an Arthur Guinness Fund Awardee in 2011.

Barbara Gilroy  – appointed by board in Oct 2017

Barbara is the Diocesan Director of ACCORD Dublin, which provides marriage preparation courses for couples choosing to get married in the Catholic Church. Previously, she was Head of HR for Concern Worldwide. In total, she has over thirty years work experience in the non-profit sector, both as a volunteer and manage and has worked in both small and larger organisations. She is a board member of the World Meeting of Families 2018 and previously, she was on the board of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress; and also of Concern Worldwide. She thinks that supporting small and medium-sized charities in areas like governance and compliance is essential to their continued existence. She also believes deeply in the principles of helping others so that they can help themselves.”

Sheena Horgan – Co-opted in July 2013

Sheena is a media & PR consultant specialising in youth/family & social marketing issues.  As an established and experienced marketer, she has advised many global and local organisations – RTE, Failte Ireland, Aldi, Bord Bia, Coke, O2, Ulster Bank – regarding their marketing and CSR strategies and implementation.  Sheena is also widely published in UK & Irish trade magazines and newspapers, as well as speaking at various conferences on related topics.  In addition to co-producing two child-related documentaries, Sheena is the author of the e-book “Candy Coated Marketing”.  She writes a monthly ethical and social marketing column in Irish Marketing Journal, and is a regular broadcast contributor on programmes such as – Ireland AM, Newstalk Lunchtime, Global Village, The Right Hook and Tubridy – on ethical and youth/family issues.

Vincent Keenan – Elected May 2014

Vincent is Chief Executive of North and East Housing Association since 2014. North & East was incorporated in 1993 having been established by a small number of volunteers. Having been run as a small-scale, mainly voluntary organisation it is now a well-established housing provider with a proven track record in the delivery of high-quality homes, comprehensive housing management services and tenant supports. Vincent worked previously for Co-operative Housing Ireland (formally NABCO) for 12 years as Executive Director with responsibility for housing and community services. Vincent has 25 years’ experience in housing, homelessness, housing development, management and social and community service development. He has participated in negotiation of social partnership agreements and was appointed by the Minister of Housing to the National Homeless Consultative Committee on which he served 7 years. Vincent has also served as non-executive director on a number of not for profit organisations.

Peter McBride – elected in June 2017

Peter is the Chief Executive of Inspire which is one of the largest social enterprises on the island of Ireland, providing a range of community-based and workplace-based mental health, intellectual/learning disability services and addiction services North and South, as well as in Great Britain. He is a Trustee of the National Charity, BBC Children in Need, in which he chairs the Nomination Committee and the Grants Committee; and a Trustee of NICVA where he serves as Vice Chair of the Board and Chair of the Resources and Audit Committee. Peter has also been involved for over 20 years in the Victims and Survivors Sector in Northern Ireland and has played a leading role in the development of leadership within civil society and its response to political and social progress in Northern Ireland. Peter is Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster Bamford Centre for Mental Health and wellbeing.

Brendan O’Brien – Co-opted December 2016

Brendan is CEO with ThinkSmarter Analytics. With over 20 years’ experience in international sales and marketing, he has previously been EMEA MD with US digital marketing company Search Optics,  Global Software Sales Director with Cisco based in California, CEO of ThinkSmart (acquired by Cisco) and held senior roles in Accenture and IBM.  He has been a guest lecturer in UCD and International Universities and hold a BSc, an MSc, a PhD in Business and Adv Dip in International sales. Brendan is also a very active participant in outdoor sports and has served on various boards, both commercial and voluntary, including Chairperson of a National Sporting Governing body and founding board member of a US based Alzheimer’s charity.

Austin O’Sullivan – Elected in July 2012

Austin is Director of Resources with WALK – an organisation who are leaders in a movement for change, empowering people with disabilities to live self-determined lives in an equal and inclusive society. He previously worked as International Business Delivery Manager for EDS Technologies and as an Executive Officer in the Revenue Commissioners. Austin is chair of the Wheel Finance & Audit sub-committee and the National Federation for Voluntary Bodies Finance & Audit sub-committee. Austin is also chair of Citywest Educate Together National school.

Paul O’Sullivan – Co-opted in June 09, elected in July 12 & May 15.

Paul is the Chief Executive Officer of Clann Credo, the social investment fund. He is also Chair of the Irish Charities Tax Research Group (ICTR).  He previously worked as a public relations and industrial relations consultant with Gallagher & Kelly PR, heading up their Employee Relations Division. Before that he was an industrial relations negotiator and union organiser with SIPTU where he represented workers in all sectors of the economy, health services, local government, marine transport and civil aviation. He was the Chief Negotiator in the Civil Aviation sector from 1993 to 1998. He managed two EU trade union initiatives on training and financial participation. Paul has lectured regularly on employee relations at Trinity College.

Feedback to Our Board

The Wheel is eager to strengthen and develop channels of accountability between our members and the Board. To that end we are pleased to introduce our new Board Member Accountability Policy, which includes the following new provisions:

  1. The Board will report to members twice a year about progress being made in implementing The Wheel’s ‘Being the Change’ strategy.
  2. Members will be invited to provide their feedback directly to the Board (via a dedicated email address: and at our member forums across the country).
  3. Feedback and comments received by the board will be recorded and reviewed annually by the board.

Download the full policy document here (PDF).

About Charity Trustees’ Week

Charity Trustees’ Week (13-17 November) is being organised by a steering committee consisting of the Charities Regulator, The Wheel, Charities Institute Ireland, Dóchas, the Carmichael Centre, Boardmatch Ireland and Volunteer Ireland. The aim of this initiative is to celebrate the role of charity trustees and raise awareness of the vital work done by the over 37,859 people who volunteer their time and expertise to direct, and are legally responsible for, the running of Ireland’s charities.

During Charity Trustees’ week we are challenging you to:

  1. Profile and thank your organisation’s trustees on social media. Please use the hashtag #TrusteesWeekIrl on Twitter and Facebook.
  2. Take part in one of the special  Trustees’ Week events. We strongly encourage our members to attend the Charities Regulator’s event in Dublin this Wednesday evening from 19:00 to 21:00 at the O’Callaghan Alexander Hotel. The Regulator will be demonstrating a new online learning tool for charity trustees at this event. Register here.
  3. Follow the Charities Regulator’s Charity Trustees’ Week page on LinkedIn for topical blogs and news.

For more information visit the Charities Regulator’s Website


UPDATE: How The Wheel is representing the Community, Voluntary & Charity Sector

– Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

The sector is currently transitioning through a period of rapid and unprecedented change in the way we are regulated, funded, and indeed understood. The next three or four years will set the template for our sector for generations to come. Interesting times are well and truly here!

Here is an update on some of our recent work. 

VAT Compensation Scheme and Budget 2018

Starting with some good news. As I am sure you are aware, the Government announced a VAT compensation scheme for charities in Budget 2018. The scheme is designed to compensate charities for a proportion of the VAT they pay on goods or services bought using non-statutory funds. Over the last six months, The Wheel has put a great deal of effort into campaigning for such a provision (building on the great work done by ICTR, the members of CII and the sector at large over many years) and we are delighted at the outcome for the sector (you can read our statement on the scheme here). It’s not perfect – there is a €5M cap for the next three years on the provision – but it’s a great and truly welcome start – and we have congratulated Minister Pascal O’Donoghue on the announcement, and Minister Katherine Zappone, Michael Harty TD and the opposition leaders and spokespersons for the vital support they lent in securing the breakthrough. You can read more about Budget 2018 and the provisions that will affect the work of community and voluntary organisations in our Budget 2018 analysis.

While VAT compensation is important, there’s a lot more going on right now that’s shaping the future of our sector.



Six national networks, encompassing over 2,000 Irish charities, called on Government to include a package of measures to help charities tackle growing social exclusion and support communities. From left to right are: Donal McKenna (Chair of Care Alliance Ireland); Allen Dunne (Deputy CEO of the Disability Federation of Ireland); Derek O’Reilly (Training Manager, Carmichael Centre for Voluntary Groups); Louise Lennon (Policy & Communications Officer at Irish Rural Link) and Ivan Cooper (Director of Public Policy at The Wheel).


Department of Rural and Community Development

The new Department of Rural and Community Development – the lead department for the community, voluntary and charity sector – is busy developing its first Statement of Strategy. The Wheel had a very constructive and positive meeting with Assistant Secretary Bairbre Nic Aonghusa and her departmental team in October where we highlighted key issues identified in our submission to the department’s recent strategy-development process. Responsibility for charity regulation has been transferred from the Department of Justice to the new department, and The Wheel very much welcomes this move as it brings regulatory policy under the same roof as development policy, and we believe that this creates the conditions for more coherent policy for the sector. As you will be aware, the sector is facing ever-increasing regulatory and reporting demands, and while necessary from the perspective of maintaining public trust in the work of the sector, these increasing requirements have not been accompanied by an equivalent investment to support organisations to meet the additional costs.

Compliance burden

The cost of compliance has, in fact, emerged from our recent series of discussion forums as the most pressing and urgent issue facing our members. The Wheel welcomed the publication of the Charities Regulator’s Guidance for Fundraising in September – and we took the opportunity it presented to publish an opinion piece in The Irish Times calling for an investment in the sector to enable organisations to meet the increasing cost of compliance. We pointed out that the state has made a very large investment in the Charities Regulator (which now has 38 staff with sanction for 50 in due course), but that no additional resources have been made available to enable charities to meet the ever-increasing compliance costs they now face.

In addition to the compliance costs associated with charity regulation, many charities must also comply with the requirements of the: Companies Registration Office; Register of Lobbying; Revenue Commissioners; Garda vetting of volunteers; and depending on who funds them, the regulatory and reporting requirements of the HSE; Tusla; Pobal; the Housing Regulator; HIQA; and various procurement directives from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Office for Government Procurement. And all of this before we mention the General Data Protection Regulations (the GDPR) which comes into effect on 25 May 2018 and with which all charities and Community and Voluntary organisations will have to comply.

Rest assured that we are working hard to ensure that the cost of compliance is recognised and provided for by funders – and we have called for the Department and the Regulator to take the lead in establishing a formal initiative to streamline and rationalise the regulatory and reporting regime that charities currently face. Remember too that the Regulator will be publishing financial reporting guidelines and may be publishing a governance requirement for charities in 2018 – so the cumulative effect of all of this is likely to remain a pressing issue in the months, and years, ahead. We will keep you informed of developments as we work to advance this key issue.

Strategy to support the community and voluntary sector

In addition to developing its own Statement of Strategy, the Department of Rural and Community Development is also advancing the production of its Implementation Plan for Local and Community Development, a plan which the department has stated will address the commitment in the Programme for Government  (secured by The Wheel) to develop a strategy to support the community and voluntary sector. The Wheel is participating in the Cross Sectoral Working Group established by the department to develop the plan, and we are working to ensure that the need to streamline and fund regulatory and reporting requirements is identified and provided for in the plan. We are also working to ensure that all the other pressing issues affecting the sector are addressed in the plan; issues such as the need for a coherent long-term funding model to support the work of the sector, and the need to make sure that commissioning initiatives support the full societal-value in the work of community and voluntary organisations – and are not aimed solely at minimising costs! Value for money is important – but so is the quality of service and the centrality of people in designing of and controlling their services.


As mentioned above, the requirements of GDPR take effect on 25 May 2018 and all charities will have to comply. We know that this is a complex and potentially confusing and anxiety-inducing requirement for many people and organisations – so please know that we are very close to publishing our simple and straightforward (to the extent that anything associated with GDPR can be simple and straightforward) Guide to Complying with the GDPR. We also met senior personnel in the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner to brief them on the challenge facing charities in complying with the regulations, and to seek provision of customised, targeted, and locally-available information and guidance sessions for charities. Watch this space for developments…

HSE & Tusla

Many members of The Wheel are funded by the HSE or Tusla – and we have been busy on behalf of both sets of members in recent months. The Wheel’s HSE-funded Members Network met in July and considered communications received from the HSE relating to governance requirements, at which many, many issues were identified. The Wheel is currently working on bringing these matters to the attention of the HSE and will be bringing our HSE-funded members together again soon to consider developments. We are also working on the most productive way of addressing the recent disappointing news that there is “no HSE funding to restore pay in section 39 funded organisations”  as reported in The Irish Times. We are seeking to work with our colleagues in the Not-For-profit Business Association, DFI and the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies to understand what now needs to be done to resolve this extremely unsatisfactory, and indeed unacceptable situation. We are calling on the Department of Health, DPER – and Government collectively if necessary – to take ownership of this issue given that Tony O’Brien (Director General of the HSE) has reported in the article that the resolution of the issue is apparently above the pay grade of the HSE.

The Wheel has also established contact with the Department of Health’s Review Group to Examine the Role of Voluntary Organisations in Publicly Funded Health Services. Read more here.

We have welcomed the announcement of this review, and we will be working on preparing our submission in the months ahead. We will be bringing our HSE funded members together once we have met with the group undertaking the work and fully understood the opportunities that the review presents, and the processes of engagement that it will propose. Join our HSE Network.

Tusla-funded organisations will be aware that the pilot roll-out of the commissioning approach to services continues apace, and that the approach will be mainstreamed over 2018. Many organisations will also be awaiting with interest the new service agreement currently being drafted by Tusla. The Wheel is continuing to work as a member of Tusla’s Commissioning Advisory Group and we are encouraging Tusla to consult widely on the draft documents in the months ahead before finalising same. It is important that all Tusla-funded organisations have an opportunity to consider and understand the new approach, and the agreements that will govern their relationship in the years ahead. Again, I will supply more details as soon as I can, and watch out for The Wheel’s forthcoming Tusla Network events. Join our Tusla Network.

There are a lot more going on shaping the future of our sector – but I have run out of time and space (as I am sure you have too). I hope you are satisfied with the progress we are making.

As always we welcome your feedback and suggestions

-Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

Follow The Wheel on Twitter


The Governance Code in Action – One Member’s Experience

Looking at media headlines this summer it’s clear that governance is a huge concern for institutions across all walks of life in Ireland. But as evidenced by those headlines good governance is a challenge for all kinds of organisations, no matter how well resourced, long established or respected they may be. The challenge of governance for Ireland’s charity sector of course is particularly acute given that those who govern our charities are volunteers.

However, more and more charities, across every sector from arts to social care and environment to education, are facing up to this challenge, and choosing not only to meet the minimum standards under the law, but to engage with best practice through The Governance Code for community, voluntary and charitable organisations.

The Code is a voluntary roadmap that empowers organisations to make a proactive decision to develop their governance practice in line with the highest standards in the sector, to improve the effectiveness and ensure the sustainability of their governance structures into the future.

CBI Logo 20years 2One such organisation that has engaged with the Code in recent years, is Children’s Books Ireland (CBI). CBI strives to make books central to every child’s life on the island of Ireland. They run a range of initiatives to achieve this vision, including an annual conference, Inis magazine, a national reading campaign and the Laureate na nÓg project (on behalf of the Arts Council). Elaina Ryan is the staff member who leads the organisation as Director. With an income of €434,000 last year and a small team of four full-time staff and a part-time project manager, managing the busy daily workload of a nationally focused organisation is always a challenge. Here, Elaina tells us why this arts organisation has also decided to take on the challenge of the Governance Code.

TW: What motivated Children’s Books Ireland to go on the Governance Code journey?

Elaina Ryan profile (00000002)

Elaine Byrne, Director of CBI

ER: There are a lot of great things about being a small organisation – the ability to be flexible, to make decisions quickly, to work effectively as a really strong core team. But one of the things we don’t have a lot of is time, and policy was definitely an area that was neglected, as it is in many smaller arts organisations. We’ve got a strong board of directors in place, a hardworking team and a programme of core activities that we are proud of, so it felt like the right time to look at how we could improve our governance and transparency, focus on getting policies in place that would provide clarity for staff, directors and stakeholders, and provide some training for me and for the board around areas like risk management and measuring impact.

TW: Did you feel that stakeholders were interested in your governance?

ER: CBI celebrates its twentieth birthday this year, and many of our members have been involved with us from the start, or indeed were founder members, so there’s a certain level of trust already established with that audience. However, CBI also works in partnership with many other organisations, both in the arts and in the corporate world, and we wanted to be able to show partners and funders, both new and long-standing, that we’re striving for best practice.

TW: What challenges have you met so far on that journey?

ER: Time to devote to working through the Governance Code Checklist has been the greatest challenge since we began the journey. It was clear from the outset that there was no point in ticking a box to say we’d completed an action unless we’d given real thought to it and revisited policies that might have been in existence but had become out of date or irrelevant since their adoption. We’re still working slowly through the Checklist, but I’d rather devote the time to getting it right than rush through it.

TW: What resources have you drawn on to help you on that journey?

ER: The templates provided by The Wheel were a great starting point. Seeing examples of another organisation’s policy in a particular area gave us a starting point from which we could edit and tailor, add and remove things as they were relevant to us. I’ve also sought out further resources on particular areas: a book called Corporate Governance for the Irish Arts Sector by Penelope Kenny (Chartered Accountants Ireland) gives a really good overview. I’ve always given directors of the organisation the Arts Council’s A Practical Guide for Board Members of Arts Organisations, and I’m now giving them the Charities Regulator’s recently published Guidance for Charity Trustees. The Clore Leadership Programme in the UK has also published a new document this summer entitled Governance in the arts and museums: a practical guide, which I think will be useful to draw on.

TW: What benefits has the organisation gained from engaging with the Governance Code?

ER: The Code has given us great focus as an organisation and an opportunity to assess our strengths and weaknesses in terms of all the areas of governance that the code covers. Our board was strong, and our strategic plan and implementation plans were robust, but there were, and still are, many areas in which we can improve. The board has focused over the last year on working towards a reserve, we have implemented a financial policy and procedures document and before the end of the year we will sign off on our risk management policy and revised board handbook. It has given me the impetus to step back from the day to day and to look at the organisation as a whole from the perspective of an outsider – a potential partner, perhaps. Certainly, it was an asset to be able to tell incoming directors that we were working on these areas; it showed them quickly and clearly that they’d be giving their time to an organisation that was taking its responsibilities seriously.

TW: What advice would you give to others thinking of heading down this road?

ER: I’d tell them what we were told on the first day of Bootcamp*: take the time to do it properly. We’re a year in and might have another year or more to go before we can tick all the boxes in the checklist, but it’s totally pointless to see the list as a checkbox exercise. This is an opportunity to move away from the way things have always been done and look at how they should be done.
Many thanks to Elaina for taking the time to share her experiences with other members. If you have queries on any aspect of your organisation’s governance, please do get in touch.

*CBI took part in the first Governance Code Bootcamp programme from The Wheel. You can find out more about that programme here.

What potential does the nonprofit sector hold for today’s graduates?


Hugh O'Reilly

Hugh O’Reilly, Director of Development

The Gradireland Graduate Careers Fair 2017 took place on Wednesday 4th October in the RDS. I was kindly invited to share the stage with Adrian McCarthy, Recruitment Coordinator- 2into3 for a session on careers in the nonprofit sector. Adrian heads up the ‘2into3 Not-for-Profit Graduate Programme’, which is the only pan-sectoral graduate programme for the nonprofit sector in Ireland.

We’re not good at promoting ourselves. When you see the efforts being made by the big firms to entice graduates into their organisations we have a long way to go. 2into3 Graduate Programme seeks to address that, and we in The Wheel are happy to champion it.

And it’s not like it’s very hard either, nor does it need to involve beanbags and foosball tables in the staff common area to attract people into a career in this sector. Only on Monday, I was reading Paul Mooney’s ‘Confessions of a Consultant’ blog and he gives 10 commandments on getting excellent performance from people;  “the fall off in the practice of formal religion has left a ‘purpose gap’ in many peoples lives. High-performance organisations’ manage to tap into this potential energy. A growing body of research suggests that an extra 30+% of effort is available… While it’s difficult to generalize, there’s good evidence to suggest the following: While most of us initially focus on ‘paying the mortgage’, once this is achieved we need a higher order purpose to get into 5th gear” He then goes on to cite SVP as an example of recruiting volunteers to deliver their purpose annually.

And purpose is important because we have a generation coming into the workforce who are as interested in finding purpose in their work as they are in the pay cheque. The Holy Grail is finding the two together!

So things like the graduate programme 2into3 are pioneering are important for our sector because we need to market our sector as an attractive career choice for today’s graduates, tomorrow’s leaders.

By contrast, when I was growing up the only people I knew whose full-time job was in a charity either wore a clerical collar or a habit. With the opportunity to don a habit already closed off to me the 50% of remaining opportunities seemed to come with a recommended diet of abstinence, celibacy, self-denial and self-restraint and I knew if I got over all the other hurdles the self-restraint would do for me in the end so considering a vocation was never really on my radar.

Fast forward 15 years later to 2010 when I started in The Wheel and my worldview was opened to a thriving community and voluntary sector where I found, and witnessed, ‘purpose’ on a daily basis. A sector that was, to that point, invisible in plain sight to me, despite the 149,000 other souls who appeared to be working in it (

And the landscape for the nonprofit sector is continually changing, and will likely be unrecognisable in 15 or twenty more years’ time when these graduates have established careers here.

At a policy level in Europe, there is a drive to tackle ‘societal challenges’ and emphasis on civil society engagement in outcomes focussed research and public patient involvement (PPI) in health are changing how the sector is viewed as a place for ‘serious’ active research and innovation.

The Department for Business, Enterprise & Innovations’ 5-year strategy Innovation 2020 devotes a whole chapter to social innovation and the economy. The Irish Research Council has supported the development of the Engaged Research Report through Campus Engage to identify how Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can better engage in active community-based research while the Health Research Board is actively seeking Public Patient Involvement (PPI) research projects through its ignite programme. The EPA is taking a keen interest in sustainable communities from a social, economic and environmental perspective as are Teagasc and other state agencies and departments while the government established the Social Innovation Fund in 2013. The ecosystem is developing apace.

The type of evidenced-based research and impact measurement that these policy drivers will demand will mean that today’s nonprofit is going to increasingly need graduates with skills in data analytics, field research, innovation, entrepreneurship, ICT and a wider variety of skills that we have not even though about in order to succeed in the society of the future. I cannot even wrap my head or begin to fathom the implications of AI (Artificial Intelligence) for our sector. But maybe someone younger can see further into the distance? More and more we are going to need evidence-based research to prove that community-based interventions and supports can tackle societal challenges and make a real and lasting change in people’s lives.

And Ireland is well placed to do this and to capitalise on its potential.

In 2014 I met Mitchell Netburn of Project Renewal while on a trip to New York. He told me at the time that there were 70,000+ children homeless or in emergency accommodation in New York. Every. Single. Night. During the 2015 – 2016 school year I read that the number was almost 100,000, 1 in 7 children within the school system. In Ireland, the corresponding figure went over 3,000 in August. A terrible and shameful statistic. But it should be solvable. It has to be solvable!

If Ireland was innovating solutions to major societal challenges, like child homelessness, that was proven to work at our scale then we could scale them to solve similar challenges at a larger scale across the globe. Become a global hub for social innovation?

And we are actually pretty good at this. We have become a hub for the tech sector, pharma, aviation and even our horse breeding is world renowned. We are excellent at marketing our agri-food produce around the globe. Why shouldn’t the next sector be the nonprofit sector? We have a highly educated, English speaking workforce on the periphery of Europe with major globalised trade links. We could easily become a ‘nett exporter’ in solutions to societal challenge if we set our mind to it.

Throughout the depressed middle decades of the 20th Century, the work of our missionaries was one of the very few good news stories an impoverished and repressed people had to tell, both to ourselves and the wider world. Maybe Ireland’s missionaries of the 21st century are educated graduates with a keyboard rather than a clerical collar who value ‘purpose’ as much as ‘paying the mortgage’ and our sector needs to get better at how we can make that career choice an attractive one to them. Maybe then our international tagline will be ‘The best small country in the world to do business”.

Hugh O’Reilly is Director of Development at The Wheel


The Wheel is Ireland’s national association of community, voluntary and charitable organisations. We are a representative voice and a supportive resource that offers advice, training, influence and advocacy for the sector. Visit for more information.

Charities Regulator clarifies financial reporting requirements

Tony Ward, Director of Finance, The Wheel



Tony Ward, Director of Finance  at The Wheel

At The Wheel’s recent Charity Finance Manager’s Forum kindly hosted by Mazars, Tom Malone, Head of Compliance and Enforcement at the Charities Regulator gave an update and made a number of clarifications about the Regulator’s financial reporting requirements.

Earlier this year, the Charities Regulator published some very useful guidance on internal financial controls and guidance to trustees. Charities are advised to make themselves familiar with this guidance. The Internal Financial Controls Guidelines for Charities is available at

The Regulator’s Guidance for Charity Trustees is available at

Tom advised at the event that in order to introduce financial reporting regulations for all charities, certain amendments are required to the underlying Charities Act legislation. These proposed amendments are included in the Courts and Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2017).

Following the public consultation on the draft Regulations by the Charities Regulator, the intention is to increase the different threshold levels. The indicative figures are set out below.

  • Lower limit below which charities will not be required to file accounts with the Charities Regulator is indicatively set at €25,000.
  • The band within which charities will be allowed to prepare accounts on what is known as a ‘cash receipts basis’ has been indicatively set from €25,000 to €250,000 – such accounts can, at a minimum, avail of an independent review, the definition of which has been issued in the draft regulations.
  • It is proposed that charities with an income over €250,000 will have to prepare accounts in a SORP format and have a full audit conducted.

Tom pointed out that the legislation will have to be passed before the Regulations can be introduced. And while ultimately that timeline rests with the Oireachtas, the Charities Regulator hopes to be in a position to bring the Regulations into effect next year. On that basis, he anticipates that the first date from which the approved financial reporting regulations will apply will be from 1st January 2019.

The Wheel welcomed the clarity from the Charities Regulator and noted that many of its members and other organisations in the sector have already adopted SORP and are reporting to a high standard.

Find out more about The Wheel’s Communities of Interest.





It’s time to let our light shine!

– Deirdre Garvey, CEO of The Wheel 

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of launching a The Wheel’s latest initiative, the Charity Impact Awards  – and what a positive event it was!

We are looking forward to playing our part in changing the narrative about our sector and promoting the incredibly positive contribution charities make to our national life.

Most of those who attended the launch event at the Mansion House are well aware of the
importance of the work that is done by charities and community and voluntary organisations in Ireland today – but the time is long gone when we can take for granted that our work is appreciated by wider society and policymakers.

The charity sector in Ireland has been through ten tough years since the economic recession and social crisis began in 2008 and the negative impact of a certain very small number of media stories from 2013 and since, greatly added to the challenges facing charities in terms of simply getting their work done – right up to today

There have of course been many positive developments during this time too:

  • The Charity Regulator is up and running, with a full set of investigatory powers, and will shortly be publishing guidance on fundraising and governance and setting a standard for financial reporting by charities.
  • Fundraising from the public is growing again and both the Charity Regulator’s website and the Benefacts website now hold publicly available information on the scale and extent of the sector.
  • 1,647 charities have publicly embarked on the governance code journey (with 441 declaring themselves to be fully compliant).

There has indeed been a transformation in the regulatory environment that charities work in – and all for the good as it is now widely appreciated that all of the funds under the control of charity trustees are public funds and that the public has a right to maximum transparency and accountability from trustees in how funds are being used.

But if the sector is to truly thrive in the years ahead and maximise the positive difference we can make in the lives of the people and communities we serve, then we need more than regulation and transparency – we need to tell our story better, get out from the undergrowth and take a central place in the national debate on the kind of society we want, and show the importance of our collective work in shaping that society.  In short, there remains work to be done by all charities to educate the public about the role played by charities and community and voluntary organisations in our society today.

It is true too that the last few years have been hard on charities in other ways – many organisations and people working for them have perhaps tended to keep their heads down in recent years, not wishing to draw attention to themselves or their work for fear of attracting negative attention, and perhaps even criticism as to why they exist at all.

There are of course legitimate questions that must always be debated as to the role of charities in Ireland today – but these questions should start from respect for the key work done by charities and other voluntary organisations today, and include consideration of the way our public and social services have evolved in Ireland and the role played by the sector in delivering what would be regarded in many other jurisdictions, as essential public services.

This concern about attracting negative attention has amplified the lack of understanding of the role played by charities and has had a demoralising effect on the sector’s work in recent times.

We aim to address this with our Charity Impact Awards – which is a direct result of the impact of The Wheel’s new strategy document – Stronger Charities. Stronger Communities and which articulates fully our vision of a thriving community, voluntary and charity sector at the heart of a fair and just Ireland.  We have an ambition that everyone in Ireland – the public, the media, the private and public sectors, and policymakers – understands, appreciates and supports the community, voluntary and charity sector, and what it is that happens in it.

And that’s where the Charity Impact Awards come in.

They build on The Wheel’s Better Together campaign – and we feel the time is now right to take Better Together to the next level and engage more deeply with the sector, the public and the media so that it becomes a key place and time where the Irish charity and community and voluntary sector celebrates and showcases its achievements and its successes and demonstrates its impact.

In what can often feel like ‘gravity-shifting’ times like these, when the future vision of our collective social contract is being contested, it is often people and civil society – individuals, communities, civil society organisations, volunteers and charities – who shift the balance back towards equality, inclusion and opportunity.

It is all the more critical therefore that charities, community and voluntary organisations show enlightened and skilled leadership and that our respective strategies and programmes of work are finely tuned, brave and innovative. That we are resourced, geared-up, fit and lithe. And that our structures and practices are proud and transparent. And this is what we want to see the stories about our sector communicating.

It’s time to show off the work of the sector, to get out from that undergrowth and tell our story and celebrate the work and the innovation and effort!

I invite you to be part of this positive story by nominating an organisation for the 2017 Community Impact Award or a board member for the 2017 Charity Trustees for the  Year Award. Visit for more information.






July Update: It’s all go! New Government Department, GDPR Looming, Trustee Guidance from Charity Regulator, HSE Audits, Review of voluntary organisations in health service & more…

DEESf9wWAAAi_65There is a great deal happening in the community and voluntary sector – so here is an update on the work we are doing in The Wheel to shape policy and practice that affects community, voluntary and charitable organisations.

Programme for Government commitment to produce a strategy to support the sector

The Programme for Government contains a commitment (which The Wheel worked hard to secure!) to “develop a strategy to support the community and voluntary sector”. A Cross Sectoral Working Group of officials from key line departments and civil society representatives (including The Wheel) is now meeting regularly to identify the issues facing citizens, communities and the community and voluntary organisations, and agree the actions needed to ensure a thriving community and voluntary sector. I can report that good progress is being made and all participants are committed to producing real and useful outputs.

The material under consideration is comprehensive in nature, identifying all the issues relating to active citizenship, strong communities and an independent community and voluntary sector including:

  • the recognition (or lack thereof) of the cv sector
  • the practical support-needs of community and voluntary organisations and the supports required by volunteers and trustees
  • the funding situation faced by cv sector organisations
  • the reporting, monitoring and regulatory demands
  • the move towards commissioning and what that means
  • citizen engagement with local democratic structures and processes, and the adequacy/inadequacy of local development / local engagement processes.

I am confident that the key issues that affect citizens’ ability to participate, and the ability of community and voluntary organisations to do their work, will be identified through this process, and that many of them can be addressed, in some form, through actions to be identified in the plan that will emerge from the process. Watch this space for further developments.

New Department of Rural and Community Development

The Wheel has also welcomed (see our press-release here) Minister Michael Ring’s appointment to the new Department of Rural and Community Development: Ireland’s 19,000 non-profit organisations make a massive contribution to our national life – but that contribution could be much, much bigger. With the creation of a dedicated Department of Rural and Community Development, we have an opportunity now to realise the full potential of the sector to sustain thriving community life in Ireland. In the run up to the last general election The Wheel called for the appointment of a cabinet level Minister for the community and voluntary sector – and we are encouraged that this new department with Minister Michael Ring at the helm will be focusing on supporting the sector to increase the positive difference it can make in people’s lives. The new Department will be taking responsibility for the Cross Sectoral Working Group (referred to above) that is developing a strategy for the sector – and we look forward to working with Minister Ring (and Minister of State Seán Kyne) to support a thriving community and voluntary sector.

We are working to ensure that the department understands the need to:

  •  produce a comprehensive strategy to support and engage with the sector
  • produce a national strategy to support volunteering,
  • streamline regulatory and reporting requirements across all government departments that fund the work of community/voluntary/charitable organisations,
  • ensure that all funding models (and commissioning approaches) support the work of charities and maximise the societal value inherent in the sector
  • ensure comprehensive capacity-building supports in the areas of governance, management and fundraising.

 Charity Regulator’s Consultative Panel on Governance

We are continuing our work as members of the Charity Regulator’s Consultative Panel on Governance (due to report by year’s end) which is looking at what the Regulator can do to support best governance practice in the sector. The Charity Regulator has published official Guidance for Trustees and Internal Financial Control Guidance and if you are a trustee or a director of a charity I would encourage you to familiarise yourself with these very useful publications – and to ensure your organisation conforms with the new guidance. You may remember too that the Regulator is also in the process of developing regulations for financial reporting by charities (following last year’s consultation) and we expect them to be published over the coming months.

 GDPR – the General Data Protection Regulations

Due to come into force in May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will have a big impact on all community and voluntary organisations – and we hosted a special seminar in July to brief members on GDPR compliance requirements and to evaluate the state of readiness in the sector. Feedback from the seminar on the GDPR suggests:

  • There is a low level of general awareness relating to the GDPR requirements amongst community, voluntary and charitable organisations.
  • Amongst those CV organisations that are aware, there is a low level of understanding of the practical implications of the GDPR for organisations – and this can translate into confusion/fear about what CV organisations should do to achieve compliance.
  • A high degree of knock-on reputational damage could impact on the CV sector as a whole if breaches occur in individual CV organisations – and this could damage overall public trust and confidence in the sector.
  • The potentially very significant fines that apply to a breach could have grave implications for CV organisations that may not have the resources to fund them, with knock-on consequences for directors of those CV organisations – who are unpaid volunteers that may be exposed to personal liability.

We have communicated to the Data Protection Commissioner the issues that we believe need to be addressed if community, voluntary and charitable organisations are to successfully comply with the new requirements, and we will be meeting with the Commissioner in late August on what’s required to support the sector to make the transition. If you are associated with an Irish charity, I would URGE YOU to become familiar with the new requirements – they will affect ALL ORGANISATIONS to a greater or a lesser extent – so please check The Wheel’s training calendar to see when training is available next. The deadline for compliance is 25 May 2018 – and the clock is now well and truly ticking: there are potentially big fines for organisations that don’t comply! Email for further information on what you need to be doing to prepare.

 Issues that have emerged in audits of HSE-funded organisations

We convened a meeting of our HSE Community-of-Interest (for HSE funded members) in July following the recent issue by the HSE (to larger organisations they fund) of a letter itemising governance and management shortcomings that had emerged in recent audits of some organisations they fund. There was a lively discussion of these and many other HSE-related issues, and I would highly recommend that you consider joining that network if you are funded by the HSE. It’s a useful place to network and learn for HSE funded members. We will be feeding back the outcome of the discussion to the HSE in the coming weeks.

 Review of role of voluntary organisations in health and social care provision

The establishment by Minister Harris of a Department of Health review-group to inquire into the current role and status of voluntary organisations in the operation of health and social services is a very welcome – and potentially very significant – development. It is understood that the review will make recommendations on how the relationship between voluntary organisations and the State in the arena of health and social services should evolve in the future.

Given that a very large quantum of our health and social services are delivered by voluntary organisations (the HSE provided over €3.7Bn to voluntary organisations in 2016 involving 1,900 grants of up to €100k with another 570 organisations receiving over €100k) – the findings and recommendations of the review may have profound implications for our health and social services and for the work of the voluntary sector for decades to come. And that impact will likely have knock-on-effects on the practice of other funding departments (such as social protection, community and rural affairs, and children) through precedent-setting as many departments and agencies outsource large parts of their service delivery to voluntary organisations. So it’s important that we get it right. Full details of the review are not yet available – but rest assured that The Wheel will be monitoring developments closely and we are looking forward to making a constructive and positive contribution. You can read my blog on the topic here.

 Tusla Advisory group on Commissioning

We are continuing our work as members of Tusla’s Advisory Group on Commissioning. Tusla is finalising its Commissioning Strategy and its Commissioning Toolkit for Tusla Area Managers etc. – and we are working closely with Tusla to ensure that funded organisations are supported in transitioning to the new model. This is not a straightforward exercise, as Tusla’s commissioning model is being tested in pilot areas prior to being fully rolled out – so some Tusla funded organisations already have experience of the new approach.

If you have any feedback in relation to the Tusla commissioning process please contact me by return or at If you would like to join The Wheel’s Tusla Community of Interest please sign up here – we plan to have more events on Tusla commissioning in the Autumn – and once again it is a very useful place for networking and learning for Tusla funded organisations.


All in all the sector is experiencing both the most challenging and the most opportunity-presenting time in its history as a self-conscious sector – with the relationship with the state (in funding, partnership/contracting/commissioning and regulation) being reformed through a range of processes and structures now in train. The Wheel is working hard to ensure we are in all the necessary places and spaces to ensure policy and practice are responsive to the needs of our 1,300 member organisations – and of the community and voluntary sector at large.

If you have any particular issue that you would like to see The Wheel addressing, please contact me directly.

– Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

Find out more about The Wheel’s membership programme.

Minister Harris’s review of voluntary organisations’ role in health services is a highly significant development

Review will require candour from all involved


Ivan Cooper

Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

The establishment of a review group to inquire into the current role and status of voluntary organisations in the operation of health and social services is a very welcome development.  It is understood that the review will be looking at the issues which arise in connection with the provision of services to the public through voluntary organisations and that it will make recommendations on how the relationship between voluntary organisations and the State in the arena of health and social services should evolve in the future.  So it’s a very important review for the future of the voluntary sector.


Given that a very large quantum of our health and social services are delivered by voluntary organisations – the HSE provided voluntary organisations over €3.7Bn in 2016 involving 1,900 grants of less than €100k with 570 organisations receiving over €100k – the findings and recommendations of the review may have profound implications for our health and social services and for the work of voluntary organisations for decades to come.

And that impact will likely have knock-on-effects on the practice of other funding departments (such as social protection, community and rural affairs, and children) through precedent-setting as many departments and agencies outsource large parts of their service delivery to voluntary organisations.

The review takes place in the context of general reform of our health services (reference the Slaintecare Report) and debates about the the fitness for purpose of the HSE (reference Tony O’Briens contribution at the MacGill Summer School and his Sunday Business Post article of July 23rd) and also potentially ties into current debates about the increased uses of commissioning processes and competitive tendering; the appropriateness of the funding mix for public services and the sufficiency of Exchequer allocations; the privatisation of services; and even whether Ireland’s tax-take is sufficient to cover the cost of public services.

It seems to me that an effective review has to consider some key questions:

  • Our health and social care system must meet people’s needs and be focussed on maximising positive health and social outcomes – so we need to be clear from the off about what optimal health and social outcomes look like for people, and then determine what services are required, and how they are to be organised to deliver these outcomes.
  • In working out what optimal services should look like, we need to consider the implications for the budgets of such services, and the adequacy of the current funding-model, comprising as it does a mix of exchequer funds, service-user contributions, earned-income from provider’s activities and fundraised income. Should core public services be depending on contributions from service-providing organisations? What are the cost implications of the way that services are currently administered and managed?
  • Is the financial and non-financial added-value that voluntary service providers contribute to public services sufficiently appreciated, or is it a taken-for-granted subsidy to the cost to the state of delivering services? What precisely is this “added-value” and should it have a role to play in core health and social-service provision?
  • Is there any evidence that services would be delivered more effectively under a more centralised approach? What can be done to better integrate services and ensure accountability, without micromanaging organisations that provide those services? Can the positives of the current approach be adjusted to harness the flexibility, responsiveness and innovation of autonomous voluntary service-providers by working more strategically with the state? How could service planning be approached more strategically with this objective in mind?

We can see from the above issues that the review of the role of voluntary organisations in service provision cannot take place in isolation – it must take place as part of, and with reference to general reform processes to better orient healthcare around people’s needs.

And if the review is to be positive and productive, we need to surface an uncomfortable truth – there are many interests (most overt, but some covert) in our current social and healthcare system, and we need to make these explicit and acknowledge them if the review is to avoid becoming a battleground.  I’ll have a bit to say about interests below.

Another important requirement for all stakeholders participating in the review will be to banish the word “private” from the discussion: all the organisations that will be affected by the review are charitable entities that are effectively public in nature – and that means all the funds under the control of the voluntary boards concerned are public funds – irrespective of where they come from.  There are no private funds under the control of charitable trustees – the public has a right to understand how all funds, irrespective of where they came from, are being used. But that recognition needs to be balanced by an acknowledgement by the state that it values, and does not take as a given the effort that service-providing organisations make to raise additional funds to cover exchequer-funding deficits in meeting the cost of services.

Many additional questions are immediately sparked by these initial considerations, and this suggests the complexity of the terrain the review is going to have to navigate to be successful.  In approaching this article, it seems to me that a stakeholder analysis is a good way to understand the issues and interests that will need to be acknowledged and reconciled. So let’s take a look at some of these stakeholder groups.

People and services

First and foremost comes meeting people’s needs. People should have access to the services they need when they need them.  And the quantity and quality of services should be consistent throughout the country.  Given that there is effectively infinite demand for health and social services, there is always going to be a compromise necessary in relation to the quantum and quality of services available, but both should at least be consistent and at a level that is regarded as fair and which generally satisfies.

From current waiting lists, geographic-area black spots, and HIQA quality reports, I think it can reasonably be said that we still have a long way to go to optimise services from the perspective of people who require them. The Slaintecare Report states that “The best health outcomes and value for money can be achieved by re-orientating the model of care towards primary and community care” and that “everyone in Ireland should have access to public health, health promotion, diagnostics, treatment and care when needed in the appropriate setting as close as possible to their home, within a reasonable period of time, with little if any charge at the point of access”.   Given the key role played by voluntary organisations in health and social care provision, the question for the review from the perspective of service-users seems to me be how can the current service-mix be reorganised and funded aso people have access to care when needed in the appropriate setting as close as possible to their home, within a reasonable period of time, with little if any charge at the point of access?

The Department of Health

The Department of Health and the Minister for Health have statutory responsibility for governing the health service – and that means for ensuring that the health and well-being of people are maximised. Simple as that.

They also have a collective responsibility (as part of Government) for determining the level of public funds to be allocated to providing for health and social well-being, and for ensuring value for money in the delivery of services. So the Minister and the Department need to firstly set the review strategically in the context of the Slaintecare Review and the Healthy Ireland Framework which envisions an Ireland where “everyone can enjoy physical and mental health and well-being to their full potential; where well-being is valued and supported at every level of society and is everyone’s responsibility”. Secondly, the Minister needs to guide the review towards identifying the optimal way of providing (and funding) services that take into account and seeks to build on, the huge contribution currently made by voluntary organisations.

In my view, a consideration of the role played by voluntary organisations will be incomplete and suboptimal if it doesn’t also consider the role that statutory service providers also play in the health and social services mix.  It is the strengths and weaknesses of both modes of service delivery –statutory and voluntary – that need to be considered in the round if an optimal outcome for people is to be arrived at. In addition, service-users don’t exist in a vacuum – all of us are members of communities that shape and support our health and social well-being status – so that community-dimension to public health also needs to be considered in the mix.

It seems to me that the simple question for the Minister and the Department is: “in the context of the Slaintecare Report and the Healthy Ireland Framework how can we best organise the current service-mix of statutory and voluntary providers to achieve optimal health and wellbeing outcomes for people?”


On the face of it, the HSE’s objective is the same as the Minister’s with an operational focus bring greater coherence to how health and social services are designed and delivered. But we need to acknowledge that the HSE’s interest is somewhat different from that of the Minister and the Department.  Some of what follows is uncomfortable – but we need to surface it if the review is to be open and honest. The HSE is the executive arm of the health system – it’s primarily concerned with service-delivery.  Of course, the HSE is also responsible for supporting and advising the Minister and the Department in relation to health and social care policy, and we can often conflate the Minister, the department and the HSE into one. But the HSEs interests are not identical with the Minister and the Department. The HSE is a corporate agency, and as agency theory tells us, all agents have their own (often unconscious) self-interest to advance – distinct from the interests of those that employ them.

The HSE is also a very big, and very powerful agent. The biggest and the most powerful by far in fact, in this whole policy space. It holds most of the funding cards and is overwhelmingly powerful in relation to the organisations it funds. And it has its own corporate interest in the context of the review.  I need to be clear that I am speaking about HSE Corporate (not any individuals – even at the top) and the bureaucracy it constitutes, rather than the tens of thousands of people who work hard, selflessly and in good faith every day to meet people’s needs. How does this self-interest manifest?

It partly manifests in the way that services are delivered through contractual agreements between the HSE and voluntary organisations whereby the HSE minimises its own exposure to the risks inherent in services while maximising its ultimate control over those services through using  Service Level Agreements that place responsibility (for what are essentially public services) solely on the boards of outsourced providers.

With this in mind, some might say that an unofficial-and-covert goal for HSE Corporate (and entirely rational in the light of agency theory) going into the review is to shift as much risk in services as possible onto external providers while simultaneously maximising their control.  But you likely won’t hear anyone else saying this. And remember, I am not suggesting that this is a conscious objective of the HSE or of ANY HSE staff – more a subconscious, agency-theory related motivation that we need to take into account.   I believe that the review will do itself a disservice if it’s not at least conscious of this unstated, self-interested objective. There is also a fairly overt policy objective on the part of the HSE to encourage smaller organisations to merge into bigger units to make the coordination and management of services easier.  Is bigger necessarily better when it comes to public services?

The official and overt question for the HSE is the same as for the Minister and the Department: “in the context of the Slaintecare Report and the Healthy Ireland Framework how can we best organise the current service-mix of statutory and voluntary providers to achieve optimal health and wellbeing outcomes for people?”

Voluntary boards of service-providing voluntary organisations

Similar to the agency theory argument that applies to the HSE, many boards of voluntary service providers that are funded largely by the state find themselves governing very complicated services for which they bear personal responsibility while simultaneously overseeing highly skilled and experienced managers immersed in, and on top of, the detail of those services.

Such boards experience a twofold power imbalance: they face the power of the HSE itself in the form of the compliance requirements demanded by the Service Level Agreement that accompanies HSE funds, and they oversee much more experienced managers on whose advice they depend for the integrity of their decision making.  In other words, we have boards that on paper are autonomous and responsible for everything that happens on their watch – but who in reality, may have relatively little power and ability to independently determine their own course.

This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs in terms of good governance practice and contributes to a perpetuation of a culture of “insufficiently accountable managerialism” (agency theory again) that many would argue bedevils our health services when they function poorly.  Resolving this unsatisfactory reality where some boards feel they have “all the responsibility but none of the power” must be one of the key objectives of the review.

Additionally, the consequences for organisations of years of budgetary austerity and increasing compliance and regulatory requirements are raising a whole series of issues such as the ability of boards to cope with the high governance standards now (rightly) expected; the ability of organisations to retain skilled staff (most organisations are still obliged to operate pay-freezes); and the challenge of delivering quality services with inadequate budgets.  All of that said, we need to acknowledge that the boards of voluntary organisations also have their own self-interest in this review.

The self-interested (agency theory again) question for the board of voluntary service providers is: How can we maximise our autonomy and independence (vis a vis the HSE, and in some cases our own management teams) while advancing the values that we embody in our services, in a context where (for many) the vast majority of the funds controlled are provided by the state?

The objective question for boards should be “is the current role we play optimising outcomes for people and the communities they are a part of, and if not, how can we change our contribution – and what supports do we need to succeed in that?

Paid employees of service-providing organisations

The HSE funds voluntary health and social service organisations under two sections of the Health Act – Section 38 and Section 39.  The vast majority of organisations (over 700) are funded under section 39 – where the state agrees to fund the work of organisations because that work happens to be in line with state policy.  The forty-three Section 38 organisations are, however, funded for a different reason: if they weren’t providing their services the state would be obliged to provide those services directly itself.  The state faces no obligation to provide funding for the Section 39 organisations – it chooses to do so – yet many arguably “essential” health and social services are in fact provided by Section 39 organisations under this (arguably relatively insecure) arrangement.

Staff in Section 38 organisations are thus regarded as public servants (because they are providing essential services that the state would have to provide otherwise) and they benefit from public-service terms and conditions and salary scales.  But staff in Section 39 organisations are simply regarded as employees of third-party suppliers.  This has led to a circumstance where such staff are delivering (arguably) unacknowledged core public health and social services, but effectively constitute a second-tier labour force, doing the same work as their Section 38 counterparts, but on lower pay and inferior terms and conditions.  Is this the way we should be treating people who are delivering core public services? And if not, what can be done to regularise the situation?  Or is someone going to seriously say that these services, relied on by people and families the length and breadth of the country, are really not “essential public services”?  These are the questions that need to be resolved it seems to me.

The public interest / the taxpayer/value for money

First of all – we are all taxpayers! Everyone pays VAT – so this perspective is really about the public interest, not just the interest of the squeezed middle or the payer of income tax. According to recent data Ireland has the second highest health spending ratio in the OECD.  Yet nobody could argue that we have optimal outcomes for that spend.  So there is undoubtedly a question here as to whether the way that we have organised our health and social services is delivering value for money for all of us as citizens and taxpayers.

But as we can see from the above analysis, there are many different aspects that need to be taken into account in evaluating the effectiveness of the current approach. While value-for-money considerations are important, the review should focus equally on the effectiveness of the current approach in maintaining community health and well-being; in engaging people in their health and social services; and in maximising flexibility, responsiveness, innovation, participation and accountability in a coherent, integrated and strategically clear context.


The proposed review presents a great opportunity to build on the strengths of the contribution that voluntary service providing organisations can make while addressing the strategic weaknesses of the approach. We need to ensure that the review does not descend into a tug of war over who controls what: all stakeholders share a common interest in delivering best outcomes for people, and the focus should be maintained on that common objective.

There is a healthy inter-dependency between the state and voluntary providers when they work well together, and it is that that we should be seeking to enhance. It used to be called partnership working, and that is what we should aim at rather than spend time arguing for independence and autonomy while seeking to dominate and control each other.  Ensuring accountability needs to balanced with a respect for autonomy.

I believe the proposed review provides a great opportunity to achieve these objectives if we enter the discussion with open minds – acknowledging some of the less-than-noble, but inevitably human, motivations that might otherwise distort the outcome.  We have to make sure the review doesn’t become a battle of self-interest – and that applies to all participants, voluntary and statutory.

The Wheel has a great deal to say about all of these matters on behalf of our members – so watch this space – and we look forward to engaging constructively with the expected review when it commences its work.