Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy
Ireland’s 19,000 nonprofit organisations form the very fabric of community life, and many people rely on them for social, community and health supports and services. They are also the places where people come together in community to support one another and change the world for the better. They are the places where we act together as communities of active citizens in common endeavour.
The issues facing the community and voluntary sector in Ireland are many and varied: from maintaining public trust and confidence; to debates about whether public services should be provided by charities; to coping with increasing regulatory requirements; to adjusting to increasingly insecure funding; and to ensuring voluntary board members and trustees are supported in their increasingly demanding responsibilities.
It can sometimes be difficult to plot a way through the complexity – so I thought it might be helpful to look at what key stakeholders can do to help the community, voluntary and charity sector in the years ahead. To my mind, the main stakeholders are
- the organisations that make up the community, voluntary and charity sector themselves, and their boards/trustees, and staff
- volunteers, supporters and donors
- the State and the public service
- the business community and the trades unions
- the general public and the media.
Community, voluntary and charity organisations, and their boards/trustees, staff, volunteers
Ultimately the responsibility for maintaining trust and confidence lies with individual charities themselves – we cannot expect any external entity – such as the Charity Regulator – to take responsibility for this.
Charities need to demonstrate best governance practice and comply with the new regulatory requirements – but that’s not enough in itself. Charities need to go way beyond simple compliance. They need to be open and transparent in their work. Boards need to inform themselves of the requirements and own their own governance. Board members need to accept that along with the honour of being a board member/trustee of a charity comes the responsibility for minding an important mission – entrusted to them – and managing assets that are best understood as public assets. There is no “private” in charities.
Staff teams need to support boards to discharge their governance responsibilities – and boards need to make it clear to staff teams that the board has and will exercise its power and responsibility, and that all authority that staff teams have is delegated by boards. Good systems of internal reporting are required.
The board must have a clear sense of the vision it is working to deliver and the mission that it is undertaking to deliver that vision – and that means producing a clear plan or strategy and knowing whether good progress is being made.
Boards also need to be aware of the significant risks facing the organisation and have clear policies and procedures in place to control these risks. They need to know the short, medium and long-term financial position of the charity. And most importantly boards need to be open, transparent and accountable in their work. ‘Make your decisions as though you are making them in public” can be a useful expression for boards to keep in mind.
There are many resources that charities and their boards of trustees have available to them in this task: Boards should sign up to the Governance Code for Community and Voluntary Organisations; comply with the Statement of Guiding Principles for Fundraising – and if a larger charity, consider adopting the SORP standard for financial reporting (the Statement of Recommended Practice for financial reporting by charities). If Ireland’s charities did all of these things we would go a long way to seeing a thriving – and trusted – sector.
Supporters and Donors
Charities are totally dependent on the goodwill and trust of supporters, volunteers and donors. That is why when trust is lost in a charity it is such a devastating blow: the support for the charity in all its forms can dissolve away quickly and be very difficult to restore.
Supporters and donors should seek information about organisations they are looking to support. Good charities will be open and transparent and provide plenty of good quality information on what they do – and they will welcome, not avoid, questions and enquiries on what they do and how they do it. There are resources available that provide guidance on the questions that supporters and donors should ask – like GoodCharity.ie.
Questions such as does the charity publish its financial report on its website? Are the names of the board members clear? Is there concise information on what the charity does, where its funding comes from and what its priorities are for the year ahead? Is there an annual report available on the site? Is the charity signed up to the Governance Code for Community, Voluntary and Charitable Organisations, and if it fundraises (as 70% of charities do) does it comply with the Statement of Guiding Principles for Fundraising? Does the charity communicate clearly the impact of its work in the lives of the beneficiaries it supports? Donors and supporters should seek answers to these questions as part of their decision-making around supporting the charity with their time or money.
Potential donors and supporters can also visit the Charity Regulator’s website where they can search and examine the register-entry for all of Ireland’s charities. Visit too the Benefacts.ie website which also contains extensive information (drawn from regulatory sources) about individual charities. If supporters or donors have a concern regarding practice in a charity, they should first of all address their concern to the board members who are responsible – and if no satisfactory explanation or response is received, they should inform the Charity Regulator of their concern. In doing these things donors and supporters can contribute to creating the conditions for a thriving and trusted community, voluntary and charity sector.
The most important stakeholder group in charities – often referred to as the primary stakeholder group, and perhaps analogous to customers of a private firm – are the beneficiaries: the people and communities supported by the charity.
Unlike customers of private firms however, beneficiaries of charities often do not have a choice in relation to the supports available to them. They can thus find themselves less able to shape the supports available to them, and perhaps even be vulnerable to neglect or abuse – and this is where charities have to make extra efforts to ensure that beneficiaries are involved in service design and in the monitoring of the delivery and quality of the service.
Beneficiaries should demand that they are centrally involved in shaping services; that their perspective and interest is regularly taken into account by the Board in developing and monitoring service-quality; that their interests are formally represented on the board of governance; and that there are secure, independent lines of communication to the board so that their feedback is not mediated by management that may not necessarily be well-served by that feedback. Just as it is often said that a society should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable – so it can be said that a charity’s ultimate worth and standing in relation to trust should be judged by how it respects and treats the people who benefit from its supports.
In circumstances where charities are providing services to people who rely on those services, beneficiaries should also never accept the inevitability of the status quo when it comes to the way supports are provided. Beneficiaries should always be asking is there a better way for me to access the support I need– and is it necessarily the case that the support I need is best provided in the way it currently is?
There are many advocacy groups of people who are currently supported or served by community and voluntary organisations – and there is a debate taking place just now about the role that charities play in delivering essential services in Ireland, the appropriateness of that role, what it means for the funding and security of services, and indeed whether such services would be any better if they were delivered by a centralized bureaucracy.
There is also ongoing campaigning to ensure people’s economic, social and cultural rights are respected – and beneficiaries could consider participating in such work to shape the supports our communities require. Where charities provide supports and services – charities themselves have a responsibility to ensure that beneficiaries receive the supports they require – from wherever they are best organised (including by people for themselves!). Such stewardship and vigilance on the part of beneficiaries is an essential part of maintaining a responsive and trusted community and voluntary sector.
The State and the Public Service
Community, voluntary and charitable organisations are kin to the public service. Both are involved in raising and controlling public funds (in the form of tax and fundraising / earning-income respectively) and both are concerned to provide exclusively public benefit with those funds. In Ireland large portions of our public services are in fact delivered by charities that are funded by the state to do that work – work that if charities weren’t doing, the state would have to do itself.
As a result of this service-provision role, many charities work closely with, and are part-funded by, their public-service counterparts. There is a debate – already mentioned above – as to whether this is a desirable state of affairs – and I will be examining this question more closely in a future blog – but in the context of the current reality, the question is: what can the state and public service do to maximize the impact of the work of community and voluntary organisations?
Many constructive things have happened lately – we have the Charity Regulator that is now up and running and providing clarity about what’s expected of charities, and reassurance that the public interest in charities is being protected.
We have a commitment in the Programme for Government that a strategy to support the community and voluntary sector will be produced, and only last week we saw the welcome announcement of a new Department of Community and Rural Affairs, to be headed by Minister Michael Ring, to drive the production of that strategy.
There is much that needs to be addressed in such a strategy that will involve changes in practice and new policies by state departments and agencies when they work with charities. The strategy needs to ensure that
- regulatory demands (from the Charity Regulator, Companies Registration Office; Lobbying Regulator and the Data Protection Commissioner to name but a few) – while essential to maintain public trust and confidence – are proportionate and respect the autonomy of community, voluntary and charitable organisations.
- where charities are funded by the state to do work, the full financial and non-financial “added-value” that charities bring to the work is valued and appreciated, and that funding and commissioning processes, and reporting and compliance requirements, are streamlined and proportional.
- adequate supports are available to trustees and board members in the areas of governance, management and fundraising
- a national strategy for volunteering is produced
- community, voluntary and charity organisations are supported and appreciated in their advocacy work with-and-on-behalf-of the people and communities they support and serve.
The business community and the trades unions
There is a significant convergence taking place between progressive businesses working to ensure that their products and services are sustainable and community and voluntary organisations working for social, economic and environmental sustainability.
There is great scope here for increasing collaborative and partnership working between the two sectors through mainstreaming emergent, more profound understandings of corporate social responsibility. Some would argue that as businesses become more sustainability-focused, the boundaries between “for-profit” commercial business and “non-profit” social enterprises will become increasingly irrelevant.
Irrespective of one’s view of the distinctions between the business and the non-profit worlds – there is evidence that commercial-sector support for the work of non-profits in Ireland lags some way behind what has been achieved elsewhere – and I would argue that both business and the community and voluntary sectors lose out because of this.
We need to find ways of building on the groundbreaking work of Business in the Community Ireland to strengthen links between business at the community level and the many nonprofit organisations that have shared sustainability ambitions – and aim to increase the engagement between the two sectors for their mutual benefit.
The trades unions and the community and voluntary sector also have a great deal in common – both are concerned with ensuring that people live in dignity and have access to the services and supports they require; both are vision-driven movements of people motivated to help each other in solidarity; and both need to find ways of working more closely and effectively together.
For too long in the Irish context both trades unions and the sector have viewed each other with a certain degree of wariness – the sector because of its concern about being dominated and perhaps a fear for the autonomy of boards, and the trades unions perhaps by a perception that the sector colludes in undermining pay and conditions of workers by employing a large quasi-public-service labour force on non-public service terms and conditions. We need to find a way to overcome this wariness to enable greater collaboration in creating an Ireland where everyone can realise their potential and live in dignity and with respect.
The General Public and the Media
Finally, public opinion polling indicates that while there are historically low levels of public trust and confidence in the abstract idea of “charities”, there are still very high levels of public trust in well known charities. This indicates that like in most things in life, trust is based on familiarity – we trust the people and organisations we know well and have a positive relationship with.
The learning for charities is that being open and transparent and making-yourself-known to potential supporters is very important. Like in life too, if a person lets us down, we don’t (and certainly shouldn’t) generalize from that person to everyone else and assume that “everyone is like that”. So when – as inevitably will happen again at some point in the future – poor practice comes to light in a charity, the public need to try to not rush to judgement and unfairly tar all charities with the same brush.
And yes – the media has a role to play here too. Can the media help sustain public trust? Yes. Commentators should ask what are charities doing in Ireland? – and importantly ask why are they doing it? Rather than hear assertions that there are “too many charities”, ask instead “is it true that we have too many charities?”
Seek dialogue and understanding rather than oppositional debate and division. Will that sell papers or win viewers or listeners? I don’t know. But if the media is interested in constructively contributing to better outcomes for people and communities in Ireland, we need to understand why charities play the many roles they play today, and ask are these roles appropriate? – rather than amplify simplistic catch-cries that there are too many charities.
Could our public services be better planned and delivered? Certainly. But where charities are providing services, let’s not blame them for the roles that they have evolved into playing today. Let’s try to agree what we want in our public services first – and then have a conversation about the best way of delivering those outcomes, what the roles of charities should be, and how those can be best supported.
Irrespective of their role in services, community and voluntary organisations will continue to be the places where people come together in community to support one another and to make common cause together – and this spirit of solidarity and shared mission will continue to animate our society in the years and decades ahead.
Our community and voluntary sector constitutes the very fabric of our society and the millions of people who participate in our 19,000 non-profits should be celebrated and supported to maximum effect. There is much that we can all do to assist this great national movement – and I hope that you have found this piece useful in thinking afresh about the parts we all can play to ensure we continue to benefit from a thriving community and voluntary sector in the years ahead.
– Ivan Cooper is Director of Public Policy at The Wheel.
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