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.

Is governing a charity different to a private firm?

-Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

Following on from my recent blog on the merits of principles-based versus rules-based governance frameworks, I thought I’d explore whether there is any difference between the governance of charities and private firms. We often hear that charities should be run just like businesses and the same standards and rules should apply etc.

On the face of it, the governance challenge is the same: if we understand that governance refers to how an organization is run, directed and controlled, and that good governance means designing and putting in place policies and procedures to make sure the organisation is run effectively, then surely there is no difference in principle between good governance in firms or charities?

But wait! I think there are a number of crucial characteristics that differentiate the two governance challenges.

Firstly, in private firms, boards of directors have responsibility for assets that are privately owned by shareholders and constitute private property on which a financial return is expected.  Additionally, in many cases, directors of private firms are themselves, shareholders of the firms they are directors of – so they are also overseeing a return on their own private interest in those assets.

Secondly, directors of private firms are generally held to account (in theory anyhow) by a strong shareholder group who ultimately own the firm’s assets – and these shareholders have the power to remove directors if the firm is not making an acceptable return.

Thirdly, in private firms, directors are often paid in their capacity as a director (i.e. they derive a personal financial benefit from being directors) – so even though they should only be taking the firm’s best interests into account when making decisions, they may nevertheless experience inevitable human motivations related to their income and standard of living as part of the background context to their decision-making.

Fourthly, non-executive directors of private firms (who may nonetheless be paid) share governance responsibility with executive directors, with all directors – executive and non-executive alike – sharing ultimate responsibility if things go wrong. There is a reassurance for non-executive directors here with executives having “skin in the game”.

Fifthly, the domain of the private firm is exactly that. Private.  What goes on inside a firm is (as long as it complies with the law and regulatory frameworks) nobody’s business but those people who own or are contracted to the firm. People in private firms often accept that people know things on a need-to-know basis (though cultures may, of course, differ from firm to firm).

Things are quite different in charities on all these points.

Adobe Spark (8)

Firstly, in charities, boards of directors have responsibility for assets that are not privately owned by shareholders.  Who ultimately owns the assets is in fact moot. The assets – while the legal title is vested in the charity under the control of trustees – can, in fact, be morally understood to be either ultimately “owned” by no-one, or by everyone (and the stance taken by trustees towards this choice is often revealing of their attitude to accountability). Additionally, in all cases, directors of charities are by definition never themselves shareholders of the charities they are directors of – so they are never overseeing their own private interest in those assets.

Secondly, directors of charities are not held to account by a strong shareholder group who ultimately own the assets.  There are no shareholders that have the power to remove directors/trustees if the firm is not making an acceptable return. Instead, there are a number of stakeholder groups (funders, private donors/philanthropists, supporters, collaborators/partners, beneficiaries) with varying degrees of power to hold directors/trustees to account – and with the beneficiaries (analogous to customers of a private firm, but often without the power to take their custom elsewhere), the most important stakeholder group, often having the least power to hold the board to account.

Thirdly, in charities, directors are not paid in their role as directors/trustees (they are precluded from deriving a personal benefit from their being directors/trustees) – so they do not experience a potential conflict (related to direct personal benefit) in solely taking the charity’s best interests into account when making decisions.  Their income and standard of living is not part of the (even subconscious) context in decision-making.  They may, of course, experience other conflicts of interests (which should, of course, be declared) but no more so than directors of private firms would.

Fourthly, there are only non-executive directors (who are never paid) in charities – and they do not share governance responsibility with executive directors: because there are none. It is the voluntary, unpaid (non-executive – although that term is actually a misnomer when it comes to charities) directors/trustees who solely have the ultimate responsibility if things go wrong. Paid executive staff (including the CEO) do not share ultimate responsibility, and when things go wrong, it is the unpaid directors/trustees who have to face the music alone.  Paid executive staff do not have the same level of skin-in-the-game as their private sector counterparts – and this increases the exposure of directors/trustees of charities and their reliance on executive staff and the quality of delegation and reporting in place.

Fifthly, the domain of the charity is not private, it is arguably the reverse of that: public.  What goes on inside a charity is everybody’s business and in contrast to people knowing things on a need-to-know basis, charities should be as open and transparent as it is possible to be in their day-to-day business.  Complying with the law and regulatory frameworks is necessary, but not sufficient! This is ultimately because all of the resources of a charity, irrespective of where they originated, become effectively “public property” once they come under the control of charitable trustees – and the public has a right to know how their resources are being applied. This is one of the reasons why charities are also subject to regulation by the Charities Regulator – another important differentiating factor.

Sixthly, and not referenced at all in the paragraphs on private firms above – governors of charities give their personal time free to charities; expose themselves to personal liability if anything untoward happens to the charitable assets they are responsible for; and put their personal reputations on the line, with the reputational risks being uncompensated financially.

I believe that these factors make the governance challenge for trustees of charities quite distinct from that faced by directors of private firms – factors which need to be understood and provided for in any future governance framework and support-programme for charities. These factors I believe make being the director/trustee of a charity a significantly bigger challenge – and a bigger personal risk – than being a director of a private firm.

What does all of this suggest is needed in developing a supportive governance framework for charities?  One that ensures we continue to benefit from the voluntary commitment of trustees? That will be the subject of a future blog.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts on my analysis.

– Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

Email Ivan

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Progress update: How The Wheel is advancing charities’ interests

– Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy

Here is a quick overview of some recent developments affecting the sector and the work we have been doing to advance the issues.

Firstly, The Wheel has warmly welcomed the appointment of Minister Michael Ring and Minister of State Sean Kyne to the new Department of Rural and Community Development  (the name of the department is yet to be finalised).  This new department answers the call that The Wheel made in the run-up to the last general election for cabinet-level representation for the Community and Voluntary Sector and we believe that this development recognises the sector’s importance in national life and holds great potential to transform the funding, regulatory and reporting environment we are all working in.  We are looking forward to working with Minister Ring and Minister Kyne in advancing the many issues our sector faces and I would like to thank all members of The Wheel for playing their part in creating the conditions for this development.

We understand that the Community Division in the current Department of Housing will be moving across to this new department – as will the Cross Sectoral Working Group on Local and Community Development already working to develop the strategy to support the community and voluntary sector that is committed to in the Programme for Government (once again as a result of the campaigning work by The Wheel and its members in the run-up to the election). The Wheel is represented on this Cross-Sectoral Group and I can report that all of the major issues facing the sector (the need to get commissioning right; for multi-annual funding; to reduce the regulatory and reporting burden; etc) have been identified by that group – and we are working hard to ensure that initiatives are identified to address these issues. The group will be producing a 5-year strategy and the Government aims to publish the strategy early next year.  

Charities Regulator

Everyone associated with the charity sector in Ireland knows how important good governance is – and how vital it is for maintaining public trust and confidence. In this regard The Charities Regulator has convened a Consultative Panel on Governance to agree what the Regulator can do to support best governance practice in charities – and once again I can report that The Wheel is representing the sector on this panel – and that we are confident of identifying the most appropriate actions that the Regulator can take to support good governance in charities.  We will be working hard to ensure a balance is struck between the need to maintain public trust and confidence and the need to ensure that that the autonomy and independence of charities is respected and supported. Additionally, we have been working as a member of the Charity Regulator’s Consultative Panel on Fundraising and that work will be concluding shortly with the panel’s recommendations about what’s needed to ensure fundraising practice is regulated most effectively.


Most organisations will be aware I am sure of the approaching deadline (25 May 2018) for the commencement of the General Data Protection Regulation – which will have big implications for all community, voluntary and charity organisations that manage personal date (like databases of contacts, supporters, donors etc). We have been running training events for our members to raise awareness of what charities need to do to comply – and we are also in contact with the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure that everything necessary is done to support charities in the transition to the new regime. The GDPR will have profound implications for all charities – so I would like to take this opportunity to urge you to ensure that your organisation is aware of the new requirements and that you give yourselves plenty of time to prepare. Visit to see more training opportunities coming up.


Organisations that are funded by Tusla will be aware the body is advanced in its process of transitioning to a commissioning model for funding services (not competitive tendering I hasten to add!) and we are continuing as a member of the Tusla Advisory Group on Commissioning, working to ensure that the added value that community and voluntary organisations contribute to services is appreciated in Tusla processes and that Tusla supports charities in their work under the new commissioning regime. Join The Wheel’s Tusla Network (open to members of The Wheel only).

HSE Funded organisations

The Wheel has also established a Network for HSE Funded organisations and that network will be meeting on 12 July to consider the implications of a letter that HSE sent to its funded organisations about issues that have emerged in HSE audits.  If you are funded by the HSE,  and if you are a member of The Wheel, then this network is definitely for you and I’d strongly encourage you to register for the event.

 National Economic Dialogue

The Wheel participated in the National Economic Dialogue on 28 and 29 June  and drew attention to the work that Ireland’s 19,000 nonprofits do to sustain our communities, the massive €5 Billion contribution they make to the cost of our public services annually, and the importance of ensuring that funding and commissioning arrangements value and take into account the huge financial and non-financial contribution that the sector makes in Ireland even year. We called for future commissioning processes to take this contribution into full account, and for Budget 2018 to prioritise investment in services over tax cuts.

Annual Conference

Finally, The Wheel’s Annual Conference last week was attended by over 400 people from the community and voluntary sector in Ireland – and there was lively discussion and debate on all the key issues facing the sector – who is responsible for maintaining trust and confidence – the sector or the regulator? What should be in a strategy to support the community and voluntary sector? What is the sector’s role in advocating the issues in this post-truth era?  We have recorded many of the conference sessions and they are available on our Youtube channel and I would encourage you to review the sessions. Minister Sean Kyne addressed the conference and spoke appreciatively about the sector’s role and the importance of the work that it does: encouraging signs for the forthcoming work of the new Department.

We also launched our new Strategic Plan at the conference and unveiled our new visual identity with a simple message: Stronger Charities. Stronger Communities

A Voice for the Sector

I am sure you will agree that engaging with the public is more important than ever for the community, voluntary and charity sector – we must more effectively tell the story of the work the sector does and the huge contribution we make to society and to the economy (150,000 paid staff, over €10 billion a year turnover!). So I am happy to report that The Wheel received some great coverage for the sector and its work in the context of the conference – read the Sunday Business Post’s special report on the sector.  

I have also published some recent blogs on governance in the sector and the roles that we all to play in a thriving community and voluntary sector which I hope you will find interesting and informative.

As you can see – there is a great deal of work that we are engaged in on our member’s behalf – and if you would like to learn more about this work, or indeed become more closely involved, please email me.  The sector is currently experiencing the most dynamic period it in our history – there are great challenges presenting – but also great opportunities to ensure our sector takes its rightful place at the heart of Irish society working towards our vision of a fair and just Ireland for all.  

We are working hard to ensure that our sector benefits from all the opportunities that are currently presenting themselves. 

Follow us on Twitter to learn more about our advocacy work.

Stronger Charities. Stronger Communities.

Introducing The Wheel’s Strategic Plan 2017-2020

the-wheel-2The Wheel’s National Conference is a big event in the annual calendar of the community and voluntary sector – and on top of being our biggest (and best-attended) conference to date, this year’s conference (June 28th) was also the occasion for the launch of our ambitious new strategic plan Stronger Charities, Stronger Communities (2017-2020).

Our vision is emblazoned on the very first page: A thriving community and voluntary sector at the heart of a fair and just Ireland. And that’s what The Wheel is all about.

From humble beginnings back in 1999, we have grown to become a movement of over 1,300 organisations working together to maximize the community, voluntary and charity sector’s contribution to Irish life.

Our mission is to represent the shared interests of community, voluntary and charitable organisations, support organisations in their work and promote the importance of active citizenship. We believe a vibrant community, voluntary and charity sector is at the heart of a healthy society – it powers the delicate, interdependent ecosystem that creates – and protects – the common good.

As our strategy says: “The sector is the heart and conscience of our nation. It’s the driver of positive values and transformative actions.  It accelerates social progress and puts the breaks on excesses of greed and individualism. It rebalances the tensions between the influential and the marginalized; the insiders and the outsiders, the powerful and the weak. And it is experiencing a moment in time like never before: we are in an era of uncertainty, but also of real opportunity.”

At an international level, a more self-centred, nationalistic, simplistic narrative has found voice, audience and agency.  In Ireland, the 2016 General Election produced a shift indicating disillusionment with the old ways of organising society and distributing resources. For our community, voluntary and charity sector, there are strong signals in this that people want change.

The outcome of the marriage equality referendum means that people understand and gravitate towards the benefits of equality and caring for others like never before. This phenomenon has been strengthening against a backdrop of increasing inequality and poverty in Ireland and the resultant increased demands for the services provided by many organisations in the sector. Following the crash however, the sector is still dealing with the legacy of funding cuts that led to a dramatic downsizing.

Taken together, these factors  – less funding, fewer organisations and more demand for services have created great pressures for everyone working in the sector and present serious challenges for organisations. But problems also present opportunities. Organisations have the chance to really inspire by communicating a compelling vision for progressive change; by individually developing smart plans and by together sharing, supporting and acting.

And The Wheel’s strategy sets out clear objectives for us in assisting the sector to rise to the challenges and seize the opportunities. We will be working to four themes to support our members and the sector to achieve their potential.


We will provide effective representation for members by working to ensure that the impact of community, voluntary and charitable organisations is properly understood and appreciated by stakeholders and decision-makers; that the legal, policy and operational environment is supportive of community and voluntary activity; and that the sector is represented in decision-making settings.


We will vigorously support community, voluntary and charitable organisations to be as effective as possible in their work to deliver positive, high-quality change for the people and communities they serve. We will emphasise the importance of promoting and supporting strong leadership, good practice, transparency and accountability in organisations, and in showing the public the real impact of their work.

Promoting Active Citizenship

We will engage in conversations about building the kind of society we want to live in and about the role our sector plays in achieving this.  We will articulate clearly the link between a fair and just society and the roles of community and voluntary organisations.  We will encourage and create opportunities for people to play their part as active citizens through community, voluntary and charitable activity.

Being a Vibrant Membership Organisation

And finally, in doing this, we will ensure that The Wheel is well-run, healthy, relevant, responsive and effective.  We will ensure our members’ voice is strong in shaping how we do our work to achieve our strategic objectives and in implementing our plan.

I’d be very interested in hearing your views on our new strategy. You are very welcome to contact me directly.

Read the strategy or if you are not a member, you could consider joining The Wheel.

Ivan Cooper is Director of Public Policy at The Wheel 

Ivan Cooper


We all have a part to play in a thriving community and voluntary sector

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
  • beneficiaries
  • 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

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 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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