Political funding rules should not curb civil society bodies

As anyone paying attention to current affairs will be aware, there are very good reasons why we should all be concerned about the issue of outside parties seeking to influence the democratic election processes that we hold dear. However, it is clear to us in The Wheel that there is a real risk that existing laws, designed to prevent such abuse in Ireland, may be used to potentially muzzle legitimate and important voices in civil society, i.e. community organisations, nonprofits, charities and international NGOs among others.

At the heart of this issue is a 2001 amendment to the Electoral Act of 1997, which aimed to prevent wealthy individuals and groups – particularly those from overseas – from interfering in Irish elections and referendums. The problem with the amendment to the Act, however, is the vague language that it employed to define a “third party” (the mechanism used to classify the types of groups which fall under the Act’s provisions). Since 2001, the language now includes any organisation simply seeking to influence government or public policy. Even a local group campaigning for better street lighting or for a neighbourhood playground could now be interpreted to fall within this. All they would have to do to become a “third party” is accept a donation over €100, with the result that those running the campaign would be effectively criminalised if found to have technically breached the Act. This has the potential to severely restrict the everyday work of a huge range of organisations that work at the local and national level to secure change in the interests of their communities and of wider society.

Community groups

Although this situation has existed since the amendment in 2001 introduced the potential problem of definition, it is fair to say that, until recently, the relevant regulator – the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipoc) – applied a “common sense” interpretation of the Act to Irish community groups, meaning their work was rightly interpreted as not being overtly political. In recent months, however, this common sense approach appears to have been abandoned and the vagueness of the definition of “third parties” in the legislation is at the root of the problem. Sipoc, in fairness to it, identified this problem as far back as 2003.

On its website it states it has concerns about the effectiveness and scope of the provisions of the legislation relating to third parties and because the definition of political purpose is so wide it may it may unintentionally cover everything from a Tidy Towns Committee to Ibec. The commission doubts if it was the intention of the legislature that such bodies, in conducting their ordinary affairs, could find themselves covered by the legislation.

Legitimate advocacy

Conferring “third party” status upon an organisation would mean they must henceforth comply with a slew of funding restrictions designed for political campaigns and intended for those influencing elections and referendum results. It may,of course, be reasonable and appropriate for community groups, charities and NGOs to be subject to regulation under the Electoral Act if they are calling on people to exercise their vote in a particular way in an election or referendum. However, common sense dictates that the legitimate day-to-day advocacy and public policy work in Ireland by these types of community-based organisations should continue to not be affected by this legislation.

The recent change in how the Act is being overseen, made possible by the vagueness of the legislation, now presents a real and material threat to the work, independence and even the existence of many civil society organisations. A number of The Wheel’s members have been actually instructed by Sipoc they now qualify as “third parties” and thus some Irish non-profits are now being threatened with prosecution for doing the day-to-day work that they exist to do.

To be clear, these groups are not campaigning for any party-political purpose, but rather are carrying out their time-honoured duty of advocating for the people they serve and the causes they espouse through activities such as contributing to government consultations, supporting the development of a specific national policy or campaigning for the right to housing, or a living wage.

Fortunately, the Government can avert this crisis by speedily introducing the necessary clarifying amendments to the third-party definition so that it should apply only to influencing elections and referendums, and not more general government or public policy work.

Deirdre Garvey is chief executive of The Wheel, the national association of community, voluntary and charitable organisations. 

This blog was first published as an article in The Irish Times on 8 December 2018,

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Update: How The Wheel is Shaping the Future of the CVC Sector

by Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy at The Wheel 

Ireland’s community, voluntary and charity sector is transitioning through a period of great change and the issues outlined in this blog will affect how our organisations are perceived, regulated and funded in the months and years ahead.

The Wheel is engaging intensely with our members through our CEO’s Network, Regional Forums, HSE Network, Tusla Network, Community Services Programme Network, Finance Manager’s Network and our GDPR Network. While all members agree that top of the list of priorities facing the sector is to restore high levels of public trust and confidence (and to demonstrate best governance practice in doing that) members want action on a range of issues that are affecting their ability to focus on their mission. Our members are telling us unambiguously that they want government action on:

  • reducing compliance demands (and ensuring the cost of compliance is funded);
  • restoring funding to pre-crisis levels and ensuring multi-annual funding that provides the full cost of services;
  • reducing insurance  premiums; and
  • ensuring funders respect the autonomy and professionalism of community and voluntary organisations.

We are engaging with the Department of Health and HSE, the Department of Children and Tusla, the Department of Rural and Community Development (and Pobal) and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and others to ensure these, and many other issues identified by members, are prioritised in departmental and agency plans. If you would like to join any of the networks identified above please email me at ivan@wheel.ie

We have also engaged with all of the major political parties this year, meeting policy managers in Fianna Fail, the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and the Green Party. We have also attended all the Ard Fheiseanna making the case on these issues and for strong and coherent policy to support a thriving community and voluntary sector.

In terms of our engagement with Fine Gael in government, we participated in the National Economic Dialogue in June, where we called on Government to streamline compliance demands and provide for the costs of compliance.  We pointed out that the state has made a huge investment in compliance systems (such as the Charities Regulator and various commissioning processes) in recent years, but has made no equivalent investment in the capacity of the community and voluntary sector to respond to these compliance demands. We also called for Government to take action to reduce insurance premiums. I can report that both calls were heard loud and clear and that they were welcomed by many organisations present.

Members attended our Inaugural Meet the Party Leader event on 20 June with Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin at which members made the same points and engaged in dialogue on Labour’s policy for the sector. We will keep you informed as the series continues with the other party leaders in the Autumn. The series is an important element of The Wheel’s work to support our members to engage with the political system in the run-up to the expected 2019 General Election.

Another element of this political-engagement work is our Stronger Charities, Stronger Communities Lobbying Campaign, phase one of which took place on 6 and 7 July. Participating members contacted their TDs to raise awareness of their issues, including compliance and funding, and to ask that party policies address these issues. If you would like to learn more about the campaign please email lauren@wheel.ie. We will be encouraging all our members to get involved in proactively engaging with their TDs and indeed with all candidates when we get closer to election time. It is only if there is enough awareness amongst TDs that we will see really committed policies and party-manifestos to support the sector and its work.

Reducing insurance premiums is a pressing issue for many members and to pursue this objective we joined the Alliance for Insurance Reform in 2018.  The Alliance is a coalition of private sector and voluntary sector representative bodies working together to encourage Government to take action to reduce insurance premiums. As part of our work with the Alliance we have met with Minister Michael D’Arcy, addressed the Oireachtas Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation, and organised lobbies in the Minister’s constituency.  Increased recent media coverage of the issue of unsustainable insurance premiums is a testament to the effectiveness of this work.  Let’s hope the effort pays dividends in reducing premiums in the years ahead. For some members, these costs have already forced them to close services.

Shaping policy in the Department of Rural and Community Development

Clearly, many of the issues identified above could be addressed in a systematic way by the state and The Wheel is closely involved in many initiatives currently underway in the Department for Rural and Community Development (DRCD), the lead department for the community and voluntary sector in Ireland.

The still relatively new department has recently published its Statement of Strategy and is currently developing three inter-linked strategies: a Strategy for the Community and Voluntary Sector / Plan for Local and Community Developmenta Strategy for Volunteering and a Strategy for Social Enterprise.  Taken together, these plans and strategies have the potential to address the issues identified by our members, and I can report that The Wheel is closely involved in the various departmental working groups established to develop them. Indeed, the strategy to support the community and voluntary sector currently in development has resulted from the commitment that we worked hard to ensure was included in the current Programme for Government (see page 131).

We anticipate that the suite of strategies will be published late in the autumn and we will be working hard to ensure that our member’s priorities are addressed in them. We are encouraged by the positive spirit with which the department has gone about developing these strategies and are optimistic that many of the issues will be positively addressed.

The DRCD is also currently undertaking a Review of the Community Services Programme (CSP) and we brought our members together in July to afford them an opportunity to identify the issues that they would like considered in the review.  The CSP is a vital programme that supports the work of many community services (with a budget of over €40m) by providing employment grants. Any changes to it may significantly impact the work of organisations currently supported. We will be submitting our member’s views on the future of the CSP shortly. If you would like to contribute your thinking, please email ivan@wheel.ie

Shaping the practice of statutory funders

While engaging with lead departments is important when seeking to advance our members issues, the day-to-day relationship between our members and the state usually takes place through agencies such as the HSE, Tusla, Pobal and the Housing Agency. It is these agencies that “operationalise” much departmental policy and it is often the practices of such “executive agencies” that raise the most issues for members.

The Department of Health has initiated a comprehensive Review of Role of Voluntary Providers in Health and Personal Social Services, and this has presented an important opportunity for our HSE funded members to make their views known on current arrangements.

Following in-depth engagement with our HSE-funded members, The Wheel prepared a submission to the review group, which you may find of interest, even if you are not funded by the HSE. It identifies issues that many of our statutory-funded members raise, irrespective of who funds them. Many members are concerned that the HSE’s commissioning process (currently in train) may result in the sector being rationalised under a “bigger is better and more cost efficient” rubric when bigger, many would argue, may be less responsive and accountable to people and communities being served and supported.

The review presents an unparalleled opportunity for health and social-service providing members to see their issues named and addressed in an official report to the Minister for Health.  Additionally, we are collaborating with the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, the Disability Federation of Ireland and others in advancing our HSE funded members interests.  The report of the review body is expected in the autumn, and we are hopeful that it will make positive recommendations relating to the general arrangements that apply to HSE funded organisations. Whether such recommendations are translated into changed practice is another story, however. Our HSE network met again yesterday to discuss recent developments, and the group will be focussing on Slaintecare, the cross-party strategy for reforming health and social services, in the period ahead. If you would like to join The Wheel’s HSE Network please email lara@wheel.ie.

The Wheel is also continuing to work with Tusla as a member of its Commissioning Advisory Group. We are monitoring the impact on our Tusla-funded members of the introduction of new Tusla Service Agreements and the rollout of Tusla’s commissioning process.

Additionally, responsibility for the production of statutory guidelines for commissioning has passed to DRCD, so we will be working closely with the Department to ensure that the guidelines, when produced, are consistent with the principles of our influential report Commissioning For Communities, published in 2016. Our Tusla Network will be meeting in the autumn and if you would like to join, once again, please email lara@wheel.ie.

Shaping Budget 2019

As can be seen, we are working hard to ensure that the funding, regulatory, compliance and support needs of our members are reflected in national policy and budgetary processes generally.  As noted above, we participated in the Government’s National Economic Dialogue on June 27th and 28th at which we called to government to reduce and streamline the compliance demands on charities.  We also called on Government to restore funding for community and voluntary organisations that have endured cuts since 2008 and are now facing many challenges in retaining staff and coping with increased demand for services.

In relation to funding: European funding is an increasingly important source of support for many members and we are working hard to shape the priorities of the next round of European Funding programmes being agreed by Government just now. If you would like to know more about our policy asks in relation to the future of European funding please email emma@wheel.ie.  We are currently engaged in meeting MEPs to brief them on what’s needed if our community and voluntary sector is to benefit to the full from participation in European funding programmes.

Underpinning public trust and confidence: getting the regulatory balance right and telling our stories effectively

Finally, and remembering why we are doing all of this work with our members, all of us as community and voluntary organisations exist to advance a cause and/or to provide a support or a service in our communities. We would all agree that maintaining high levels of public trust and confidence in our work is important – so it is important for us to remember that unfortunately public trust and confidence in the sector is still low, and is very slow in recovering. In a recent public poll, less than half of respondents said they had trust and confidence in charities. This is not a sustainable state of affairs.

There is, however, good progress being made in some important areas. The Wheel worked hard as a member of the Charity Regulator’s Consultative Panel on Governance to produce a report that the Regulator is now implementing.  As part of this, the Regulator is currently developing a new Governance Code for Charities (to replace the current voluntary code), and The Wheel is represented on the Group that is developing it. The new code will be a mandatory code for all charities that will have to declare themselves compliant or explain their non-compliance where appropriate.  We will keep you informed of developments as they occur.

An ongoing challenge facing the sector, and one we are working hard on keeping a focus on, is getting the regulatory balance right to restore public confidence without stifling innovation in the sector: we must make sure that our community and voluntary sector does not become rigidly compliance-driven but remains instead flexible and responsive to need.

The Wheel has also joined in a collaborative campaign on defending civil society voice with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Transparency International, Front Line Defenders and others.  The campaign is aimed at ensuring that the voice of civil society remains strong in the face of all the new regulatory and compliance requirements.  There are concerns that the unintended consequences of the interactions between charity regulations, lobbying regulations, service-agreements and the “third party” provisions of the Electoral Acts (which ban many “political” donations to charities which are otherwise entirely legitimate – as confirmed by the Charities Regulator in his recent guidance on the promotion of political purposes by charities could suppress advocacy by charities. It is also worth noting that the Lobbying Regulator (the Standards in Public Office Commission) is currently consulting on a Code of Conduct for Lobbying. The Wheel will be making a submission to the consultation. If you would like to learn more about the defending civil society voice campaign or make a contribution to our submission on the lobbying code, please email me at ivan@wheel.ie

Part of building public trust and confidence involves us all in better telling the story of the difference that we individually make, and that the sector makes, in the lives of the people and communities we serve.  Traditionally, the charity sector has been poor at telling the story of the impact of our work – so please consider taking part this year in our Charity Impact Awards to be launched in September.  It’s your chance to showcase the difference you make, and to play your part in telling the story of the sector more effectively; a story that we believe when fully appreciated will go a long way to returning the sector to the high levels of trust and confidence we should expect.

– Ivan Cooper is Director of Public Policy at The Wheel

Contact: ivan@wheel.ie

Want to know more?

These two videos provide a good overview of the key challenges for the community, voluntary and charity sector.

Speaking up for Communities

–  Johnny Sheehan, Membership and Regional Coordinator at The Wheel

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Community and voluntary organisations and charities are the invisible infrastructure that is the backbone of communities up and down the country. There are more than 20,000 nonprofit organisations operating in Ireland today. Led by more than 50,000 volunteer trustees, employing more than 150,000 staff and with hundreds of thousands of volunteers involved, these organisations are providing essential supports and services to people and communities all across the country. In purely financial terms, the nonprofit sector has an annual turnover of €12.6 billion. However, it is the societal value of the sector, the energy, endeavour and commitment of community and voluntary organisations and charities, that builds stronger communities.

As a sector, we have reasons to be optimistic. Fundraising income is recovering and is up year-on-year since 2014. A new Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD) was established, and there is a Minister for Rural and Community Development. The DRCD brings community development and regulation into the same department, which offers possibilities for more and better communication between key stakeholders. The Programme for Government included a commitment to develop a strategy to support the sector and there is a process in train in the DRCD to advance this. For its part, the Charities Regulator has brought out guidance on responsibilities of Trustees, fundraising, and lobbying by charities. This provides a greater degree of clarity for the sector.

Voices for Change

Yet the hugely important contribution of the sector does not get the recognition it deserves, particular among political decision makers. Instead, measures are enacted on the rather than with the sector, and there is a risk that these measures could squeeze the vitality of the sector and put at risk the essential contribution it provides to society. Organisations are struggling with the  cost of complying with a growing list of regulations and reporting requirements, the insecure and short-term nature of funding to the sector, the lack of meaningful consultation and of a partnership approach to decision making and the impact that all this has on organisations’ ability to recruit and retain suitable volunteers for their boards.

So, what can we do about it? The political system in Ireland allows citizens a unique level of access to their elected representatives. Working individually, this access allows groups to shine a light on the specific challenges they face, but working collectively this access can be harnessed to highlight the shared issues facing our sector and find innovative solutions that benefit society.

We can’t say for certain that there will be a general election in the autumn or in the new year, but all of the political parties are ready for just such an eventuality and it is critically important that the community, voluntary and charity sector is equally ready to mobilise once the starting gun is fired.

Stronger Communities, Stronger Charities Lobbying Event

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More than 120 people participated in our  free full-day training sessions in Galway, Kells, Waterford, Claremorris and Dublin

Over the past number of weeks, The Wheel has worked with engaged volunteers and staff of small, medium and large organisations to build their skills and capacity to lobby effectively on behalf of their own organisations and the wider sector. More than 120 people participated in free full-day training sessions in Galway, Kells, Waterford, Claremorris and Dublin and 70% of participants expressed interest in getting involved in The Wheel’s Stronger Charities Stronger Communities campaign ahead of the next general election.

While attending training and learning new skills is great, taking the next step of putting these skills into practice is critical. Local TDs have the ear of the people within political parties that are drafting their party manifestos. This process is happening now so we are encouraging local organisations to meet with the elected representatives in their constituencies to highlight sectoral issues, identify solutions and seek commitments from political parties. The Wheel’s Stronger Charities Stronger Communities lobbying event is taking place on 6 and 7 July and we are encouraging as many people as possible to set up meetings with their TDs and to communicate clear, solution-driven asks about their own and wider sectoral issues.

If you want to know more about this initiative contact lauren@wheel.ie.
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Johnny Sheehan
Membership and Regional Coordinator
at The Wheel, johnny@wheel.ie

 

The Role of Civil Society in Europe

As part of the European Parliament funded project, Europe’s Future: Activating Youth and Community Involvement in European Decision Making, The Wheel produced a short video filmed during their recent conference on the role of civil society in Europe.

The video features input from Lynn Boylan MEP on the European Parliament and why Irish civil society should engage with European democracy. Also featured is Siobhan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Early Years – the organisation for young children; Hugh Quigley, Chairman of the Access Europe project; and Deirdre Garvey, CEO of The Wheel. They each highlight the important role that civil society has to play in shaping a successful and sustainable future for Europe and the value of participating in European projects, exchange of best practice, and innovation. Finally, European Programmes Officer at The Wheel, Emma Murtagh, outlines practical means of engaging with the European Parliament and the supports that The Wheel provides to civil society pursuing EU funding.

This project has been a valuable experience for both The Wheel and their project partners, the Union of Students in Ireland and SpunOut.ie. Through it, we have been able to provide insight to our target groups on the workings of the European Parliament and the impact that decisions made at a European level have on the communities represented by our sector. Various members of the European Parliament have been involved in the delivery of this project, including Lynn Boylan MEP, Mairead McGuinness MEP, Liadh Ní Riada MEP, Sean Kelly MEP, and Marian Harkin MEP. We look forward to continuing to work alongside them so that European decision-makers and civil society can collaborate in building the best possible future for Europe and its citizens.

For more information on The Wheel’s European Programmes Team’s work visit:

www.europeforcitizens.ie

www.accesseurope-ireland.org

Good Governace Requires a Steady Hand on The Wheel

– Mairead O’Connor is The Wheel’s Training and Advice Coordinator

mairead O'connor

Mairead O’ Connor

There are almost 50,000 charity trustees in Ireland today. This large group of committed and engaged citizens have ultimate responsibility and overall control of Ireland’s charities. And they are all volunteers.

That’s roughly the capacity of the Aviva stadium. Not that you’d get all the trustees in Ireland into one place long enough to shepherd them into their seats! Every year, these volunteers dedicate hours upon hours of their time to furthering their charities’ missions. They shoulder the sustainability of their organisations, the safeguarding of beneficiaries, staff and volunteers, the increasingly complex requirements of regulators, the expectations of funders and the guardianship of the public good. In the midst of all those competing pressures, where is the time and opportunity to dedicate to their own development?

A question we are constantly asking ourselves is how can we best serve our member trustees, and provide them with the support they need?

To that end, we have recently launched the Charity Trustee Driver’s Licence. This short video course for members of The Wheel, helps to get trustees up to speed with the requirements of their role in a jargon-free, easy-to-complete online video course.

Trustees can watch the short videos when and where suits them and complete a series of quick quizzes to test their knowledge. Completing the module should take no more than an hour and will introduce new trustees to their role and refresh experienced trustees’ knowledge of their legal duties.

To get a sense of what the course offers, watch this short video.

Members of The Wheel can access this free resource at https://www.wheel.ie/content/online-trustee-training-programme

SUMMIT 2018

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The Wheel’s Summit (24 and 25 May 2018) will bring together the leaders, the motivators, the thinkers and the doers to tackle the community, voluntary and charity sector’s biggest challenges.

Immerse yourself in lively discussions, inspiring stories and energetic networking sessions. Meet those at the forefront of social innovation and see first-hand how fresh ideas are solving big issues.

View the programme or the list of over 30 top speakers.

Putting Communities at the Heart of Sustainability

Johnny Sheehan, Membership and Regional Coordinator at The Wheel

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘sustainability’? It’s safe to say that most people associate it with protecting the natural environment – ensuring that we use natural resources in such a way that future generations can also access them. Well, that’s part of it, but there’s more to it! The Wheel sees ‘sustainable’ communities as being economically thriving, environmentally healthy and socially resilient.

This matters! The community voluntary and charity sector in Ireland makes a hugely important contribution – economically, environmentally and socially – to society in Ireland, but our work more often than not goes un- (or under) recognised when priorities are being drawn up for where resources will be allocated. 

Ireland’s National Implementation Plan for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is being launched later this month with public engagement at its core. The SDGs are a UN framework that countries around the world, including Ireland, have signed up to for tackling poverty, inequality and major environmental challenges by 2030. 

The Wheel believes that the all our members, and the wider community, voluntary and charity sector, will find their missions reflected across one, and probably more, of the 17 SDGs. We’ve put this work at the heart of our strategic plan for the coming years and are embarking on a number of exciting initiatives to work with our members and the wider sector to put the community, voluntary and charity sector centre-stage. 

We will be working to ensure that the voice of the community and voluntary sector is listened to when the contribution that Ireland is making to achieving the SDGs is being considered and that new and adequate resources are provided to support and grow the contribution made by the sector. The Wheel is working with Trinity College Dublin on a major research project, led by Dr Vincent Carragher, to map the contribution that communities across Ireland are making to the SDGs.

And we have some experience in this regard… 

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Following on from our Funding Handbook for Community-led Groups and our Governance Resource Book for Small Community and Voluntary Organisations, The Wheel has, in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently published the third instalment of our Sustainable Communities series of resources.

Living Better, Using Less: a Sustainable Communities toolkit for Community and Voluntary Organisations is an online toolkit to help communities achieve greater sustainability. The toolkit provides community and voluntary organisations with practical guidance for implementing sustainability solutions within both rural and urban communities. It covers five topics:

  • ecological integrity
  • health and wellbeing
  • participation and engagement
  • culture and heritage
  • economic resilience


Each topic is covered in a separate section with a video introduction, case studies, a list of suggested actions and access to other resources and supports. It aims to support local communities across Ireland to awaken an awareness, deepen understanding and activate participation in sustainable development with a view to living better by using less. The toolkit shines a light on what is already there, validates and recognises this work and provides some frameworks for communities to draw on for their own organisation and community context. It can be accessed at www.sustainabletoolkit.ie.

We’d really like to continue the conversation with you about this important work and to hear more about the great work you are doing locally, or nationally, to make your communities more sustainable. Feel free to get in touch with me (johnny@wheel.ie) or Vincent (vincent@wheel.ie).

 

Charitable Status of State Bodies – response to Deputy Mick Wallace TD

Deputy Mick Wallace TD recently raised valid questions in the Dáil about the charitable status of what many understand to be State bodies. Indeed, a discussion about what constitutes a charity and the various roles charities play is long overdue.

Some charities are contracted by the State to deliver essential services – especially in the areas of health and social care. These charities deliver specialised and targeted support with a level of compassion and understanding that is difficult to achieve through a centralised health system. Their knowledge and commitment greatly compliment the efforts of the State.

However, while some charities deliver public services on behalf of the State, the role of charities generally is much more wide-ranging. Charities constitute people and communities organising, supporting and speaking up for themselves and others. This “active citizenship” plays a critical and effective role in improving and enriching life for us all. An independent, appreciated, transparent and well-supported charity sector is an essential part of a healthy democracy.

Earlier this year, Health Minister Simon Harris announced a review of the role of voluntary organisations in health and social service provision. The aim is to preserve the best features of the current model while ensuring enhanced collaboration with statutory and voluntary partners. The HSE and Tusla – the Child and Family Agency – have launched similar “commissioning” initiatives to match services to need and acknowledging the respective roles of statutory and voluntary organisations. The Wheel and our 1,300 members welcome and look forward to participating in these and similar initiatives aimed at maximizing the value of the various important contributions that charities make to our national life today.

2017 – The Year in Review

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Deirdre Garvey, CEO of The Wheel

And so, here we are, approaching the end of another year filled with many changes – for our members, for the charity, community & voluntary sector and indeed for The Wheel as well. And at year-end, we are laying the groundwork – in partnership and consultation with members – to deal with the challenges of 2018 and beyond.

As Ireland’s largest body representing charities and community & voluntary organisations, we continue to work closely on your behalf with Departments, statutory bodies and politicians to address a wide range of issues which can be grouped under our following three policy-priority areas:

  1. Increasing the credibility of our sector and restoring public trust and confidence;
  2. Ensuring the community and voluntary sector’s roles are valued and appropriately funded. And our ‘3-R’ framework summarises our work: we are looking for charities to be respected and recognized for the work they do, resourced properly, and appropriately  regulated;
  3. Progressing understanding and appreciation of active citizenship especially in the context of local development reform and alignment.

In 2017 we were pleased to have made a lot of progress in advancing this agenda, with highlights including the establishment of a dedicated new Department for our sector (a key ‘ask’ of The Wheel); the publication of the Charity Regulator’s consultative panel report on the regulation of fundraising (which did not introduce any new regulations, but which made constructive recommendations on a Fundraising Code); the establishment of an emerging strategy for our sector, within the (still ongoing) work of the Department of Rural & Community Affairs; the commitment to an action plan for the development of social enterprise in Ireland; a VAT compensation scheme for charities; and, the progress made in shaping the principles for commissioning public services, which we are successfully shaping to be more suitable for our sector. This diagram offers a snapshot of the various advocacy processes we are involved in.

In 2017, we have been successful at building a higher profile in, and engagement with, the media at national and local levels, successfully driving the public narrative towards the positive difference and impact that the organisations in the sector make in the lives of people and communities all over Ireland and indeed, internationally. And this will continue in 2018.

In that regard, we were particularly thrilled to deliver the inaugural Charity Impact Awards just this month, which delivered widespread attention both within the sector and also within the media (and indeed the 30,000 individual people who cast a vote during the campaign!) on the positive impact of the great work done by Ireland’s charities and community/voluntary groups. It is clear to us that members like you have all got an impact-story to tell, and people are obviously eager to listen. You can learn more about the Awards here: www.charityimpactawards.ie

Our Annual Conference & Charity Expo took place in June and featured fascinating inputs on such topics as the role of charities and community & voluntary organisations in the age of “post-truth” politics; public trust in charities, and a new national strategy for the community, voluntary and charity sector. Preceded the night before by our Annual Lecture & Dinner, with the keynote address by Professor Tom Collins, I think it’s fair to say that The Wheel’s Annual Conference has firmly established itself as a real standout event in the annual charity-sector calendar!

Growing Membership

Engagement with our members remains really strong around the practical supports and advice that we provide. We are delighted to have grown our member numbers this year and to know that we are ending the year with 1,326 members!

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We are really pleased that we welcomed so many people to our nation-wide training and advice sessions all over Ireland. We’ve totted up the numbers, and they paint a significant picture: in total, we delivered a total of 185 events in 47 different locations in Ireland (yes folks, that’s a whopping 46 different places outside Dublin!) attended by 4,700 people. (And within this, there were 61 events reserved solely for members, which were attended by 1,859 people). We responded to 904 formal queries over the year and were asked to do 41 customised training sessions in-house within organisations. Our EU programmes team doubled in size, to two people in 2017 and has been successful at helping organisations secure funds. If you are interested in knowing what’s on in 2018, you can see it here.

A new Strategic Plan and a New Look

Internally, within The Wheel, the ratification by members of our new strategy Stronger Charities, Stronger Communities, in June, was a highlight of the year. Setting out our objectives for the next four years and building upon the success of recent years, Stronger Charities, Stronger Communities is The Wheel’s blueprint for achieving, with our members, a more fair and just society for all.

As you will already have noticed, we also completed a rebranding exercise on foot of the new strategy, and it has been rolling out in phases since its launch in June. Work has commenced on the development of our new website which we expect to be launching in spring 2018. More to follow on that soon.

You may have also witnessed The Wheel providing a strong and coherent voice for our sector in the media. We published several opinion pieces Irish Times (e.g. 28 September, 8 December) as well as letters (e.g. 29 November). We also participated in 26 television and radio interviews in 2017.  This included interviews on RTÉ Six One News, RTÉ Radio 1 Morning Ireland, RTÉ Radio 1 News at One, Newstalk Breakfast, TV3 News, TV3 Ireland AM and others).

I would like to thank each and every member of the staff team in the office who have worked so very hard throughout the year on our many programmes, as well as our four regional champions (and don’t forget to check them out here). Equally, I would also like to thank the volunteer members of our board of directors (our Charity Trustees), who consistently provide strong and strategic leadership for the organisation and for me personally. All of the team – in the office and on the board – collectively combine into what I think is an extraordinary bunch of people, all dedicated to achieving our vision of a thriving charity, community & voluntary sector at the heart of a fair and just Ireland.

In closing, it is clear that at a practical level, the operating environment for the sector clearly continues to be a challenging one. The ongoing demands of regulations and reporting at multiple levels and in ever-more onerous ways, the perennial problem of sourcing funding, the impending introduction of GDPR, and so much more – you could certainly be forgiven for perhaps feeling somewhat overwhelmed at times.

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And yet, our members have continued to meet those challenges head-on. The solidarity, support and strength of voice that we can all get from being connected to each other through The Wheel is vitally important. I am constantly reminded that the very existence of any charity / community / voluntary group provides a real-life example of a quality that is very important in our lives – which I phrase quite simply here as: the ability to think about, care and show compassion for others; the seeing of what change is possible or needed; and the rising above apathy to do something about making things different, and better, for others….. in a nutshell, it’s about getting involved! And anyone connected with a charity, community or voluntary organisation does that in spades.

Thank you for caring enough to do what you do in your communities all over Ireland.

Lastly, I want to wish you and your colleagues, along with all of your loved ones and friends, a very Merry Christmas and an inspiring – and inspired – New Year!

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My Experience as Charity Trustee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Cooper

Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy at The Wheel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition:

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

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

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