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Thursday 30 March 2017

Not all publicity is good as charity will find to its cost

Sam Smyth

CONTROVERSY and charity are words that should not appear in the same sentence, according to fundraising veterans.

Even a suggestion of an argument among a charity's bosses almost invariably undermines the public's confidence and propels a consequent fall in donations.

So the sacking of chief executive Melanie Verwoerd, whose name was almost synonymous with UNICEF Ireland, shocked the bosses of other charities.

Legal sources were speculating about legal actions Ms Verwoerd may take for unfair dismissal or to protect her reputation. Lawyers also said that any legal action taken by her would also attract very extensive media coverage and prolong the controversy.

None of the other charities I spoke to yesterday would comment on the record, but without exception they assumed the row at UNICEF must be about a very serious matter.

"You must assume they had already factored in the consequences of the inevitable adverse publicity when they terminated the executive director's contract at UNICEF," one executive at another leading charity said.

Another charity boss said Ms Verwoerd was extremely highly regarded as an exceptionally competent organiser and fund-raiser.

"She doubled their income in the past year and UNICEF has never had such a high profile, it is a total mystery as to why they would want to dispense with her services," he said.

And others were just as puzzled and gave variations on those themes, praising Ms Verwoerd and the job she did.

A legal source said UNICEF Ireland must have felt they had no alternative but to dismiss Ms Verwoerd given the potential fallout for the charity.

UNICEF has so far declined to comment.

Ms Verwoerd's dismissal appears to centre on her former relationship with the late Gerry Ryan.

It is believed the board came to a decision that a continuing media interest in Ms Verwoerd's relationship with Ryan was damaging the UNICEF brand.

The chairman, Paul Connolly, who sacked his executive director by email on Friday, July 15, had thanked Ms Verwoerd and her staff in the annual report for their "unstinting work for UNICEF in 2010".

And, through 2010, the year when her partner died, the executive director doubled the donations to nearly €7m over the previous year.

Ryan died on April 30, 2010, and the controversy about Ms Verwoerd's relationship with him had ebbed over the past year.

The board had been concerned about the publicity after Ryan's death and Ms Verwoerd had limited her encounters with the media.

Even before Ryan's death she had spoken confidentially to the previous chairman about her relationship with the broadcaster but he said it was a private matter, according to sources.

When news of her affair with Ryan became public in October 2008, the board instructed Ms Verwoerd that Ryan was not to accompany her to UNICEF events.

Ms Verwoerd (43), who had served as South African ambassador to Ireland from 2001 to 2005, took up her position in UNICEF in 2007.

After news of her dismissal broke at the weekend Ms Verwoerd issued a statement saying the board of UNICEF had terminated her employment.

Ms Verwoerd declined to comment yesterday, but legal sources confirmed she was considering taking an unfair dismissal case against UNICEF Ireland and she has not ruled out further legal action.

Irish Independent

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