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Thursday 27 October 2016

Street chuggers: Console scandal has done massive harm to charities

Sarah-Jane Murphy reveals how donations dried up and ‘chuggers’ were met with open hostility on the streets in the wake of the Console controversy

Sarah-Jane Murphy

Published 02/08/2016 | 02:30

Sarah-Jane Murphy signed up as a ‘chugger’ for Amnesty. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Sarah-Jane Murphy signed up as a ‘chugger’ for Amnesty. Picture: Caroline Quinn

In the aftermath of the revelations regarding Console director Paul Kelly, chuggers working the busy streets of Dublin found that business was virtually non-existent.

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During one seven-hour shift, only the team leader and a senior member of the fundraising team were successful in drumming up a handful of signings.

These were seriously slim pickings when contrasted with the previous few days' efforts, when each member of the team easily reached their target of three sign-ups per day.

It was immediately apparent to me and my fellow chuggers that the 'Console ripple effect' had landed in a devastating fashion.

The story regarding Paul and Patricia Kelly was consistently dominating the national news agenda, with increasingly squalid details becoming public as the days went on.

At our early morning briefing in Amnesty International's Irish headquarters, the matter was raised by team leaders and senior staff members.

We were urged to remind members of the public that the organisation prides itself on its transparency and accountability.

"Invite them to view our audited accounts online," a team leader suggested.

It was repeatedly stressed to us that Amnesty is an NGO (non-governmental organisation), not a charity, and the fact that it receives no state funding should be clearly communicated to members of the public.

"The whole Console crisis can be explained in terms of one bad apple in the barrel," one member of staff told the assembled chuggers.

More than a little daunted by the scandal that was featuring in news bulletins, my team-mates and I set out for Mary's Street, trusty umbrellas in tow, as dark rain clouds gathered.

It turned out to be a depressing and frustrating day, with as many as 30 people telling me they wouldn't stop and talk "because of that crowd Console".

Other comments included: "You're all the same," "They're all crooks, those charity bosses" and "The cheek of you out here today after what that man Kelly has done. It's disgusting."

With morale among team members continuing to plummet, we consulted each other regularly, agreeing that very few people were stopping to talk.

Our team leader did her level best to boost our spirits, reminding us that we were working to raise funds to make a difference in people's lives.

She urged us to believe in ourselves, to re-ignite our passion for Amnesty International, to focus on the task at hand and to fight the negative attitude that was enveloping us.

But with only two hours left, not a single member of our team had signed up a donor in the preceding five hours.

It was apparent to me that the Console scandal had had an instant negative impact on street fundraising and had culminated in a sharp fall in donor sign-ups.

With just an hour left, there was relief at last, as senior members of the team managed to recruit a handful of donors, some of them foreign. I couldn't help but wonder that maybe they were here on holidays and had not even heard of the Console controversy.

We were painfully aware that we were fighting against a rising tide of public sentiment; the difference in people's attitudes when compared with previous days on the streets was palpable.

There have been a series of high-profile scandals involving charities in recent years. These episodes serve to hamper the efforts of the thousands of charitable organisations working to create positive change, as they depend on the goodwill of the public for fundraising.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has committed to fast-tracking the operation of part 4 of The Charities Act 2009, which is scheduled to become effective in September.

It will allow for the introduction of an inspector of charities and a team of specialists who will monitor the sector for early warning signs of potential problems, financial or otherwise, in an organisation.

Those on the ground know that faith and trust in the Irish charitable sector must urgently be restored in the minds of the public in order to generate income so that they can continue to do valuable work on behalf of those who need it most.

Irish Independent

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