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Sunday 22 October 2017

When the trust breaks down

People have reacted angrily to disclosures about charity pay. Kim Bielenberg says the backlash is now severely hitting collections

Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The revelations about the Central Remedial Clinic have had a shattering effect among the tens of thousands of volunteers who help to run Irish charities.

This is their busiest time of year. They rattle tins remorselessly, and pound the streets looking to raise every last cent before Christmas at a time when the Irish public is usually in the mood for giving.

But now the public and the volunteers have had to hear revelations about salaries as big as €240,000, top-ups and lavish pensions -- and even, in the case of the CRC, a Byzantine pension scheme that was paid for, but, according to the clinic's former chief executive, did not exist.

Sadly, it is the ordinary volunteer and fundraiser who is taking flak for this reported excess.

Ciara Nagle, mother of a 19-month-old attending the CRC, says staff and parents are horrified by the controversy surrounding the top up payments.

She said their famous 'Santa Bears' -- part of their Christmas fundraising campaign -- have been sent back to the CRC as schools and shops have told them they can't sell them.

And the ripple of the CRC scandal is being felt in other organisations right across the country.

"The scandal is definitely having an impact on other charities that work in a totally different way to the CRC," says Deirdre Garvey of the charities' umbrella body The Wheel. "Fundraisers are getting angry comments from the public about high salaries."

Ms Garvey told Weekend Review the life of most charity executives is far removed from the lavish conditions that were enjoyed by some senior executives at the CRC.

According to The Wheel, around half of Ireland's 8,400 charities actually have no paid employees. The average salary for a chief executive is just under €60,000.

But stories of fatcat wages and excessive pensions seem to have been lodged in the public imagination.

Peter Ireton, founder of Bothar, the charity that sends livestock to developing countries, said donations had halved in recent weeks.

Bothar staff had received hate mail, and angry calls about salary top-ups. But in an interview on RTE's Morning Ireland, Mr Ireton did not do his cause any good when he failed to give precise figures on the salaries of Bothar's senior executives. He said a board decision had been taken to keep these details "private".

At St Vincent De Paul there are frantic preparations for the biggest charity operation of the year.

Thousands of turkeys, Christmas puddings, mince pies and other food will be packaged into boxes. Toys have been gathered for children.

The St Vincent De Paul boxes will be distributed to poor families right across the country in total secrecy in the dead of night.

Jim Walsh of St Vincent De Paul said the charity, which has 11,000 volunteers, had also suffered in recent weeks.

"There are no definitive figures, because St Vincent De Paul has a localised structure.

"But anecdotally we are hearing that donations at church gate collections are down by 15pc."

The CRC scandal could not have come at a worse time for the State's voluntary sector. Recession had already hit charitable giving. The Philippines' typhoon disaster has also understandably diverted donations that might have gone to other causes.

Hans Zomer, director of Dochas, the Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations, says: "We are very worried that the CRC controversy is having an impact on the trust which the public has in charities.

"There is a tendency to generalise. Not all charities should be tarred with the same brush."

So, how can ordinary members of the public possibly know that their money is being well spent?

That is by no means easy. One of the problems is that anyone can set up a charity. They do not necessarily have to be registered, or file accounts.

A charity could range from a local Tidy Towns' committee with a tiny budget, to a huge aid agency like Concern with an annual turnover of €160m. Of course, non-government organisations like Concern do publish their accounts.

Remarkably, there is not yet an Irish charity regulator, despite pleas from many in the voluntary sector.

Barry Andrews, chief executive of Goal, says: "GOAL and other charities have been calling for years for a charity regulator to be established. Since the Charities Act was passed into law in 2009, we have been lobbying the Government to put it into practice, to provide oversight and give reassurance to the public."

The high salaries in a small number of charities attract big headlines, and the management of the Central Remedial Clinic certainly seems, at best, unorthodox.

But Mr Zomer believes members of the public have to look beyond the wages when they are trying to find out whether their donations are being well spent.

Their key question is -- are the charities doing the work they are paid for?

Mr Zomer says: "The real measure of quality for charities is not the amount of money spent on administration costs, but the extent to which an organisation brings about real, lasting change for the people it aims to serve."

Salaries of more than €100,000 may seem excessive to the generous Christmas donor on the average industrial wage, but Mr Zomer says charities have to be professionally run in order to be effective.

"The chief executives of charities tend to be paid a lot less than people in the private sector with equivalent responsibilities.

"An organisation like Concern has a turnover of €160m.

"You are not going to get many chief executives in the private sector with that kind of turnover who are paid €100,000."

The worry now is that Irish charities are forced to slash their running costs amid a public outcry.

Mr Zomer highlights research showing that if a charity cuts its costs too much, the quality of its services is likely to suffer.

They may be left with under-trained staff and poor equipment.

Deirdre Garvey of The Well says: "It would be terrible for people and communities served by the vast majority of well-run charities, if justifiable shock and anger caused by recent revelations were to affect fundraising, or the reputation of charities in general.

"These organisations are reliant on public generosity and support."

Irish Independent

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