Friday 28 November 2014

If you turn a charity into a business don't be surprised if it acts like one

Frank Flannery is not the problem with the charitable sector, he's just a symptom of a much larger malaise

Published 16/03/2014 | 02:30

Phil Hogan and Frank Flannery in July 2012

There are few more well-connected or highly respected people in this country than Frank Flannery. From the late Seventies he was at Garret FitzGerald's side, seeking to modernise Fine Gael. FitzGerald's liberal rhetoric attracted women and the young, promising a new Fine Gael that championed change.

It didn't last long, but it briefly offered an alternative to Haugheyite duplicity.

Fine Gael back then was not so much a party as a collection of old TDs. Barons with local fiefdoms, they protected their turf and obliterated any rival with the cheek to suggest newfangled notions of change. Flannery and his backroom team isolated and undermined such dinosaurs, and eventually they were replaced by people more in tune with the times.

Working for Rehab, fighting the good and charitable fight to support people with disabilities, Flannery became an example to corporate Ireland: the man who knew everyone and who put his contacts to good use, encouraging charitable donations.

A lifetime later, within a couple of days, Flannery's political status is shredded. They counted for nothing, all those years guiding the party through the political jungle. He was no longer the man who helped Fine Gael grow up in the Eighties and who breathed life back into the party after Michael Noonan's leadership brought it to meltdown in 2002.

Not since certain political dinosaurs found their petty power bases imploding has anyone been so thoroughly discarded.

Suddenly, all that mattered was that Enda Kenny should not be seen to be in any way close to the person to whom he's been very, very close for the past dozen years.

Not even a statement to say, "I regret to have to . . ." Instead, it's just a cold, "Frank who?" How did this happen?

We used to have charities. Now we have philanthropy. We used to have goodwill, now we have charitable businesses. They still depend on public donations, on State subsidies, on dedicated staffs, but they have had business models imposed on them. Because, as all good entrepreneurs know, the private sector is the dynamic engine of progress, or something like that.

Thus, charities became businesses, with business plans and targets and CEOs and the massive salaries and bonuses and pensions and perks that come with them. Thus, the CRC scandal and now the Rehab scandal.

In the first, a vastly overpaid man retiring on a €98,000-a-year pension got a bye-bye of €700,000. And in the second, the CEO is on €240,000, she has waived her bonuses lately (the modern mark of the philanthropist) and a dozen executives are on over €100,000 a year, some of them on €150,000.

The kind of thing that's normal in big business just seemed bizarre when it turned up in charitable services.

And where there are CEOs there are consultants and lobbyists and who on this fair green isle is better positioned to be a lobbyist than Frank Flannery? The man who knows everyone; the man with a Fine Gael access-all-areas Leinster House pass.

And Philanthropy Ireland thought it worthwhile to pay Frank €60,000 a year to whisper into the ear of this or that powerful person. And then Rehab paid him lobbying fees of €66,000.

Picture it. You're a government minister and one day you're walking down a corridor in Leinster House and Frank Flannery comes around a corner – a distinguished man who has been part of the landscape for three decades.

Good man, Frank, how's it going?

Well, now that you mention it, minister . . .

And Frank tells you about a little problem, an anachronism, a difficulty that could easily be resolved, to the benefit of all and sundry. And, sure, wasn't Frank on the unpaid board of the Forum on Philanthropy? And if, under that hat, Frank was wearing his lobbyist hat, well . . . sure, isn't it a mark of the modern entrepreneurial culture, the wearing of multiple hats? Sure, don't we all sit on each other's boards and independently set each other's generous salaries?

And so Frank Flannery ended up lobbying ministers for the benefit of tax exiles, to allow them use charities to buy favoured status.

Any of us could need the support of the CRC or Rehab, or any of

the other specialist services, tomorrow or next year. The politicians' deliberate under-resourcing of disability needs has spawned a business culture on the back of such worthy services. And so the philanthropy business now comes complete with CEOs, astonishing salaries and distinguished professional lobbyists.

Frank Flannery is not the problem. He's a symptom.

Sunday Independent

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