When Rehab pays €234,000 to its boss, it looks more like a business
Generosity is a defining characteristic of the Irish, in good times and in bad. People's inherent decency has withstood the social divisions caused by the economic collapse – a setback which robbed us of much, but not the capacity to recognise there is always someone else worse off.
Throughout the recession, we have continued to buy charity scratch cards or raffle tickets and throw coins into collection buckets. Donations slowed down but never screeched to a halt – people still struggled to give.
Abruptly, however, the public mood has clouded over. Confidence in the charity sector is shaken, and charities have entered a difficult phase. Unfortunately, it is a bed of nails fashioned by themselves.
The Central Remedial Clinic's highly questionable use of donations, along with its attempts to shield those actions from public scrutiny, sent out danger signals. And now disturbing revelations about Rehab's fundraising activities, made in the Dail by the Justice Minister, trigger another round of alarm bells.
Already we can see how the conduct of key decision-makers in a number of charities is damaging the stratum as a whole. This is disappointing for all charities, and for the disadvantaged communities they were founded to help. Equally, it is profoundly unsatisfactory for the Irish people.
The self-serving behaviour of some senior figures in the charity world is achieving what the boom-to-bust triumvirate of bankers, developers and regulators could not manage – the charities are robbing us of our generous instincts. Arguably, that's the least forgivable part of this depressing and unfinished business.
For while we have become familiar with narratives stamped with greed, ineptitude and a sense of entitlement – huge pay-offs and pensions collected unblushingly by contributors to the financial collapse, for example – the behaviour of some people involved with charities is particularly hard to stomach.
As the public gains an insight into how charities manage their affairs and what they pay their top tier, our trust in certain institutions is evaporating.
And so to Rehab, which provides education, training and employment for people with disabilities. Worthy work, as recognised by the State, with around one-third of Rehab's income flowing from the HSE and via fundraising.
However, as a matter of urgency in the interests of her own organisation, chief executive Angela Kerins needs to disclose her full remuneration package. Not just her basic salary, but any add-ons.
She declined to do so recently on RTE's 'Morning Ireland' – waffling on about how salaries needed to be transparent without delivering anything by way of personal openness. Her excuse was Rehab's involvement with the commercial sphere. Elsewhere, she has trotted out that threadbare cliche about top dollar for top people. "I think it is important we don't lose track of the fact you have to attract people. We want to get the best people into the organisation ... "
Ms Kerins's last listed salary – it may not be her total package – was €234,000 in 2011. When a charity has a chief executive on €230,000- plus, I'm not certain it can be defined as a charity any longer – it looks more like a fairly substantial business.
Ms Kerins has compromised the very sector she represents. If charity donations are collapsing, a chief executive's refusal to reveal her salary must be a factor, because it fuels public disquiet.
Transparency is, indeed, crucial as she acknowledges but doesn't deliver. Otherwise, how can people be reassured that donations plus state handouts aren't gobbled up by administration and salaries? When frontline services are cut, but not executive salaries, charities can't be surprised if donations start falling. They should be surprised only that anybody remains prepared to stump up.
All charities funded by public money should publish annually their running costs, including senior staff salaries. Accountability must be a priority – this will allow the public to decide which charities to support and which to boycott. Well-run organisations have nothing to fear.
As for Alan Shatter's explosive intervention, which prompted a robust statement from Rehab yesterday claiming he misused his position, there is no doubt he has an axe to grind, and the Government is annoyed with Rehab about its court case challenging the wind-down of lottery compensatory funding.
Equally, Rehab believes charities are being treated unjustly because their prize funds are capped at €20,000 a week compared with the National Lottery's mega millions. That issue is before the courts.
Whatever the minister's motivation, the information shared is in the public interest. Based on the figures he released, Ms Kerins appears to be earning more than 23 times the profit brought in by Rehab's scratch cards and bingo in 2010.
Yet her stance is that people have no right to know her salary, since only 40pc of her activities are accounted for by state funding or charity donations while the rest is drawn from the commercial arena.
Not a convincing argument for two reasons. That 40pc is still significant. And charities which also operate commercially leverage off the goodwill attached to their status. One can't be separated from the other.
Clearly, with the State matching scratch card sales rather than profits euro for euro, there has been no incentive for charities to conduct their lotteries efficiently. Nevertheless, €10,000 profit on sales of around €4m is inefficiency left to run amok. Perhaps Rehab might consider sharing details of a more efficient year's profit margins to substantiate its claim about the minister misleading the public.
Finally, when services are reduced while remuneration packages remain inflated, we can see that charities are a noble venture whose ideals have become debased in certain instances.
In what kind of misshapen universe do executive salaries trump the needs of the vulnerable they are paid to represent?