Tuesday 20 February 2018

'Trustees have a big responsibility, Console would be the same'

Colin Bell's charity helps Irish people bring deceased love ones home from abroad. He told Sarah McCabe how he kept on top of its rapid growth in three years

Eithne and Colin Bell, with their grandson Daniel
Eithne and Colin Bell, with their grandson Daniel
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

'On June 16 2013 my son Kevin was killed in a hit and run incident in New York City. He was 26.

"It's not something people are necessarily aware of, but when someone dies abroad, it is up to their family and friends to pay for the cost of bringing their loved one's body home. It can be complicated and expensive. The average cost of repatriating a body is about £5,000 (€5,900).

"The town where we're from, Newry in County Down, went into fundraising overdrive overnight. Around £150,000 was raised in the space of one week, far more than we needed. As it happened, Kevin's employers in New York were kind enough to pay for his repatriation. So we were left with a large amount of generously donated money - and nowhere to spend it.

"We decided to set up a charity to help others who found themselves in the same situation. With so many young people living abroad, we knew we would not be the last family to be in that situation. We called the charity the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust - the KBRT.

"The KBRT has grown rapidly since then. In the three years since, we have helped to bring 197 people home. We raise around £1m a year.

"We decided at the very beginning, even though our ethos is very much about family and we run it as a family, that we wanted to do things very professionally and properly.

"We applied for charity status in Northern Ireland which took the guts of a year to get. One of the challenges there was the regulator wanted to see a real need for our service, meaning they wanted us to means test people who we gave money to. But that is not appropriate for what we do.

"So we got charity status based on relieving people in times of stress instead. We could have achieved our aims without getting charity status, but we wanted people to know we are recognised and regulated as a charity and do things by the book.

"Being a registered charity has certain requirements. For example, we must produce audited accounts which are submitted to the UK Charity Commission. I wouldn't describe it as a big cost burden, but it certainly takes up a lot of time.

"We have applied for charity status in the Republic too. We are still waiting, 18 months on. Though from what I can see there is not much difference between the two systems in the North and the Republic.

"Another thing we have done to ensure everything is done properly and professionally is put a really good board of trustees in place.

"Our trustees are professionals and know what they are doing. They have a big responsibility. It would be the same with Console.

"We don't take any payment for the work we do - I think that when people donate money the responsibility is on us to make sure as much as humanly possible of it goes directly to the cause they are trying to support.

"But in saying that, we recently applied for government funding, because the charity has gotten so big that we want to hire a part-time administrator and also find an office for it.

"We have been doing it from home until now but it has outgrown the house.

"I was recently invited by Micheal Martin to speak to TDs and have had lots of support from them so I'm hopeful.

"It is understandable that larger charities have overheads and need to hire staff, and those people deserve to be paid.

"Another challenge you hit as your charity grows is tax. One of the ways the KBRT raises money is by selling our own jerseys.

"They've been hugely popular - to the extent that for tax reasons we temporarily had to stop selling them. We had to set up a separate limited company to sell the jerseys, then the proceeds of that go to the charity."

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