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Charities in crisis: 'We are emptying the tank right now'

Covid-19 has forced the cancellation of vital fundraisers, and many charities are now facing the perfect storm as donations drop off and more people seek help. Kathy Donaghy reports

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Feeling the pinch: Sinéad Gillespie and Laura McNally during Daffodil Day last year. This year’s fundraiser was moved online due to Covid-19, but only raised half the normal amount. Photo by David Conachy

Feeling the pinch: Sinéad Gillespie and Laura McNally during Daffodil Day last year. This year’s fundraiser was moved online due to Covid-19, but only raised half the normal amount. Photo by David Conachy

Campaign: Trócaire chief executive Caoimhe de Barra

Campaign: Trócaire chief executive Caoimhe de Barra

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Feeling the pinch: Sinéad Gillespie and Laura McNally during Daffodil Day last year. This year’s fundraiser was moved online due to Covid-19, but only raised half the normal amount. Photo by David Conachy

Daffodil Day, the Dublin Marathon, coffee mornings: events like these are the lifeblood of our charities, and they have all been halted by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the sector is facing a sharp drop-off in donations.

From housing to health, education to cancer care, charities are a fundamental part of our society. The latest figures show that the amount raised in the not-for-profit sector reached €1.1bn in 2017, an increase of 9pc on the previous year.

Our kindness as a nation is something of a badge of honour internationally. The Charities Aid Foundation's World Giving Index ranks Ireland as the most generous country in Europe and the fifth worldwide.

The notion that Ireland is a particularly giving and charitable nation goes back decades - at least to Live Aid in 1985, when we donated more than any other nation on a person-by-person basis (£7m) to famine relief in Ethiopia.

But this week came the first official indication that many charities here are in trouble and the well is running dry. In a survey by the Charities Regulator, more than half of the 2,223 charities that responded said their finances were uncertain or in difficulty as a result of Covid-19. Of the 71pc of respondents that fundraise, some 90pc said they have had to cancel or postpone at least some aspects of their fundraising for 2020.

Helen Martin, the Charities Regulator chief executive, says that at a time when more and more people are going to be turning to them for help, charities are struggling.

While there is no way of estimating how much money they may lose out on, her office plans to do another survey in a few months.

Pieta House, which signalled that it was facing a massive funding shortfall with the cancellation of the annual Darkness into Light appeal, had moved to cut its therapists' hours. Following an influx of donations totalling €4m for its 'Sunrise Appeal', the suicide and self-harm prevention charity, said these proposed cuts will now form part of a review and will not be taken further at this point.

Lenten campaign

Trócaire's traditional Lenten campaign, when thousands of boxes are filled with donations, is one of the charity's biggest earners. Every year, the boxes bring in €5m, with a further €3m being made in separate donations during the campaign. Because the lockdown was imposed in the middle of Lent this year, the charity says its much-needed funds are lying in boxes in people's homes.

On Monday, Trócaire is launching a campaign to let it collect the money and is calling on the public to count out what they have collected and either hand it into a parish centre - if it is safe to do so - or to make a donation online or over the phone to the value of the amount in the box. Caoimhe de Barra, the charity's chief executive, says it would love people to turn in that money between now and the end of May. "It's core to our work of supporting 2.9 million people in 19 of the poorest countries in the world," she says.

At Focus Ireland, which helped 550 people to secure a home in March, fundraisers have shifted their efforts to raise money online. Amy Carr, its head of fundraising, says this year will be challenging. While it had hoped to raise €11.5m this year, it is now looking at €9m instead.

"It's been a steep learning curve," she says. "When you're coming into the summer the fundraising is community- and activity-based. We had to look at all our events and see if we could continue with them and ask if we needed to adapt them or postpone them. We looked at everything through that lens."

The next challenge will be in seeing how long restrictions on movement and social distancing will stay in place. "It has forced us to be innovative," says Carr. "We've thought about how we can adapt, and we're doing that. We've been doing things like running a virtual marathon, where people can do 26 miles over the course of a month, called The Next Step. It fitted in really nicely with people getting their exercise in and raising money."

People have remained generous, despite the economic impact of Covid-19, Carr suggests.

"They still want to be there for people less fortunate than themselves," she says. "The families we work with, who are living in hotel rooms, are not able to go out or social distance. There's a huge amount of empathy for them," she says.

For the Hope Foundation, which works with street children and slum communities in Kolkata, Covid-19 has been devastating. The Cork-based charity had to close most of its services in the Indian city, keeping only its 11 homes for 261 street children and its own hospital open. The charity is still delivering meals to thousands of families in slum communities.

Charlotte Kavanagh, a spokeswoman for the charity, says its fundraising plans have been obliterated and it has had to pare back its work to the minimum. Instead of marking its 21st year, staff and volunteers are looking anxiously at the future.

"We raise €2.6m a year. That's what we need to do all the work. This year we'll be lucky to raise 40pc of that. It's dire. The tap has turned off so quickly," says Kavanagh, who is asking people to remember that for only €20, they can feed a family of five for two weeks.

The work of Alone, the charity that supports older people at home, has come to the fore in the pandemic. Seán Moynihan, its chief executive, says the big fear is that it is eating into their reserves.

"We're emptying the tank to do all this right now. There's a pinch now when everyone is doing everything they can. What happens next? The explosion in the workload is huge and all those people we're helping will need to be resourced on an ongoing basis. We've done the accounts and we're €600,000 short for next year and the following year we could be €900,000 short."

The Irish Cancer Society's annual Daffodil Day - which brings in 20pc of the charity's annual income - could not go ahead in March.

The charity pivoted to move fundraising efforts online, however, creating a "digital daffodil" that people could download and share on their social media accounts. This raised €2m, but it was still only half of what the charity normally takes in on Daffodil Day.

A total of 98pc of the charity's income - €22m a year - comes from public donations. Mark Mellett, the society's head of fundraising, estimates that this could be down anywhere between 30pc and 40pc this year.

With a number of virtual events planned in the coming months including a "marathon in a month" in June, Mellett is hopeful that people will continue to support the society. With all its events cancelled, LauraLynn Children's Hospice is nervously looking at the year ahead. The country's only children's hospice, which also provides respite care to children with complex care needs, relies on donations for 89pc of its funding.

Sarah Meagher, its head of fundraising, says while it has moved a lot of its efforts online, the impact of Covid-19 may not be felt until later into the year. She remains hopeful that people will be generous. Already, she says, a number have handed over the money they would have spent on their annual holiday.

The Government has launched a €40m support package for charities, social enterprises and community organisations. The money is being drawn from the Dormant Accounts Fund.

Deirdre Garvey, chief executive of the Wheel, the representative body for the sector, says this funding injection will keep organisations stable while they prepare for the future.

What she hopes will emerge from the pandemic is a greater understanding of the scale of the work that an army of community and charity workers do every day.

More than ever it's important to support the work of charities, says Martin of the Charities Regulator. At a time when their workload is increasing and more people will be turning to them, the message is that now more than ever we need to live up to our reputation as the most generous people in the world.

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