Sunday 20 January 2019

Lots of work to be done to win back public's faith and trust in voluntary sector

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Is it ever right to use donated funds to give a gift or reward to people who serve on charity boards, giving their time and expertise for free?

It might seem like a basic good-mannered gesture. But, according to the ethics and rules applied by HSE auditors, the practice must be outlawed. The key message must be that donated money or State funds should only be used for the benefit of the patient, person with a disability or whoever needs the service.

This underlying principle should be at the core of all of what publicly funded organisations, which get huge annual grants from the State and fundraising, do.

It's clear from the excellent reports which are produced by HSE auditors, who forensically examine bodies, that when this guideline is not followed controls can get very loose.

There is evidence of salary top-ups, breaches of public pay caps, lack of tendering to secure the best price for a service, and slipshod accounting.

The current batch of audits come in the wake of previous examinations of the former suicide bereavement charity Console, which destroyed public trust by squandering charity funds on the personal lifestyles of its founders.

When the revelations about Console emerged in recent years, it led to the Charity Regulator getting more powers.

But we are still a long way off getting the kind of grip on charities that give public reassurance.

A report from Benefacts, which maintains data on charities, has found that the number of incorporated charities that have prepared audited financial statements, but elected to publish these in an abridged form, giving a minimum of information, now exceeds 34pc.

This means we don't know what their chief executive is earning, for instance, or where a lot of the money is going. It says the filing of abridged accounts by companies limited by guarantee is now permitted under the Companies Act 2014.

"The choice to file accounts in this limited form represents a decision on the part of the members of these companies to withhold a significant body of financial transaction information from the public.

"Given the findings of the recent Amárach survey showing that public trust in charities is still very low, it seems that charities are not acting in a way that promotes their self-interest. How can you expect people to trust you more when you tell them less?" it asks.

Currently, 488 organisations in the Benefacts database of Irish non-profits say that they follow the charities' best reporting standard.

But on closer inspection, 87 of these have chosen to adopt some of the features of this benchmark with 401 seen to be fully in compliance in terms of the accounting policies as specified by the standard, it showed.

When it comes to bodies which receive multi-million euro grants from the HSE to provide vital services, there is still a need for more monitoring. The HSE has tightened controls but its own auditors reveal the serious weaknesses which still exist. At a time when health services are under such pressure, there is no room for any poor practice any more.

Irish Independent

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