Saturday 24 February 2018

'To think another Console could never happen would be naive'

Charity watchdog says that, while most do valuable work, 'you have to be cynical', writes Eilish O'Regan

Charity Regulator John Farrelly. Photo: Courtpix
Charity Regulator John Farrelly. Photo: Courtpix
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

The watchdog overseeing charities has received a flood of complaints from the public who are reporting potential wrong-doing by organisations fundraising for good causes.

The scale of tip-offs reached around 60 a month in the wake of last year's exposé of unscrupulous spending of public donations by Console, the former suicide counselling agency.

Although the public outcry has abated, the extent to which trust in charities has been shaken means that Charity Regulator John Farrelly's office is still getting some 30 reports a month from people who are uneasy about some form of fundraising activity.

Around 324 charities have been subject to some allegation by concerned citizens, he said.

"We want the public to feel free to raise anything with us. I trust them and their report is completely confidential. Tell us, and we will do the validation," Mr Farrelly said.

He said it was a call to his office by a concerned citizen that led to the first prosecution taken by the office of the Charity Regulator against the "Twist charity" in Sligo.

It resulted in the District Court closing down an unregistered charity shop and soup kitchen while imposing a suspended sentence on Oliver Williams, who was behind the operation.

"It was information from the public which also led us to use other enforcement powers," he said. "When we get a report, we go to the charity to seek assurances. If it cannot do so, we bring in the trustees."

Most so far have been able to prove they are compliant and they are given time to produce the evidence.

In other instances, a statutory investigation has been launched which involves examining books, documents and records.

Charity regulation is still relatively new in Ireland and a regulator's office was only set up in 2014.

Mr Farrelly was appointed last summer having previously worked in the Health Information and Quality Authority where he was involved in the early inspection of nursing homes and disability centres.

So far, 8,162 charities have registered with his office but he says there are potentially 15,000 out there which need to do so.

Despite the scandals, more than 300 newly-formed charities have been registered since May. But more than 700 were turned down.

"The vast majority of charities are based in communities with people doing good work for free. Most are voluntary. There is an assumption all are big entities but that is not the case," he said. "I interview the chairpersons and the trustees when they apply.

"It must be for the public good. A piece of paper does not tell you the full story."

Some well-intentioned groups have been turned down because they lack the expertise to run a charity.

But other reasons are more toxic.

Mr Farrelly has been threatened with being sued by one would-be new charity.

Background checks have uncovered past history of fraud or trustees made up of relatives.

"When you interview people and go through documents, other matters can come out from their past, including behaviour that would not be acceptable.

"There have always been gaps in society and it has been decent people, pioneers who have stepped in.

"We want to work with them in a pragmatic way. We are not there to torment charities.

Gatekeeper

"If anything, we are a gatekeeper to allow the right people in. But the public wants to have confidence in the charity and believe it can do the job."

He has interviewed around 700 trustees so far and sees them as central to keeping their charity's house in proper order.

"I am very clear that a charity and charitable purpose is too precious to be lost by a few. The trustees need to be informed and engaged, otherwise the charity is at risk," he said.

When it comes to salaries - how well paid should a charity chief be?

He said the average management salary is around €60,000.

It can be higher where a chief executive is responsible for a big budget. But already he has summoned in a number of charities to quiz them about the size of salaries, mostly in the health sector.

"They heeded us. We are not happy if charitable donations are not carefully minded," he said.

New guidelines are also on the way on the methods used by charities to fundraise in pursuit of cash.

In the past, some charities were seen as too hard-nosed in their approach, with others lacking in safeguards as good-hearted people donate money and cheques in good faith.

As the Console controversy raged last summer, it emerged that the regulator was without statutory powers of investigation.

These were since granted and it has allowed him to recruit new expertise in areas like forensic accounting, increasing staff to 33.

Investigations into Console, founded by Paul Kelly who squandered lavish sums on salaries, cars and holidays, are continuing by other agencies.

It was put into liquidation and creditors have yet to be paid.

The office of the Charity Regulator recently moved to a new base in George's Dock, near the Financial Services Centre. It has a tight team, including the regulator himself, who work in a open-plan office.

It is likely to be some years before the full register of charities is complete and intact.

So does he feel that another Console could happen again?

"To say it could not happen again would be totally naive. A banking crisis happened in America in the 1920s.

"Charities are made up of human beings. They flourish and fail. There is always potential there for a small minority.

"You have to be cynical. I have a simple belief - trust and verify. We cannot rely just on people's word - we have to look beneath."

Irish Independent

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