THERE was no surprise in the UK last week that charities have been hit by falls in public donations and in state funding. But what did surprise was that 30 charity chiefs were paid more than £100,000 (€116,000) a year, and the number of executives receiving six-figure salaries had risen by nearly 6pc in the past three years alone.
Yes, in the past three years when the salaries everywhere, but especially those of public monies, should be falling. But it seems the charity sector, of all sectors, is immune from such economies. Eleven of the UK charity executives were paid more in 2013 than the British prime minister's annual £142,500.
All these charities are heavily reliant on public funds, and received more than £1.1bn of public money over the past three years from a range of sources, including the UK government, the EU and the UN.
Despite this, they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and accountability as UK government departments and quangos. Now MPs are asking tough questions. The Tories' Priti Patel said taxpayers would be "shocked to see so many highly paid executives in charities that are dependent on public funds. This money should be focused on delivering frontline services rather than lining the pockets of unaccountable charity executives".
We need the same debate in Ireland, where there is a growing range of competing charities and where the executive salaries are enough to make the British blush. In debates about our overseas aid budget, I have always refrained from bringing in the salaries of those heading the main Irish agencies, such as Concern, Trocaire and Goal. But members of the public show no such timidity. They express amazement that, for example, Justin Kilcullen, the head of Trocaire, was on €146,000 in 2010 and €133,000 in 2011, while former Concern CEO Tom Arnold, who retired earlier this year was on about €130,000, especially when they are dealing with "the poorest of the poor".
Nobody expects basement wages for people doing important jobs, but it seems that in the wage-escalation of boom-time Ireland, the executive charity salaries went off the radar – and stayed there. Virtually all of the big charities in Ireland are well-remunerated at the top. The head of Focus is on €125,000, while Goal pays a ceiling of €100,000.
The disability sector is by far the best remunerated. The head of Enable Ireland was paid a jaw-dropping €156,000 in 2011, while the chief executive of the Cope Foundation was paid €130,000. The head of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland took home a handsome €125,000. Even the Jack and Jill Foundation, headed by Jonathan Irwin, pays its chief executive a surprising €88,000, while Fergus Finlay of Barnardos has a salary of €113,000, although some of this – apparently €25,000 – is earned through other work.
Most disappointingly, many organisations such as Bothar, the Special Olympics and the Simon Community have refused to reveal their top salaries, despite constantly looking for state funding and public donations.
Now some of those same charities are warning that they may have to close services as the economic decline continues to hit public donations and statutory funding.
The Irish Heart Foundation said one campaign was down by 25pc. This is hardly surprising, given that the hard-pressed public is struggling with mortgages and with feeding their families and yet is still faced with demands from a plethora of different charities, many of them paying big salaries to senior staff.
Barnardos closed its services for a week in July and is planning another such closure. But surely it could keep more of its services open if it stopped paying such high salaries, as other organisations are doing in this recession? Could Fergus Finlay not take a serious pay cut, even temporarily, just to see Barnardos through these tough years and keep their badly needed services open?
Likewise the Irish Cancer Society, where funding is down by 20pc but which has been paying its chief executive a staggering €145,000. Meanwhile, the ISPCC has made some staff redundant and imposed a 5pc pay cut on those remaining, but a 5pc cut will seem very modest to those in other sectors. And what does it mean when the charities' chiefs are still on such high salaries, both here and in the UK?
This is without getting into a whole other debate, about why we need so many overlapping charities, which not only compete with each other but use their valuable resources to do so. The whole charity 'industry' needs to be seriously looked at.