Ireland has too many charities

First published in the Sunday Business Post 2 August 2015

Many charities duplicate each other’s work, reducing their effectiveness

The newly established Charities Regulatory Authority believes it does not have enough staff to fulfil its functions. The authority has a complement of 12 with eight more to be added to the staff by the end of September.

Freedom of Information documents released to RTÉ News this week revealed that that authority deems that 36 staff are necessary.

In her letter to the Department of Justice, the chief executive, Úna Ní Dhubhghaill, said that the agency’s “service delivery is severely compromised, backlogs are developing and there is a growing impact on staff”.

So, here goes the predictable narrative. Government establishes regulator to restore public trust after high-profile scandals involving charities such as Rehab and the Central Remedial Clinic. Government does not provide sufficient staff to the new agency. The regulator struggles to satisfy its remit. Government is daft and mad.

But let’s interrogate that narrative.

There are 8,350 organisations in Ireland which have been granted Charitable Tax Exemption by the Revenue Commissioners – 8,350!

This does not include the hundreds, if not thousands, of unregistered small charities that choose not to register with the Revenue. The small size of these organisations is such that seeking relief from tax is immaterial.

Instead of demanding more staff, perhaps the Charities Regulator should be asking why it is regulating so many organisations. Are some charities duplicating the efforts of similar organisations?

And hence, let the wrath of charitable trusts, foundations and associations come down on me, dear Lord.

But in a valedictory speech last year, the outgoing head of Britain’s charities regulator asked this precise question. Sam Younger was brutally honest in his assessment of the charity sector in England and Wales. He noted that many organisations were simply replicating each other’s work with the consequent risk of wasting the money they fundraise.

“The result is duplication, inefficiency and, sadly, too many charities that are not managed well enough,” he said.

His experience at the Charity Commission was stark. Too many people were setting up a new charity without making sure they had identified an unaddressed need or without making an honest effort to establish whether another charity was already doing similar work.

“I think we should be bolder in saying: not all of the charities the Commission registers end up making an impact,” he said.

Younger urged new charities to consider working with standing charities rather than overlapping the work of existing organisations.

The motivation to establish a charity in memory of a loved one or to simply make life better is an impulse that makes Ireland a generous and loving society.

This instinct to help others is a source of national pride for Irish people.

But there are hard questions that have to be asked.

The Irish charity sector may perhaps be better served through a process of enforced consolidation. Does Ireland really need 66 separate cancer charities?

Although the Irish Cancer Society is listed as one organisation on the Revenue list, it reaches into every corner of Ireland with its cancer research centres, Daffodil Centres, free-phone helpline and local support groups. To what extent, if any, do the other 65 organisations replicate the work of the Irish Cancer Society?

The number of organisations catering for the needs of the blind suggests an overlap in functions. What distinguishes the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, National League of the Blind In Ireland Trust and Irish Fight For Sight from one another?

Similarly, the purpose of the 37 different autism organisations, the 20 distinct deaf associations or the 11 separate domestic violence charities may perhaps be better served by consolidating into one or two national organisations.

There are 30 organisations supporting the Travelling Community, ten for alcohol, ten for addiction and 17 for rape. Some 22 groups provide services relating to drug prevention, rehabilitation awareness, projects and task-forces. And so forth.

The two main sources of philanthropic funding in Ireland – the One Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies – are winding up their operations. Non-profit organisations have urged other private donors and the government to step into the void. Is it sustainable for the government in the long-term to fill this financial shortfall in the absence of major structural reform within the charity sector?

The merger of charities doing similar work will reduce the cost of staff, office space, administration and other related expenses. The amalgamation of charities would also advantage advocacy by providing a louder and unified voice.

Incidentally, a charities regulator with 36 staff would mean that more people would be working for this agency than the Children’s Ombudsman (ten), Garda Inspectorate (13), Standards in Public Office Commission (13), Information Commissioner (24) and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (34).

Just 67 people in the Criminal Assets Bureau coordinate the domestic and international fight against Irish organised crime and drug cartels.

Instead of asking for more staff, perhaps the Charity Regulator should first ask why it needs so many.

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