Charity and Sanctimony


The newspapers in Ireland have been full in recent weeks of revelations of ‘Chief Executives’ and other senior figures in previously well-regarded charities, now facing allegations and probes that focus on potential misuse of position and of charitable funds.

It is just the latest in a series of unpleasant glimpses behind the façade of sanctity that shrouds the charity industry in Ireland, a shroud that has made the industry and some of it’s ‘holier than thou’ executives appear largely untouchable until comparatively recently, in terms of the standards that apply in other industries.

Coming from a business background and having worked at several corporate entities, theirishscouter is well used at this stage to the subtle but unmistakably saintly view that charity workers have of themselves as they gently chide those of us who, to their minds, come from the ‘greed is good’ side of society.

There is an inherent perception (mostly among those working in the charity sector), that their work somehow trumps that of others; that they operate on a superior spiritual plain, where grubby matters such as status and self-enrichment do not arise. It’s all done for the good of others, don’t you know?

Yes, us corporate execs may offer the man and woman in the street ‘great tasting food’, ‘unrivalled mobile coverage’ or ‘the car of their dreams’, but we do so with the overriding motive of profit. Not only that, us corporate types engaged in our dark arts do so from plush offices and enjoy higher salaries than those ‘slumming it’ in the charity sector.

Anyone employed in work that is focused on delivery of goods or services to people who pay for them is of course tainted by the fact that they themselves are merely doing it for the money and, occasionally, the career status.

It was in this context that theirishscouter had always (like many others) accepted that charity workers were entitled to a little bit of sanctimony, given the higher purpose of their endeavors. Yes, it could get annoying, but provided one didn’t get cornered too often for a sermon in an unguarded moment at a party, it was tolerable.

But how accurate is this self congratulatory assessment?

The charity sector is not immune from one ever-present feature of corporate life: competition. The increasing aggression of the charity sector in the unceasing attempts to help citizens part with their hard-earned cash (before someone else does), has reached fever pitch in recent years.

Advertising campaigns designed by the best agencies money can buy, sophisticated direct mail campaigns and armies of overly familiar people in brightly coloured rain jackets accosting pedestrians on the streets with canned cheerfulness, all point to a fiercely competitive environment with some well-financed players. And finance tends to follow opportunity.

Has this finally highlighted that this is no longer a ‘sector’ (if it ever was). It is an industry like any other.

More and more charities in Ireland (and the UK) have come under the spotlight for the way in which they raise cash, how they spend that cash and indeed what percentages of funds raised actually make it to the stated ‘good cause’.

UK charities have attracted criticism for targeting older people by (amongst other things) hounding them for a legacy payment in their will. One UK charity recently wrote to a grieving family before their loved-ones funeral had even taken place, demanding the money bequeath it in the will of a deceased parent.

Charity muggers (the aforementioned people in brightly coloured jackets who insist on blocking your path and shaking your hand on major thoroughfares – and usually paid a fee or a wage for their trouble) are trained to profile pedestrians, targeting weaker/softer looking people.

In Ireland, the ‘chuggers’ (as they are sometimes described) are just as prevalent. The Irish charity sector has seen controversy in recent months with several senior figures in major charities coming under scrutiny for alleged nepotism, mis-use of funds and hard to explain activity on corporate credit cards.

The percentage of every euro donated to ‘good causes’ has also come under sharp focus, as charities spend a hefty portion of monies raised (between 30% and 70%) on ‘administration’, ensuring that little if any of the cash donated by a concerned citizen to a needy cause, ever reaches the intended recipient.

Of course all of those advertising campaigns and direct debit fliers need to be paid for. Charities also increasingly advertise positions offering salaries comparable to those at major corporate entities. Many of the key roles in bigger charities come with packages that stray into the realm of six figures (so banker sized salaries, in other words..)

The levels of duplication and replication in the charity industry are also quite astonishing, with several identical charities all seeking to help the same people or causes and competing ruthlessly for the same pot of funding (be it from government, corporate or personal contributions). This replication is made possible with identical fund-raising machines, lots of people in suits on high salaries all squabbling and climbing over each other to grab as much cash as possible.

But, never mind, this all purely altruistic. Right?

Whilst large egos and self-importance are occupational hazards in politics, academia, the arts, corporate life (and even scouting), the charity industry does seem to over-index with people who suffer from rather severe delusions of grandeur.

Given the size of the salaries, the shameless money grabbing, the pointless duplication and the general hubris, one could easily assume that many in the charity industry are there purely for their own self-gain and not for the benefit of the cause they claim to champion.

Add to this the tax benefits of being a charity. Not something available to corporate entities, but a handy additional perk to those who choose the greasy pole in the charity sector for their career. Whilst salaries earned by employees in the industry are generally not subject to any special sort of tax relief, the entities themselves avoid corporate tax (for example), freeing up more cash to be devoted to PR, photo shoots and career-enhancing glossy reports. Much of these costs can be handily lumped under the heading ‘administration’, when preaching to an increasingly skeptical public.

Does the charity industry in Ireland need to consolidate? Should the new Charity regulator seek to apply some pressure to drive this agenda?

If homelessness (as an example) was so important to everyone working in homeless charities, why not merge into one or two charities, synergise and in doing so deliver greater efficiencies?

Mergers and acquisitions are common in the corporate sector, because when profit is a key motivator, efficiency comes into sharp focus. Yet the charity sector by contrast seems very fragmented, given the obvious benefits greater consolidation would bring to the recipients of much needed services.

There are forty-eight charities/agencies in Ireland supporting those affected by the scourge of suicide. Thirteen of these do so exclusively. Is it really necessary to have so many entities chasing the finite funds available to support those people who really need help? The bigger charities involved here all employ some staff who earn between €70k and €90k per year. Surely stripping out some of this cost would deliver a lot more services on the ground to those who need it?

The new Charities Act and the added scrutiny it will bring should cut back on the globe trotting of self-appointed ‘executives’, funded by the corporate credit card.

The ‘remarkable coincidences’ of wives, sons, daughters, best mates etc. gaining plum positions or picking up handy contracts should also dissipate.

This added scrutiny will be helpful in Scouting too, given we’ve not been entirely immune from the odd ‘remarkable coincidence’ ourselves in recent years.

It will however be important that the regulator(s) – in both jurisdictions, recognize that over-regulation in the wrong areas will merely add complexity and in doing so further justify the need for all these ‘Chief Executives’ and ‘Fund-raising Directors’. It will also increase the administrative workload for smaller charities with leaner structures, yet in many ways it is these entities that best exemplify the spirit of charitable works.

Some of the best charities in Ireland are small, run mostly by volunteers and have executive boards made up of people who do not draw a salary for their services.

The impact of the Charities Acts on local scout groups is perhaps a case in point in this regard. Part of a registered charity at a national level, the prospect of individual registration and the raft of direct admin this will bring, adds a new burden to those already shouldered by local volunteers when arguably the bigger, staffed charities are where the real focus is needed.

Of course larger entities need more professional staff, but if ones burning desire is to devote ones life to a good cause, perhaps one must also be prepared to forgo the stock-broker sized salary. If money is what drives you, maybe consider getting a job in a bank?

Some Irish charities (indeed a majority) do broadly excellent work and help people who sometimes have nowhere else to turn. The big concern from the summers revelations (and those prior to that also) is that an already increasingly skeptical Irish public will veer away from the rich Irish culture of giving, because the confidence that monies donated ever reach those who need them, will have been permanently undermined.

Perhaps the charity sector should take more than just salary indexing from the corporate sector and also look to some of the management experts who can offer advice. To coin a phrase from Jack Welch, one of the better-known leaders in the corporate world “change before you have to”.

Meanwhile, theirishscouter will at least have to suffer less sanctimony from saintly friends and associates in the charity industry, when next buttonholed for a sermon at a social gathering. That particular halo has probably slipped for good.





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