Charity body urges sector and state to work together to meet challenges facing society

The Wheel is Ireland’s national association of charities, community groups and social enterprises and advocates on behalf of 2,400 organisations

Vincent Keenan, chair, The Wheel, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Deirdre Garvey, chief executive, The Wheel, at the organisation’s annual Charity Summit in Croke Park on June 1

It is imperative that we build on the positive and collaborative relationship that developed between charities and state agencies during the Covid-19 crisis, Ivan Cooper, director of public policy at The Wheel, said.

“The charity and community sector in its many iterations, and through tens of thousands of volunteers, staff and volunteer board members responded effectively to the new and mostly unprecedented demands in the areas of health and social care during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“The most valuable development, and one that can easily be forgotten, was the creation of new and more flexible methods of working between state agencies, charities and community organisations,” Cooper said.

These novel approaches worked. “They enabled speedy, efficient and non-bureaucratic delivery of services at a time when rapid and comprehensive responses to emerging and unpredictable need was of the essence – and when the often highly bureaucratic conventional systems proved unfit for purpose. These approaches were delivered during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis and they should continue in the equally challenging situation we now face.”

Ireland’s community and voluntary organisations, social enterprises and charities are very significant socially and economically, Cooper said.

“They are a big part of our social infrastructure, if not the main part. This includes services and advocacy in the areas of health and disability, social care, education, housing, poverty relief, the arts and sport, as well as international development. The sector is the unseen force powering our communities, driving positive social change, and providing vitally important supports and services.”

Ivan Cooper, director of public policy at The Wheel, the national association of charities, community organisations and social enterprises. Picture: Therese Aherne

Ireland’s non profit sector has a turnover of €14.2 billion per year. It comprises 32,841 community, voluntary and charitable organisations, involves over 86,481 volunteer directors and trustees and it directly employs 165,000 people. One in every three people in Ireland delivering public services works for a charity. There are an estimated 500,000 volunteers on the ground in Ireland, supporting the day-to-day activities of these charitable organisations (people who would like to learn more about the nature and extent of the charity sector in Ireland can visit benefactslegacy.ie).

Cooper said that charities support and meet the needs of people and communities, campaign for change, bring communities together and provide social infrastructure that keep our communities thriving. “They bring particular strengths to addressing social needs, both through innovative responses to new needs, and through the deep insights they acquire through long engagement with particular needs and communities. The focus, passion and sense of mission within these organisations add social capital to the stock of financial capital to help address societal challenges holistically.

“Charities played a huge role throughout the pandemic, supporting vulnerable people in their homes. And during the crisis many charities worked in partnership with their statutory funders.”

Over the next 12 months, Cooper said that the charity sector and state bodies should focus on agreeing on the exact parameters of a new consensus on how the state and charity sector will collaborate on key societal challenges.

Charity regulation has a direct impact on everyone working in the community and voluntary sector, requiring greater transparency and best practice from organisation, but Cooper said that compliance and obligations can be very onerous.

The Wheel is calling for a streamlining of compliance and governance requirements, which should be rolled out in conjunction with new measures arising from the reform of the Charities Act 2009 under way.

Cooper said that there has been a focus on governance in recent years, and for good reason. But good governance costs money. “There has been an increase in compliance requirements from the Charities Regulator and from other places. At The Wheel we are seeking that government funders make money available to cover the costs of compliance. It is very hard or almost impossible to raise funds from the public to cover the costs of compliance.”

“There hasn’t been resources put into the staffing required to do this work either. We’re finding a lot of staff and volunteers in charitable organisations are spending their time behind an admin desk working on compliance issues rather than actually focusing on those they want and need to help.”

Cooper said that a Dialogue Forum with Voluntary Organisations has been set up. The aim of the Forum is to build a stronger working relationship between the state and the voluntary healthcare sector for the benefit of patients and service users and to facilitate regular dialogue with the voluntary sector on future policy and strategic developments.

“The principles have been identified and there is the ambition to sustain them. This signals a much more positive way of working together in the interests of communities and this is very exciting.”

But for this new relationship between state and the voluntary sector to thrive, a few things need to change, Cooper said. “Funding needs to be put on a more sustainable footing. Many charities are experiencing a recruitment and retention crisis. It is hard to hold on to good staff in the current economic environment. The sector needs a national workforce development strategy funded through the national training fund.”

A retention crisis in a challenging environment can be very disheartening for employers, given the effect on almost every aspect of a charity’s work. Any employee leaving a charity will take valuable knowledge and experience with them, which can be hard to replace during a recruitment crisis. “Finding ways to reduce staff turnover is a key focus for many,” Cooper said.

Discussion and progress towards the expansion of sustainable and multi-year funding for charity and community-based organisations is needed. “It’s something that would help ensure small voluntary organisations can operate and actually plan strategically for the coming years rather than just treading water and would allow organisations to plan three to five years in advance rather than being limited to short-term goals.”

“This needs to happen to facilitate orderly planning and staff recruitment and retention. If the government moved towards multi-annual funding, this would mean that organisations wouldn’t have to prepare fresh applications every single year, a task that diverts them from other important work.

“Two thirds of our respondents to our recent member survey reported that they often have to submit the same compliance data to multiple sources. However, only 30 per cent of them have dedicated compliance staff. We are asking the government to streamline compliance requirements and provide dedicated funding for the costs of compliance.

“Our members survey showed that half of all charities report that they do not have sufficient funding for their supports and services to get through this year. Thirty per cent of charities tell us that they currently or sometimes carry unfunded deficits from one year to the next. This is why we need multi-annual funding." At the moment, only 15 per cent of charities receive multi-annual funding.

“We would also like to see the Vat compensation scheme significantly increased,” Cooper said. “Incentivising fundraising through practical measures such as realistic allocations to the Vat compensation scheme is crucial as well as practical measures to acknowledge and promote philanthropy at all levels.”

“A focus on skills-building will be important also to facilitate the sector’s ability to partner with the state on the broader macro challenges as well as the social ones including climate change, digital transformation and the green transition,” Cooper said.

The Wheel is Ireland’s national association of charities, community groups and social enterprises. As a representative voice, it provides leadership to the sector and it advocates on behalf of the 2,400 organisations that make up its membership. As a supportive resource, it offers advice, training and other opportunities to people working or volunteering in the sector. To learn more about The Wheel’s work visit wheel.ie.