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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Opinion: Shining a light on Ireland’s charities

We need a better understanding of a sector that turns over more than €7bn annually, about half of that coming from government




In April 1902, the Association of Charities, with an address in Molesworth Street, Dublin, published a handbook of philanthropic organisations and charities in or applicable to Ireland. The handbook listed about 1,600 instances of civic-minded activism – sometimes highly ingenious – in a time before the welfare state was even thought of.

Today the Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe will launch a new version of this handbook in the form of an online database of 18,600 civil society organisations: benefacts.ie.

Over the past few decades market forces and digital technology have fuelled the creation of many sophisticated intelligence tools to support analysis, research and decision-making across every other industry. However, it may surprise many to learn there has been until now no reliable inclusive online source of information on the non-profit sector in Ireland.

The 42,000 directors of not-for-profit companies rely in the main on anecdotal evidence about their sector when making decisions, and poorly-informed decisions are never the best ones.

The Benefacts database of Irish non-profits changes that. Drawing in the main on online company filings and other regulatory sources, Benefacts aggregates all of the public data on every non-profit in its scope, and creates a powerful digital repository of governance and financial data. Soon this will also include information about the work these organisations do as narrative information becomes part of the standard for public disclosure.

Civic activists
Why does any of this matter? It matters because of the purposes of these organisations, which are to enhance the quality of life in Ireland. Have a look at www.benefacts.ie to see how today’s civic activists express their determination to promote social justice, alleviate suffering, enhance our environment and do a myriad of other things that they believe are important enough to warrant the effort.
An often-repeated view that there are too many charities in Ireland can now become the subject of informed public debate. Which is as it should be because when it comes to the work of non-profits we are all decision-makers. We support them with our time, with our money and with our taxes.

We deserve to have a better understanding of a sector that employs at least 108,000, and that turns over more than €7 billion annually, about half of that coming from government in service fees and grants.
It is easy not to notice the State has chosen to commit just under 10 per cent of all current public expenditure to nonprofit organisations that deliver public services because this expenditure is distributed across many departments and agencies – about 250, according to the Benefacts database.

Interaction
We deserve greater transparency in the interaction of this sector with the State.
The pressure for greater public accountability in the use of public funds has resulted in compliance reporting arrangements of Byzantine complexity, which represent a heavy administrative burden.
The media’s preoccupation with senior executive pay might usefully be refocused on the cost of doing business with the government.

A responsible social housing provider in Ireland today, for example, has to provide a separate annual return to the Registrar of Companies, the Regulator of Charities, the Social Housing Agency and the Revenue Commissioners, not to speak of the voluntary returns to the governance code and the code of best practice on fundraising standards.
And that’s before they start providing compliance reports to their multiple funders.
There are encouraging signs of change. By investing in this infrastructure, government, together with its philanthropic partners, has shown not just an appetite for administrative reform but the determination to put tools in place to deliver it.
“Tell us once” is a principle of modern public governance that is surely overdue in the relationship between service-providing non-profits and their government funders.
More importantly, however, the arguments for transparent, freely accessible information about this sector go far beyond the case for efficiency.

The character of civil society – meaning everything that isn’t the government or the market – is manifest in its institutions: the way it provides for things people want to do, but don’t have to do. They are among our most precious resources.
A hundred years ago, associational life and voluntarism in Ireland was rich in diversity and ingenuity. What does this look like in Ireland today?

Now we know.

Patricia Quinn is the founder and managing director of Benefacts, a not-for-profit company established in 2014 to transform the transparency and accessibility of Ireland’s civil society organisations