Charity begins at home, but it’s finally coming to an end here

We ignore the fact that most of the services are... state services with a different sign on the door, writes Terry Prone

Charity begins at home, but it’s finally coming to an end here

CONSOLE isn’t the only charity being scrutinised.

There are four, for different reasons. CRC because their former CEO is not minded to give back his severance package, which amounted to three quarters of a million. Carline because substantial money seems to have gone AWOL.

St John of God’s because parents are upset over pension top-ups for management while services for their children are being cut back. Now, Console is being wound up and its services transferred to other organisations.

It’s a mess, and a hell of a task facing the new Charities Regulator. The knock-on effects for other charities are horrendous. First, fundraising has been hit everywhere, in a form of guilt-by-association.

Potential donors say: “If I can’t be sure this donation will go to where I’d like it to go, then I won’t give any money at all.” Employees of charities around the country are now feeling less-valued. It’s like the pharmaceutical industry 30 years ago. When details of ruthless environmental practices, and other malfeasance, surfaced, people working in those industries euphemised their job descriptions: “I work in an aspect of healthcare.”

Over time, that changed. Big Pharma was regulated and its image improved. However, it is doubtful that public perception of charities will radically change for the better in the immediate future. That’s grievously hard on thousands of people who every day deliver services to people in need, and who deliver them with respect, compassion, care and love.

It does, however, create a context in which we can examine our waning love affair with charities. Distinctively branded charities, big and small, abound. That has always been assumed to be an expression of our national kindness, and that’s a fair assumption.

But a prominent priest, 40 years ago, articulated a viewpoint that got him into deep trouble with the hierarchy. He was asked, by a broadcaster, how concerned he was about the diminishing numbers of young men volunteering to enter seminaries as potential priests.

“The real question isn’t how few men want to become priests now,” he said. “The real question is why we ever had such overwhelming numbers opting for the priesthood in the last century.”

A similar point could be made about the number of charities we have. The answer, in some cases, is historic. Sisters of religion, in the late nineteenth century, looking at Ireland, noted the absence of education for girls and decided to set up schools.

Even earlier than that, the Sick and Idigent Roomkeepers’ Society had been set up in Dublin, near Dublin Castle, to give help to the homeless and starving. Known in our family as the “Sick and Indignant” charity, it still exists, despite a scandal a long while back involving — yep, you’re way ahead of me — a top-level staffer who mixed up a considerable amount of charity cash with his own.

More recently, charities filled gaps in state provision, whether it was for the care of children and adults who had specific illnesses, injuries or disabilities, or whether dedicated to the needs of the relatives of people who took their own lives, as Console was.

Over time, many of those charities developed an unexpected commonality. The issue they were first set up to address became more widely experienced, and, as a result, the clamour went up for the State to address that particular issue, which, in many cases, it did.

Because the infrastructure was already in place, the State, sensibly, did not duplicate them. Instead, it made service-level agreements with providers who, effectively, ended up competing with each other for state money.

Some charities were better than others at getting it, notably Rehab, which was feared by many other providers, partly because of its scale, but also because of its competence when tendering for public money.

Then, the State did a pincer movement. It created Hiqa, which started to make unannounced visits to nursing homes and care institutions. Some of what Hiqa found related to stupid, cruel or inappropriate ways of dealing with residents or clients. But a fair amount of it, in old institutions, related to the physical set-up of buildings constructed a century or more earlier.

The charities found themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Hiqa was laying down the law about raising standards.

On the other hand, the HSE was not in the business of offering spare money, over and above the service-plan payment monies. Many charities, devoted to different causes that require them to provide residential services, are being driven to desperation by these conflicting demands.

That has been complicated by a drop in fundraising income and will be further complicated by recent scandals, as fundraisers wonder why they should kill themselves to raise money if it’s going to be spent on dentistry and groceries or on the solving of a pension-pot problem.

The other factor troubling older charities is that the State (quite properly, from the HSE’s standpoint) pays for the delivery of services at a set standard to a specific number of people.

But many of the older charities believe they go way above those standards, in terms of their person-to-person care, and that nobody acknowledges this valuable difference. They are in a situation akin to the possibly apocryphal story told of Tina Brown, wife of pioneering Sunday Times former editor, Harold Evans.

The story has it that Brown, in a social setting where none of the Americans present valued her husband’s prestige, whispered to him: “Tell them who you were, Harry. Tell them who you were.” In the same way, some of the older charities, rich in tradition and legend, want to tell their funders who they were and what they stand for, only to find that it no longer matters. At all. Contrariwise, in fact.

State funders cannot afford to admire variation. Uniformity can be measured. Variation throws the system out of kilter. As long as services do not fall below a particular line, the degree to which they may rise above that line is neither here nor there.

We’re at an interesting point of choice. Ireland has a deep-rooted suspicion of state-provided services. It has an equally deep-rooted capacity to ignore the fact that most of the services they perceive to be local, special, and voluntary are, in fact, state services with a different sign on the door.

The fact is that we are coming to the end of an era of idealistic charity-foundation. It isn’t just Console that will, over the next decade, be wound down and subsumed into another state-sponsored entity.

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