Console row raises bigger questions


If you’re the kind of soft-hearted – or rigidly moral – person who has always given to charity, the Rehab and CRC revelations a few years ago will have shaken your faith in the sector, but probably not weakened your resolve to do what you felt is right.

Both of those, however, could be understood under the ‘quango’ banner. Both Rehab and CRC were seen as arms of the state, while the involvement of political figures gave most of us a ‘what did you expect’ moment.

But the self-destruction of Console is on another level entirely. The story of a man who sadly lost his sister to suicide and went on to set up a charity in her name to help others fighting that same darkness has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy. But the bizarre antics of that same man revealed by a recent HSE audit and by further media reports, wouldn’t look out of place in one of the Bard’s more surreal comedic works. The latest twist in the tail – so to speak – of Paul Kelly’s daughter’s horse being stolen by men masquerading as investigating Gardai, can best be summed up as GUBU.

The waves of revelations about Console must be genuinely heartbreaking for its staff and supporters, and even more so, perhaps, for people who have benefited from the charity’s services. And while Paul Kelly’s personal behaviour is truly unique in many ways, the sad fact is that many parts of the Console story could well be replicated across the sector.

Replicated

Reforms brought in after Rehab and the CRC mean that registered charities have obligations in terms of auditing and reporting. They must register with the Charities Regulatory Authority (established in 2014) and report regularly. That is as it should be. There are numerous very well run charities out there, where directors and staff are honourable and moral and take their obligations seriously.

But the duplication of services across numerous different charities – many of which are merely providing a handy smokescreen for successive governments not tackling such problems as mental health, housing and disability services – is a real issue.

Well-meaning people who set up their own organisation doing similar things to what established charities do, then clamour for government funding, are listened to by a public that is distrustful now of anything to do with ‘official Ireland’. There are numerous initiatives and organisations, in Cork alone, that look and sound like charities but – when you check – are not registered and therefore not accountable. And sometimes the ones that shout the loudest about bigger, established organisations that do get government funding, are the ones with the most questions to answer.

Many of these organisations are run by well-meaning people, but they are accountable to nobody. They are not obliged to report on their finances, their interactions with people they assist and with their own volunteers are not covered by insurance or charities regulations, and they may be siphoning public trust and donations from established charities that would use both more efficiently.

If you are a person who likes to contribute, it’s essential that you do some research first. Check that the charity you’re interested in is on the list on charitiesregulatoryauthority.ie. If it bothers you to see highly paid CEOs (this isn’t always my first priority – many charities are as large and complex as big businesses and require very highly skilled management), find out how much their CEO is paid. If you are a fundraiser or a donor, you are entitled to know how your money is being spent.

If you are a taxpayer wondering why your taxes are being distributed to numerous non-governmental organisations to do things you feel the government should be doing, contact your TD and complain. Ask them to ask a question in the Dáil about why, for example, your child’s essential disability supports, your parent’s sheltered housing or your wife’s cancer support are being provided by a charity and not by the state, which is probably funding them anyway, but in a less transparent way that means the service could be withdrawn at the stroke of a pen.

As a board member of a charity, I take my obligations very seriously – as do my fellow board members. Asked to join the board, I attended two meetings with a sceptical eye and read through the accounts before making the decision to remain a member. (So far I have received four cups of tea, two slices of cake and a number of biscuits for my time – and that’s as it should be – charity directors are not supposed to be paid). After almost a year I am happy that the charity I’m involved with is frugal, well run, and providing an important, independently assured service to people who need it. Would that they were all as straightforward.

Published in the Evening Echo, Tuesday 19 July 2016.

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