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When charities go rogue

County View

County View
John Healy

A thorn in the side of the Irish charity sector for many years has been the tendency of paid administrators to treat donated money as if it was their own. Even worse was their readiness to spend the money with an extravagance they would have thought about long and hard had it been out of their own pockets.
It is disappointing then to see Jigsaw, a charity providing mental health services to young people, falling into the same trap as many before them. A recent audit by the HSE found that - in sublime understatement - ‘expenditure at Jigsaw could be considered inappropriate by funders and the public, and could cause reputational damage’. Among the expenses, the report found that over €70,000 went on team development (yoga classes, Dublin Bay and Shannon cruises), €3,000 on coaching sessions for one staff member, and gifts of alcohol which were recorded as ‘office supplies’.
At last count, there were 10,500 registered charities in Ireland, which might suggest considerable duplication and overlap.  Half of those charities had income over €100,000, with €350 million being donated annually by the public. And while the great majority may run their affairs with scrupulous honesty and strict governance, the barrel is still big enough to leave room for plenty of bad apples.
It is several years since the roof began to cave in on the charity sector with the discovery of reckless spending at the once revered Central Remedial Clinic. Regarded as the exemplar of altruism, the CRC found that it had been systemically deceived by those who had been
paid to safeguard its interests.  The CEO, it was found, had been topping up his salary - capped, supposedly , at €106,000 - to yield €242,000. On resignation, his pension pot was boosted by €750,000, or half the total charitable income of the CRC.
The CRC was but the first of a long line of charities where profligate spending had gone on for years. It besmirched the reputation of all charities, good and bad; the well run and responsible suffered equally with the unprincipled; the public grew wary of contributing to charity. The public, in many cases, had been played for a fool, the well-known generosity of Irish people shamefully exploited, as more cases came to light.
In time, other much lauded charities came to be outed. The RTÉ expose of the suicide charity, Console, revealed that its CEO had extracted €500,000 in salaries for himself, his wife and son, and had squandered a further half a million on lavish holidays in Australia and New Zealand, on fine dining, cars and designer clothes. He had, in 2014, been honoured with a ‘People of the Year’ award.
The CEO of Ataxia Ireland went to the High Court in a failed attempt to suppress a report which found she had paid €84,000 to her parents, founding trustees of the charity. Parents of special needs children at a John of God facility in Kildare went public to demand the names and salaries of fourteen executives who, between them, had been paid €1.64 million in top up bonuses.
But there is a salutary lesson for anyone who might be minded to step into the breach to clean up the mess of a dissolved charity. A Kerry animal rescue charity called AHAR - which numbered among its benefactors the musician Sharon Shannon - closed its doors because of lax management. Four trustees, nominated by the Charities Regulator, volunteered their services free of charge to sort things out.
They were poorly thanked. The four were sued by the Revenue for €200,000 in unpaid taxes by AHAR, incurred long before the four ever came on board.