There is a strong tradition of charitable donation and volunteerism among people in Ireland. Bette Browne reports
Irish people are among the most generous in the world when it comes to donating money and time to charities, especially over Christmas and the New Year. Recent data have confirmed the scale of this generosity.
According to a report by the Charities Regulator, published in May 2023, nine-out-of-10 adults in Ireland donated to a charity over the previous 12-month period and volunteers contributed an estimated €1 billion worth of their time to Irish charities in 2022.
The report, Irish Attitudes towards the Charity Sector, was compiled in conjunction with Amárach. It examined the social and economic impact of registered charities in Ireland. The report found the total number of volunteering hours in Irish charities rose by an estimated 38 per cent between 2018 and 2022, and now totals some 94 million hours per year.
The report stated: “The economic value of this volunteering is highly significant. If Irish charities paid their volunteers for the time worked, the cost in 2022 would have been €0.96 billion based on the minimum wage, and almost €2.5 billion if volunteers were paid the average hourly wage.”
According to research, close to 648,000 people – almost one-in-five of the total adult population – said they did some voluntary work for charities. There are over 11,500 registered Irish charities.
“Irish people are hugely generous with their time when it comes to supporting charities, and this report highlights a substantial increase in volunteering over the past few years,” said Ms Helen Martin, Chief Executive of the Charities Regulator, on the report’s publication. “It seems that the societal impact of Covid-19 spurred a large surge in volunteering, as the numbers volunteering for charity work more than doubled over the past five years.”
Organisations that work in the medical or health-related fields were among the most strongly supported charities during the past 12 months. Some 44 per cent of donations were made to health-related groups. There is also a host of Irish charities that provide humanitarian aid in regions affected by global conflict and hunger.
Charities in Ireland must be registered. Ms Martin urged people to check the public register of charities before donating to a cause. The register also provides information about a charity’s finances and activities.
Speaking in November 2022, upon the release of a survey on charitable donation at Christmas time, Ms Martin commented: “Christmas is a very important time for Irish charities, as the tradition of supporting others at this time of year is deeply embedded within Irish society, it is essential that we all make informed decisions about how we channel that goodwill to ensure that the charities we support are registered and are open and transparent in terms of their finances and their activities.”
Globally, for the fourth consecutive year, Ireland also maintained its reputation in 2022 as the world’s most generous country on GoFundMe, the American for-profit crowdfunding platform. The organisation’s CEO Mr Tim Cadogan said that based on the number of donations per capita through GoFundMe, Galway was the most generous county. It was closely followed by Limerick and Cork. Mr Cadogan was speaking at an event in Dublin in October 2023, celebrating the fact that five million donations had been made through the platform in Ireland, equating to almost €250 million. Many bona fide causes have benefited from funds raised via platforms such as GoFundMe. However, there have also been concerns about fundraisers for purported medical treatments at clinics that target vulnerable patients, particularly those with terminal illness who turn to crowdfunding platforms in desperation.
While in Dublin, Mr Cadogan also stressed that people need to be able to trust the charities to which they contribute. He said that the company has a team of experts working to ensure that fundraising campaigns are legitimate. “Trust is incredibly important to what we do because it’s people giving to one another,” Mr Cadogan told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. “We have a very expert team who have been doing this for over a decade so they are using their knowledge and judgement and technology to look for any anomalies.”
Speaking at the GoFundMe event in Dublin, Dr Gemma Donnelly-Cox (PhD), Co-Director of the Centre for Social Innovation at Trinity College Business School, Dublin, highlighted some of the reasons why she believed Ireland is known for its generosity. “Coming together swiftly to assist those around you’ – ‘meitheal’ – is core to Irish identity and sense of community,” she said.
“The quality of being ‘first off the blocks’ to give time and money, to respond to need, is reflected in how GoFundMe is used here.” The top five charities to benefit from GoFundMe campaigns were listed as the Irish Cancer Society, Pieta, Irish Red Cross, Women’s Aid, and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland.
The oldest of the charities registered in Ireland is the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP). It was originally founded in France in 1833 to help the poor. Founder Frédéric Ozanam, a young university student, adopted St Vincent de Paul as the charity’s patron. It was set up in Ireland in 1844 and has helped people in need through famine, the War of Independence, the Civil War, two World Wars, and several economic recessions. Today, it has over 12,000 volunteers who are active in every county in Ireland.
Christmas and the New Year period are the busiest times for the charity. “The calls for help to our offices and local conferences (branches) continue to increase,” SVP’s National President Ms Rose McGowan recently told the Irish Independent.
“In 2021, we had a record-breaking 191,000 requests. Last year , the figure jumped by 20 per cent to just over 230,000 and this year  we’re on track to exceed that number again.” She added: “In an Ireland that’s wealthy, we have people queuing for food or coming to us for food.”
Such inequalities are undoubtedly disturbing to many. “Imbued deep in the Gaelic character is a natural generosity, born of lived struggle and inequity across the generations,” according to Mr Kieran McConville of the charity Concern. Mr McConville wrote an article on Concern’s website in 2021 about why Irish people and Irish-Americans have ‘charitable-giving in their DNA’.
In the article, he argued part of the reason is due to the Irish experience during the Famine.
Mr McConville wrote: “More than a century later, we would once again witness the devastating effects of famine – this time via TV images beamed into homes from remote, rural areas of the developing world: Places like Biafra, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The response was incredible, both from Ireland and its scattered diaspora, and that spirit of generosity continues to this day.
“Fast-forward to the 21st Century and it’s easy to see how Irish people can empathise with those who face many of the same challenges. Economic migration, discrimination, religious bias, and ethnic hostility have not gone away – only the faces have changed. Over the last half-century, the Irish influence in helping these communities to overcome some of their biggest development challenges in fields as diverse as agriculture, education, health, livelihoods, sanitation, and water has been significant.”
However, the recent rise in political far-right activism and anti-immigrant sentiment in this country has led many to question whether such empathy is universally shared across the population.
Doctors and other healthcare workers, many of them from Ireland, volunteer in ever increasing numbers each year to help the global medical relief organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which was founded in Paris in 1971. MSF has established itself as a worldwide movement of nearly 68,000 people. It comprises healthcare professionals, in addition to logistics and administrative staff, who believe everyone should have access to healthcare regardless of gender, race, religion, creed, or political affiliation.
Such volunteering can sometimes come at great personal cost, from serious injuries to actual loss of life, as the recent war in Gaza has demonstrated.
Dozens of Irish doctors and nurses have also volunteered to work in Vietnam and Tanzania to help carry out complex medical procedures for hundreds of children with the charity Operation Childlife. RCSI Bahrain’s Head of the Department of Surgery, Prof Martin Corbally, is a founding member and Director on the board of Operation Childlife. The organisation describes its work as providing surgical, anaesthetic, and medical and nursing care to infants and children in low- and middle-income countries because it believes that children deserve compassionate and expert healthcare which should be delivered in their own environment.
Another medical charity focusing on children is Operation Smile Ireland. It provides thousands of surgeries around the world for children and adults with cleft conditions. Operation Smile Ireland is part of a global network of more than 6,000 medical volunteers from 67 countries. Approximately, 100 Irish medical professionals are involved in its operation.
Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by Dr William P Magee, a plastic surgeon, and his wife Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker, who travelled to the Philippines with a group of medical volunteers to provide cleft lip and cleft palate surgery. “They saw first-hand the overwhelming need for safe, effective surgical care, when around 300 hopeful families arrived seeking help for their children,” the organisation says on its website. “Sadly, the team of medical volunteers could only treat 40 of them, so Bill and Kathy made a promise to return in the future – and Operation Smile was born.”
The role of the Charities Regulator
The Charities Regulator was established in 2014, under the Charities Act 2009, as the independent statutory body responsible for registering and regulating charities operating in Ireland. It initially operated under the aegis of the Department of Justice, and since July 2017, it is under the aegis of the Department of Rural and Community Development.
Its core mission is to regulate the charity sector in the public interest to ensure compliance with charity law and support best practice in the governance and administration of charities.
It has created a public register of charities and provides facilities where complaints and/or concerns can be raised and actioned.
The body also has powers to investigate and prosecute and has undertaken numerous statutory investigations. Such investigations are only initiated “following extensive consultation and as a last resort”.
By the end of 2022 there were 11,506 registered charities. Across the year the public register was searched 56,698 times, the equivalent of a search about once every 10 minutes.
‘Advancement of education’ was the charitable purpose of over 30 per cent of registered charities, followed by ‘community welfare’ (11.4 per cent) and ‘poverty or economic hardship’ (8.4 per cent). ‘Promotion of health’ was the purpose of 6.6 per cent of charities.
According to the regulator, most charities work hard to achieve their charitable purpose in compliance with charity law and best practice in governance and management. However, matters can sometimes arise which lead to concerns regarding a charity.
Some 642 concerns were raised with the Charities Regulator in 2022, an increase of 13 per cent on 2021. Most of the concerns related to ‘governance issues’, ‘legitimacy of charity’ and ‘financial control and transparency’.
During 2022, the Charities Regulator opened two statutory investigations in relation to registered charities, and published one statutory investigation report during the year.
Every charity on the register must file an annual report with the Charities Regulator within 10 months of their financial year end as required under legislation.
Failure to file an annual report on time is an offence under the Act for the charity and its charity trustees. Despite this, the number of charities filing their annual report on time has declined in recent years with just six-in-10 (59 per cent) registered charities doing so in 2022. By the end of the year a further 14 per cent of charities had filed their annual reports, bringing the total reports submitted to the regulator to 73 per cent. This was a decrease of 5 per cent year on year.
To support charities, the Charities Regulator has developed a range of materials including step-by-step guides and ‘how to’ videos providing information on the process for filing annual reports on time and updating the register of charities.
In the interests of transparency and fairness to those charities that filed their annual reports on time, the Charities Regulator stated it was adopting “a stricter approach to enforcing compliance with this obligation”.