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Monday 21 August 2017

Charities must give straight answers to straight questions

My blood type is B negative. That's Rhesus negative, which means that post-natally, I needed a shot of Anti-D, the blood product that would protect my babies from being attacked by my weird blood type. I remember asking the midwife if the injection was safe and she said in classic Irish black humour style; "Sure we thought it was safe before".

You see, between 1977 and 1991 a batch of Anti-D administered to women like me was infected with Hepatitis C. After a Tribunal of Inquiry the State admitted this was due to negligence at the Blood Transfusion Board. The sick women won compensation and a group called Positive Action was funded by the HSE to provide support to the patients. It's this organisation that has now had its funding withdrawn, gone into liquidation and is the subject of a Garda enquiry.

That's because an audit revealed that its funds were being spent on all kinds of mad things. There were the usual entertainment expenses, overseas travel, conferences, drinks and restaurants, and then gifts like weekends away, band hire, a courier to bring dry-cleaning to and from the office and a dog kennel.

In my view the worst spending was on angel card readings. Hepatitis C is a serious disease. People can believe any supernatural guff they want, but charging money for a service at the dodgy end of the alternative spectrum to someone whose actually sick is unethical. When the taxpayer is footing the bill, it's downright wrong.

So it all looks pretty bad. But I think a criminal enquiry might be a harsh consequence. Apparently, the kennel was for someone who'd been working very hard.

I've been reading some behavioural economics which says that giving employees gifts rather than wage increases is very effective in raising morale and productivity. So on the face of it, this doesn't seem to me like fraud perpetrated by bad people, but good people with a good cause who didn't understand that you can't run a professional organisation like this.

In other words, they were just like many other people in Ireland who run similar organisations, charities and support groups. Because they all have good causes, and because mostly they are run by good people who mean well, it never occurs to them, or indeed us, that they might be doing bad, or just wasteful, things.

There are around 6,000 charities and community groups in Ireland. Collectively they employ tens of thousands of people, and depend on the voluntary activity of hundreds of thousands more.

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Between the money they raise and spend, they are worth around €6 billion to the economy. Irish people are really generous and will fling money at every local group supporting a sick child to categories of patients to overseas aid charities.

Unfortunately, many of us then seem to think it's bad manners to ask where and how that money is being spent.

We don't hesitate to insist the Government accounts for every cent it spends but are too embarrassed to ask where the billions spent on charity goes. This is a dangerous culture.

As we've seen from the way in which the Central Remedial Clinic and Rehab were run, it's desperately unhealthy to leave people running organisations without clear accountability.

In fact, anyone who challenges the governance of these organisations is seen to be attacking the people who depend on the services provided, rather than the providers of the service.

Furthermore, the people running the organisation are so imbued with their sense of goodness that they get outraged and defensive when people start asking questions. That's often because many of them started out as volunteers, doing something for the social good.

Their reward is gratitude. When they start being paid for the job, they don't understand the gratitude ends and professional standards apply. In other words, they think they're great. But sometimes, they're not.

A regulator for charities has just been appointed and that will clean up a lot of the messing that's been going on. But, ultimately, it's down to us as donors to have the courage to ask straight questions about how money is being spent. And not accept anything less than straight answers.

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