THE election slogans of the two largest political parties refer to ‘An Ireland for All’ and ‘A Future to Look Forward To’. Maintaining the vibrancy of thousands of our community-based organisations countrywide will be essential to delivering on the spirit of either of these ambitions.
The stark reality, however, is that Ireland’s entire charity, community and voluntary, and social enterprise sector operates under ever-increasing pressures and strains that, unless resolved, will undermine their ability, and that of the next government, to deliver.
A perfect storm — funding and staffing pressures, increasing regulation requirements without corresponding resources and soaring insurance costs — is forcing CEOs and the volunteer boards of these organisations to increasingly ask ‘Can we go on?
The demands of a rapidly-growing economy, the need to guarantee good governance (but without the necessary funding to support it) and a ‘wild west’ insurance environment are easily identifiable causes of these difficulties.
But if we allow a ‘survival of the fittest’ approach to take hold, without providing a level playing field for community and voluntary endeavour, then the current recovery will surely result in decimated communities, just as bleak as the devastated town centres of the recession.
Ireland’s 29,000 charities, community and voluntary organisations, and social enterprises perform a key role in delivering health, social and community services the length and breadth of the country, regularly working in conjunction with state agencies and often filling a vacuum in service delivery.
There is hardly a family in Ireland who has not benefited from the care provided by a charity or community group, whether that be for a loved one in ill health, through social or financial supports because of the housing crisis, or any number of other essential needs.
Yet these very same charities and community-based organisations are required to operate under different and discriminatory conditions than virtually every other sector of the economy.
For example, their service contracts regularly require that no part of funding be used for quality oversight, best practice in accountability and associated administration.
Those working in delivering frontline services and supports are committed to using all of their funding to deliver the best outcomes. However, in an environment that requires often onerous duplicate reporting to several state agencies and regulators, where are boards of directors to find the resources to comply with ever-increasing and repetitive reporting, regulatory and accountability requirements?
Pay and conditions for staff employed by Section 39 community and voluntary organisations, which provide health and social services, and Section 56 funded organisations, which provide children and family services, are kept unsustainably low because of a lack of funding, in stark contrast to rates available to HSE and Tusla staff who perform very similar functions and roles.
Commissioning and procurement policy is increasingly weighted in favour of applications from larger, often private companies. If not reversed, it will quickly erode the involvement of many organisations with a proven track record of successfully delivering localised, people-centred services.
Similarly, in rural Ireland, where recovery from the recession of the past decade has been delayed, community-based organisations such as social enterprises, sustain much of the social and economic fabric of their communities. They will also play an important role in supporting people, in particular, those from marginalised communities, in the wake of Brexit.
With often very limited resources and chronic underfunding, these organisations, both large and small, mobilise communities and deliver local jobs and services in places where both the State and the private sector are either unable or unwilling to participate.
The good news is that we have the building blocks and road maps for a better way forward.
2019 saw the release of three detailed and interrelated policies from the outgoing government: the National Social Enterprise Policy for Ireland, the Report of the Independent Review Group examining role of Voluntary Organisations (IRG Report), and the Strategy to Support the Community and Voluntary Sectors in Ireland - with a fourth National Volunteering Strategy all but finalised.
These policies await full implementation during the lifetime of the next government.
Key requirements for a better future include multi-annual funding agreements in order to provide certainty for staff and service-users alike; allocation of resources to enable charities to respond to regulatory obligations; a level playing pitch for the procurement of contracts; as well as speedy legislation to address the chaos caused by rising insurance costs.
We also need mandatory financial reporting standards for charities to continue the excellent progress the sector has made in recent years to increase transparency and accountability.
Countrywide, many thousands of people continue to volunteer time to their chosen charity, contribute as unpaid directors of boards or work as employees on wages significantly below open market rates.
Let’s ensure that they are at last given the full backing, resources and supports from the government to allow them to support the many, many individuals and families in need in every city, town and parish of Ireland.
And to deliver a future to look forward to - in an Ireland for all.