Joining up the dots: Powering the Future for Civil Society in Ireland

June 7, 2019

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by Hannah Ormston, Policy & Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Charitable organisations play a central role and are an integral component of public life in Ireland. In May, I attended The Wheel’s annual conference in Dublin which brought together organisations from across the sector and offered an insight into areas of mutual priority and focus for Ireland’s civil society.

The Wheel is regarded as an authoritative and trusted voice for Ireland’s charitable sector. As Ireland’s national association of community, voluntary and charitable organisations, members advocate for and provide services to many within the population, and indeed an increasingly ageing population. The theme for The Wheel’s Summit this year, Powering the Future for Civil Society, was timely. The voluntary, charity and community sector within Ireland is undergoing a period of change, creating many opportunities, as well as some inevitable challenges. With the Summit marking the Wheel’s 20th Birthday, taking place the day before the European Elections in Ireland and marking the end of the Community Matters campaign, there was a general feeling of optimism within the room of over 400 stakeholders from across the sectors.

Back in 2015 the Carnegie UK Trust (CUKT), in partnership with The Wheel, embarked on The People’s Conversation, a project which culminated in a report detailing the key themes, reflections and responses resulting from a series of conversations about what a new and future vision of citizenship in Ireland could look like. These conversations, which highlighted a need to reform government and administration to involve citizens in decision making, remain both relevant and significant today. The continued requirement to build public trust and confidence, further develop relationships between statutory bodies and streamline the regulation and governance of charities, whilst simultaneously responding to an increased demand for services, could offer an opportunity for the sectors to join up the dots. Issues surrounding recognising and negotiating areas of mutual challenge, working together and collaborating both across the sectors and with those who need and use the services themselves were very much at the heart of many engaging discussions during the Summit.

But there are many changes afoot. The second half of 2019 will see:

  • The further implementation of the Charity Governance Code and the possible introduction of a new Charity Passport scheme (to reduce duplicate reporting by charities).
  • Progress on the Slaintecare Implementation Strategy to reform the Irish healthcare system and the recommendations made within the Slaintecare report.
  • A new strategy to support volunteers within the community and voluntary sector.
  • The publication of the State’s first Strategy for Social Enterprise.

Such plans and strategies aim to establish greater clarity and coherence and will impact many – if not all – organisations in the sector in one way or another. The Charity Governance Code responds to a desire from charities themselves, providing tools to ensure that all charitable bodies know, understand and are accountable for the six principles of governance to which they should all apply.

Currently in its learning year, it’s too early to fully understand how successful the code will be once implemented in practice. Yet discussions during the Summit highlighted that the introduction of a new Charity Passport scheme might help reduce duplicate-reporting by charities. Similar to a model used by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), the Charity Passport could enable the authorised sharing and access to data which may in turn reduce the scale of information charities are required to provide to different government agencies, in turn providing more time to deliver services.

One of the key principles within the Charity Governance Code is leadership. Within the context of change, a clear take away message from the Summit was that this principle will be increasingly important if the sector wants to successfully deliver change. Being genuinely inclusive and working with service users to design and deliver services at the micro level, whilst engaging leadership organisations, such as funders at the macro level, could offer civil society in Ireland a new opportunity to negotiate these challenges together.

Participating People, the next report resulting from the partnership between The Wheel and CUKT, and demonstrating the Trust’s continuing commitment to civil society in Ireland, will be published later this year.