Recession Begins to Bite the Irish Charity Sector

The effects of the recession on the Irish community and voluntary sector are now beginning to show, as a number of the most prominent charities are reporting a decrease in income over the past 12 months. Rising unemployment and the ever increasing cost of living appear to have taken a bite out of the public's ability to maintain the usual level of donations that most charities depend on. All of this comes at a time when the demand for the services offered by these various charities is on the rise.

With the Central Statistics Office reporting that 600 people a day are losing their jobs in Ireland, the St. Vincent de Paul (SVP) has seen a deluge of calls in the past few months as the number of Irish families in need of assistance has risen dramatically (as much as 40%). The charity expects to have spent €50 million on its services by the end of 2008, with €49 million of that sum coming from donations. The problem is that while the number of requests for its help is sure to rise in 2009, the SVP is not sure if the current level of public donations will meet that demand. As Stuart Kenny of the SVP recently told the Independent, “We are a very generous people. Even in recession, the donations are up slightly on last year. But how long that trend continues, remains to be seen."

Trócaire has already experienced a 10% drop in donations during 2008. Eamonn Meehan, Trócaire’s deputy director, recently told the Irish Times that this 10% drop in income is not just the result of a decline in individual donations: “Official donors, governments, institutions like the European Union, are also going to have tighter budgets”. This decline in income obviously threatens the work being done by Trócaire throughout the developing world, where the effect could be devastating.

The picture is the same across the board for much of the Irish charity sector – income is down and the demand for services is on the rise. Richard Dixon, director of fundraising at Concern, has spoken of the “perfect storm” in which Irish charities are operating: “VAT is up. The general cost of living is up. Demand is up, whether you're operating domestically or internationally.” Speaking of the generosity of the Concern’s supporters, Mr Dixon also mentioned that, “whereas last year they might have sent in a donation for €20, this year it's a tenner.”

Barnardos is another high profile charity that has experienced a decline in income. The children’s charity has already had to cancel one fundraising event and postpone another. Speaking to the Irish Times, Ruth Guy, fundraising and marketing director at Barnardos said that, “One issue is corporate sponsorship and the other is table sales. It's getting much more difficult to sell tables now". Barnardos’ bleak scenario is further compounded by a drop-off in individual donations. Guy told the Irish Times, “It started on a slow basis with people who used to give monthly donations. We started getting phone calls saying they had lost their job or things were getting tight and they couldn't continue. Corporate donations have also reduced.”

The recession has not been any easier for smaller Irish charities. Homeless charities have been especially hard hit, with a huge rise in demands for their services despite a general decline in income (including government funding). The fear among many smaller charities is that people making donations will decide to give them to the bigger “household name” charities.

One example of a smaller Irish charity that has seen a decline in its ability to operate at full capacity is Camara, an Irish charity that refurbished used computers for educational use in Africa. Although the charity has not experienced a decline in fundraising income, it has seen the recession bite in other ways. Eoghan Crosby, Camara’s technical director, told the Irish Times that, “In the last two months we have seen not a drop-off but a slowdown in the PC donations”.

However, despite this bleak scenario, many of those working in the sector are eager to take a more optimistic point of view. The SVP has, for example, seen a rise in the number of people volunteering with the charity, which certainly suggests the good will and generosity of the Irish people is thriving still. Similarly, charities have been getting creative with their fundraising techniques. For example, Dublin Simon has enlisted the popular singer-songwriter, Paddy Casey, for a high-profile gig in Dublin on the 21 December in aid of the charity. Also, charity shops across the country have been on a (largely successful) mission to re-brand themselves as a cool and affordable way to shop for fashionable clothes - even offering gift vouchers - in these financially difficult times.

As Stuart Kenny of the SVP recently told the Independent, “I know it can be difficult to justify donating money to charity when money is tight, but every little helps, no matter how small".