Overview of the Irish Community and Voluntary Sector

With two-thirds of Irish adults (that’s over two million people) engaging annually in the social, cultural and humanitarian activities offered by our 19,000 community and voluntary organisations, it’s no great surprise to learn that the sector contributes over €2.5bn to the economy each year and employs over 63,000 full-time and part-time staff. It might be a surprise, however, to learn that volunteers provide the equivalent work of a further 31,000 people.

The community and voluntary sector clearly makes a big contribution to sustaining what is often referred to as ‘civil society’ in Ireland.

The community and voluntary sector clearly makes a big contribution to sustaining what is often referred to as ‘civil society’ in Ireland - those parts of our society that are neither the state nor the private sector.

Policymakers acknowledge that that contribution is going to increase as Ireland wrestles with the challenge of dealing with the social and economic crisis coupled with the depressing realities of inadequate social provision..

The report of the Task Force on Active Citizenship made many positive recommendations about what we can do as a society to enable individual citizens to contribute to their communities. It is, however, primarily through coming together in voluntary associations and groups that people actually participate and there is a lot to do to support voluntary organizations in providing these opportunities. So what’s needed?

Planning Ahead

Firstly, if voluntary organisations are to innovate services then they must be able to plan and this in turn means there must be reasonable security of income. No one – neither profit making company nor voluntary organisation - can plan for the future if they have no security of income. 

Community and voluntary organisations raise funds from diverse sources, but many rely on a proportion of funding from the State. For those organisations that depend on statutory funding, many encounter difficulties in securing funds that allow for the full cost (including overheads for example) of the work that they do.

To address the security-of-income and the full-cost-recovery issues, we need a new framework for the statutory funding of voluntary organisations. This new framework must provide multi-annual funding that covers both the direct and indirect (or hidden) costs of running these organisations.

We also need to improve the tax incentives system for donations to charities and voluntary organisations so that all donations are tax effective.

Regulation

Secondly, community and voluntary organisations have been urging the Government to regulate charities for many years now, arguing that charities have nothing to fear from regulation and much to gain. Benefits will include greater transparency by charities to the public and to their clients, streamlining of the many authorities that regulate a charity’s work and clarification of the duties attaching to directors and trustees..

Alan Shatter TD, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence (in whose Department the Charity Unit now sits) said In November, 2011 at a conference in Dublin "Realistically, I simply cannot see that we are in a position to fully implement the Charities Act on a statutory basis at the moment".

The Minister acknowledged the importance of the work being done by charities to protect vulnerable people and paid tribute to the thousands of volunteers who participate in this work. Minister Shatter went on to say "I am currently taking legal advice in terms of what might practicably be done within available resources, but, subject to this legal advice, and particularly given the long-stated desire across the sector for regulation, I would hope that we will be in a position to take steps to enhance the regulation of the sector".

Infrastructure of Support

Thirdly, Ireland has built a high quality support-infrastructure for business. Even in the current severe recessionary context the State continues to provide supports for firms in the areas of research and development, training and organisational development amongst many others. 

There is now a need to provide a similar, integrated, nationwide, infrastructure-of-support to enable the voluntary sector to strengthen Irish society and make Ireland a better place to live in.

This infrastructure-of-support for the voluntary sector should be targeted at the needs of voluntary organisations and provide training, advice, and supports in the areas of board development, governance, leadership, general management and financial management.

If we want to develop and support the sustainable communities of place and interest that underpin an equal and just Ireland, then we must support and enable voluntary activity in a purposeful and strategic manner. This will be achieved when community and voluntary organisations are funded appropriately, regulated sensitively and supported comprehensively.