Induction Week: An Intern's View of the Charity Sector

Posted on
23 Aug 2018
by
Simon Owens

With a background studying history and political science at college and with a keen interest in current affairs and public policy, I was delighted to get the opportunity to intern with The Wheel.

As a representative and support umbrella network for the community and voluntary sector, The Wheel has offered me a unique insight and perspective into both the sector itself and the wider political arena. During my first week interning with the organization, I attended a number of members’ events. Following on from this experience, I have compiled my thoughts and impressions of The Wheel’s work from the perspective of an outsider to the community and voluntary sector.

Impressions of the Events:

Attending the Members’ Update meeting, the Meet the Leader event with Brendan Howlin, the policy sub-group meeting and the Voices for Change event has been a unique initiation into the work of The Wheel, exposing the workings of the organization at both its rudimentary level, in its interactions with individual members, to its position as a spokesperson and lobbyist for the community and voluntary sector.

One of the major takeaways from the week was the extensive level of expertise of the members in their specific area. While this itself might not be surprising, I, as an effective novice to the sector, found their level of engagement and dedication to be extremely inspiring. This was particularly evident at the Meet the Leader event, where members effectively “grilled” Brendan Howlin on a wide range of topics, demonstrating their commitment to their cause in the face of real political power.  However, while many members may be experts within their own fields, the Voices for Change event indicated that many members are alien to much of the formalities and practicalities of the Irish policy-making process.

Additionally, the members who attended showed a keen desire to learn and consequently were active participants in both the meetings and the training event. This was demonstrated in the questions which were asked at all events. One example of the openness of members to improving their service was a question posed to Brendan Howlin, in which the member asked for suggestions on how the community and voluntary sector could enhance its standing amongst policymakers. From my experience, members found the training and updates to be especially rewarding and diligently engaged through questioning and note-taking. Moreover, they participated seriously in the Voices for Change video exercise under the understanding that they were to apply the skills learned when dealing with their local representatives.

Challenges:

The week has provided an introduction to the pressing issues and challenges facing the community and voluntary sector. Although, undoubtedly much of these issues have already been brought to attention, their repeated citing during the past week’s events as barriers to the effective and efficient working of voluntary and charitable organizations highlight their central importance to the sector.

Compliance

  •  The issue raised which was omnipresent throughout the events/meetings was the burden which regulation and other restrictions placed on the community and voluntary sector.
  • For a sector which is so dependent on the passion, vigour and enthusiasm of volunteers, staff, trustees and board members, the bureaucracy around compliance can only serve to discourage and alienate potential support.
  • This was particularly well captured by one lady from Feed our Homeless who found herself being consumed by ‘red tape’, unable to partake in providing the actual service which was the fundamental motivation for her joining of the organization.
  • As a result of multiple regulatory reporting requirements to bodies such as the Charity Regulator and the failure to streamline the process, organizations are forced to divulge the same information repeatedly. 
  • As Mary Cunningham pinpointed at the policy sub-group meeting, the compliance issue “jumps off the page” and indeed is identifiable in all of the feedback sheets collected at each meeting.
  • Notably, numerous members recognized the need for regulation in the sector to restore the public confidence on which they are so reliant and accordingly, welcomed the implementation of the Charity Regulator.
  • Furthermore, members during both the members update and the Voices for Change event acknowledged the importance of expressing gratitude for the benefits which regulation has brought to the sector in their dealings with policy-makers.
  • Ultimately, however, some small organizations don’t have the means to deal with excessive regulation and still provide their service.

Funding

  • The problem of funding for the community and voluntary sector was raised frequently during the week’s events.
  • Many organizations in the sector face an uncertain future due to their over-dependence on grants. 
  • The failure on the part of policy-makers to provide sustainable sources of income for such organizations threatens their ability to cater for some of the most vulnerable in society.  
  • Although fundraising income has increased annually since 2014, increasing overhead costs such as insurance and regulatory expenses has meant that many organizations have remained financially endangered.
  • In both the Members’ Update and the Voices for Change events, members highlighted the need to provide the sector with multi-annual funding allocations in order to remove the persistent funding concerns which inhibited their mission.
  • Furthermore, funding needs to be supplied to accommodate organizations’ compliance requirements, to adequately pay staff and to address other costs levied on the sector.   

Recruitment & Retention

  • As aforementioned, the community and voluntary sector is reliant on high levels of public trust in order to secure the help of volunteers and board members etc.
  • A number of The Wheel’s members who were present during the week’s events felt that the negative attention which the sector has received as a result of recent scandals has interfered with their ability to recruit and retain staff and volunteers. 
  • A number of members outlined how their difficulty securing board members and other staff/volunteers has inhibited their work as charitable organizations.
  •  Moreover, limited funding has meant that some organizations are unable to provide sufficient salaries and accordingly have trouble hiring staff.
  • For instance, one lady from Muscular Dystrophy Ireland mentioned that two potential employees had rejected the job offer upon hearing the salary amount. 
  • A further disincentive is the excessive compliance requirements highlighted above which, unsurprisingly, deter many from engaging in the sector.

Key Issues to Address

The Wheel has allocated substantial importance to the need for a coherent policy framework and a national development strategy for the community and voluntary sector in its documentation. This focus corresponds with the wishes of its members. During the Meet the Leader event, a number of people welcomed Brendan Howlin’s commitment to developing a national strategy for the community and voluntary sector. It was further raised in some of the week’s other events underling the importance which members place on it. As seen in the documentation presented at the policy sub-group meeting, The Wheel has given it a leading position in its list of demands and the words of Mr Howlin indicate that it is increasing in prominence amongst politicians. 

The compliance issue was consistently raised throughout the week and is one which unites most, if not all, The Wheel’s membership. Indeed, it is an issue which overflows into many of the other challenges faced by the community and voluntary sector in that it swallows up funding and discourages potential volunteers, staff and board members. Members have been vocal in their appreciation of the greater accountability and transparency which the greater regulation has provided. However, when community and voluntary organizations are absorbed by numerous compliance requirements to the extent that their service is compromised or threatened, it is clear that fundamental change to the regulatory stipulations must be campaigned for. Streamlining the process is the suggestion which The Wheel itself has promoted and which many of the members mentioned during the week. Indeed, it appears to be the most logical solution to the problem, ensuring that the same information is not required to be reported on multiple separate occasions. 

In the course of the week, it is clear that some of The Wheel’s events are particularly popular amongst its members. For instance, the event with Brendan Howlin was especially successful as many members seemed to relish having access to figures in positions of power. Events such as this openly demonstrate The Wheel’s facilitatory and advocacy role to a membership who are likely unaware of much of the organization’s lobbying work behind the scenes. Furthermore, Pat Montague proved to be a popular speaker and was met with repeated questioning and engagement throughout his lecture on the policy-making process and in the lobbying exercise which followed. Whether this level of engagement will be replicated into the lobbying campaign is uncertain but those in attendance appeared to be genuinely motivated to put the skills learned into action.

Ultimately, for the most part, the numbers of those who attended both the meetings could have been higher. Although it would be unrealistic to expect all members to attend, The Wheel’s ability to serve the community and voluntary sector rests on the contributions of its members. Furthermore, incentivizing some of the 28,000 other community and voluntary organizations which are not members to join is pivotal. If  The Wheel’s membership continues to grow, it will become increasingly difficult for governments to ignore its demands.