Parting Words from Deirdre Garvey, Outgoing CEO of The Wheel

Posted on
15 Dec 2022
by Deirdre Garvey, CEO of The Wheel

In my final week with The Wheel, I would like to share some perspectives and insights I've picked up over these last two decades. 

First things first — 2022 has been another productive and breathless year for the sector, as the impact of rapidly rising inflation has negatively impacted so many organisations in the areas of adequate pay, energy bills, and funding levels. The highlights of our work in The Wheel this year representing our members’ interests and additionally supporting them and the wider sector across many fronts is detailed here by Ivan Cooper, our Director of Public Policy. I encourage you to read his article as it gives a great perspective on this year where we were not sure at its start that COVID-19 and lockdowns were truly over. And although we seem to be well out of lockdown territory, we have a sense that it’s still not back to ‘normal’ or if we will ever get to that place ever again.  

As I take my leave of The Wheel, having been its first and only CEO, I’ve been doing some reflecting about where the sector is at now versus where it was at 22 years ago.  

While many challenges inevitably lie ahead, it would be remiss not to note the many successes I have been privileged enough to be witness to over the last couple of decades from my vantage point as CEO of The Wheel. The following milestones that I draw out are not just resulting from The Wheel's actions, but also the actions of all of our members and others in the sector across Ireland. These milestones include:  

  • The elevation of good governance to a truly central role within the sector. 
  • The advancement of charity regulation (from theory to practice!). 
  • The management of their charity’s reputation is now a mainstream item on the agenda for boards to consider and shape (and Carmichael’s Good Governance Awards is a great initiative in this regard). 
  • Much greater engagement from political parties with the reality of what our sector is, leading to all major parties now recognising the key role that our sector plays in Irish society through having specific policies and manifesto commitments related to sector development. 
  • The sector’s voice is now present in economic policy-making fora, as well as social policy fora.  
  • Cross- and intra-sectoral collaborations are now the norm, and very visibly present in the pan-sectoral We Act campaign
  • Accessible technology is providing opportunities for organisations to reach more people and serve them more effectively. 
  • A new generation of volunteers is coming to the fore supported by a well-developed volunteering infrastructure (with a nod to Volunteer Ireland in that regard). 
  • And, a personal favourite of mine, increased pride in building a professional career in our sector (as demonstrated by We Act research). 

There is indeed much still to do, but I feel confident that we have laid the groundwork and built the momentum to enable our sector to play its rightful role in helping to create a fairer and more just and inclusive Ireland. 

But as I leave my formal role with The Wheel advocating and championing the sector, I’ll offer my perspective on three significant advances we now need to collectively win so that our work and the values that drive us are centre stage in a better Ireland for all:   

  1. We need a relationship with the state in that goes beyond the utilitarian of seeing us as sources of cheaper or more flexible ways of delivering services. It needs to be a meaningful relationship of respectful partners each with their own vitally important role. It needs to be a whole-of-government commitment that recognises and empowers the importance of our sector as an engine of active and engaged citizens who need to and deserve to live their lives with hope and dignity as valued citizens in a real republic. A relationship like the one I believe is needed would deliver:
      a.  A funding model and a contracts model used by the state in its agreements with our sector which recognise the independence of our organisations and the importance of funding them sufficiently to attract and retain skilled staff. 
     b. Funding systems and levels to fund the increased compliance and governance work that is rightfully needed in every community and voluntary organisation. 
  2. Organisations in our sector must redouble efforts and continue telling our stories of impact and change to the public in ways that will cut through. That means being transparent always in what we do, how we do it who funds us and what we spend it on (and never filing abridged accounts, even when one of our board members or our auditor tells us that we may — because doing that damages us all). This is an individual organisation-by-organisation task. It’s also a call to the larger organisations in the sector to demonstrate leadership in this through, for example, by getting involved in and supporting the We Act campaign in your actions and also possibly with financial contributions so that our sector truly takes collective ownership of its reputation with the public. Another way larger organisations can help others to help all of us is to commit to helping even one small organisation per year to enter Carmichael’s Good Governance Awards. 
  3. I believe that the societal changes we all need to make to meet our Climate Action Plan targets are not fully grasped or understood. Certainly, it is true for me and for many, regardless of where we work. The penny is perhaps only starting to drop collectively in relation to the commitments and targets in Ireland’s Climate Action Plan. There is therefore an opportunity and a requirement for new ways of thinking and working — in all sectors. The whole-of-society changes that are needed will not be possible without harnessing the community-mobilisation latent power and energy that is in DNA of our sector: we are the ‘invisible infrastructure’ in every community across Ireland. How to make that happen is a challenge for the government, but also for ourselves and our leaders. In our sector, we need to see strong, courageous and innovative leaders emerge, who are genuinely up for stepping into the unknown. We need leaders and leadership to successfully find a way to bring our sector’s offer and its contribution to the solutions-and-change processes that connect all sectors in overcoming the existential climate and biodiversity crises. 

We need to address these and other challenges with innovative solutions because our sector’s work is so very important. Our sector and what it embodies and comprises and does is both the heart as well as the conscience of a nation. It’s the driver of positive values and transformative actions. It accelerates social progress and puts the brakes on excesses of greed and individualism. And it rebalances the tensions between the influential and the marginalised, the insiders and the outsiders, the powerful and those excluded from power. 

And whilst I cannot absolutely guarantee anything about what The Wheel will work on after I leave, I know that playing a leadership role to see these three outcomes (above) will be a continuing core part of its work for members and for the wider sector. 

At this significant milestone in my personal and professional life, I find it simply remarkable that I have had just a wonderful opportunity to work in a sector which is that important. I am indeed very lucky. It was an extraordinary turn that my life took when, at the age of 30, I exited from the career in the world of high tech which was extending out in front of me, and made an about turn into the nonprofit world by joining Barretstown in its start-up days. Five years there and then twenty-two years here at the helm since the founding of The Wheel. And I’ve simply loved it all! 

I want to take this opportunity to thank our members for all of their support, wisdom and resilience over the years. You are the very reason we do what we do at The Wheel — to support you and your organisation as you strive daily to make a positive impact in your community. 

I want to thank each and every one of our staff (past and present) here at The Wheel, a singularly dedicated, creative and dynamic team. The senior management team, in particular, has helped me to lead this organisation from a staff of one (yours truly!) back in 2000 to over 30 staff members today. 

I want to pay special tribute to the late Dr Mary Redmond, the founder of The Wheel. Back in 1999, 200 community and voluntary organisations gathered in Dublin to discuss a bold new vision put forward by Mary to coordinate greater collaboration in the community voluntary sector. She used the symbol of a wheel to illustrate the concept; “its spokes accommodating the rich diversity of the voluntary sector, its centre the distillation of the great energy that drives it.” It was Dr Redmond's inspired vision that helped to bring us to this point today. 

And, of course, no CEO is able to be successful without the support of their board and specifically their Chair. As CEO you have to have a “force” to engage with, to be challenged by, and to be supported by also. I have consistently had all of that in the various boards over the years here in The Wheel. They have inspired me, helped me learn so many things, picked me up when I was faltering and worked consistently with me in a positive spirit of respectful partnership. Thank you to you all. 

I have been very lucky to consistently work with nine board Chairpersons from whom I’ve learned so much too: the original Chair, the late Gerry Ryan (then CEO with NAMHI, now Inclusion Ireland); Sr Bernadette MacMahon (Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice); Fergus O’Ferrall (then CEO of the Adelaide Hospital Society); John Dolan (CEO with Disability Federation of Ireland); Seamus Boland (CEO of Irish Rural Link); Sean Coughlan (then CEO of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland); Mary Cunningham (CEO of the National Youth Council of Ireland); Paul O’Sullivan (then CEO of Clann Credo); and the current Chair, Vincent Keenan (CEO of North & East Housing Association). These leaders have voluntarily stepped up to take on the responsibility of chairing the board of the national association for the sector in Ireland and in so doing, have taken on a very important leadership role for the entire sector. Thank you to each and every one of you. 

It’s been a bit emotional over these last three months since I made the decision to depart The Wheel, and to finally complete that last “to do” item on every founding CEOs action list, which is to move on. 

I realise that my departure may be somewhat discombobulating for The Wheel, as change always is. However, the organisation, its mission and culture are in great hands with the Interim CEO, Tony Ward (our former Director of Finance); the (aforementioned) superb senior management team; a dedicated and multi-talented staff team; and a strategic and challenging-in-a-good-way-whilst-also-being-solicitous board of directors, which in turn is led by a strong and compassionate Chair, Vincent. 

It has been an absolute joy, albeit a bittersweet one, to witness how the organisation is equipping itself to move on after I am gone, and it is well on its way to doing that. I will look on from my exciting new place in the sector — as Secretary General of the Irish Red Cross (also a member of The Wheel). I know I will meet many of you during that new role and also because many of you have become good friends over the years, and I don’t plan to leave the wonderfully supportive network and people that have helped sustain me over the years. 

It has been the privilege of my life to have had the opportunity to champion the work of our members and of all in the sector over all these years. To champion what you and we all stand for. Because it’s all of you out there in your associations, clubs and organisations, large and small — social enterprise or charity or community group or voluntary organisation — who actually make it all happen. 

My warmest best wishes and encouragement to you all. 

Thank you.