Don’t lose faith in charity

Picnic Group Jan-2014

Posted on: 5th February, 2014

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

Having established just-one in 2004, Declan Murphy of Clonakilty now lives and works in Kathmandu, Nepal where, with the kind support of the people of West Cork, just-one’s operation continues to go from strength to strength. Further information on this grass-roots organisation and its valuable work can be found at www.just-one.org. Much needed donations can be made via the web-site or, preferably, directly to the just-one’s Irish bank account (# 87135118 / Sort Code 90-26-10). Declan is always happy to field individual and specific enquiries about the project and can be easily contacted by email on declan@just-one.org.

With the tenth anniversary of just-one’s initial founding fast approaching on July 5 next, there’s been a timely reminder of an explanation that I recall using many times during those first few years whenever speaking about why I had established the organisation. It went something like this: “I didn’t start just-one because the world needed any more charities — there are probably already too many. I started it because I think the world could do with more organisations that don’t lose sight of why they were first created.” While I might not have used that particular sound-bite so much in more recent years, its sentiment still remains very much at the core of how we do what we do here in Nepal — having been set up to help disadvantaged children here access educational opportunities, that is still, rightly or wrongly, the main driving force behind all that we do.

I’ve no doubt that many of you will already be well aware that there have been some shameful examples recently of what can happen when organisations loses sight of why they were first created. It’s cases involving the clear and blatant misuse of public funds (no, not the Dáil) that I want to look at here, as they hold the very real potential of having an overly negative impact on the valuable funding that organisations like just-one depend on for their future success and, indeed, survival.

It’s certainly not before time that the six-figure salaries and secret pension funds unearthed in the whole top-up scandal have finally come in for sustained public scrutiny over the last few months and the resulting public outrage over it all is most definitely justified too. The biggest danger though is that the most likely backlash of donors now withdrawing their support will only affect the grassroots beneficiaries and frontline staff of the organisations involved, along with other organisations too — guilty by mere association — and not the dishonourable few individuals with over-inflated notions of self-entitlement whose selfish actions created the scandal in the first place.

I hope I don’t live to regret suggesting this, but I feel it’s right to advocate that this recent scandal not become a reason for people to stop donating to any of the organisations involved, but rather that it be used as an opportunity for existing donors to demand appropriate action be taken to ensure their continued support never again be taken for granted and selfishly wasted in the truly arrogant manner we’ve been witnessing. I think it’s bad enough that so many of our state and semi-state bodies already, with the same sense of self-entitlement, grossly mismanage the funds they’re entrusted with, but to now discover much the same has also been happening in the voluntary sector is a clear sign that it’s long past the time for the general public to start getting far more comfortable with asking pertinent questions and demanding accountability from all those who use our money — be it charitable donations, collected taxes or otherwise!

While I completely agree that charitable organisations need to be run along the lines of sustainable business models, I also believe that the often used argument of attractive salaries and benefit packages being needed to secure and retain the services of ‘the right calibre of person’ completely fails to take account of the possibility that ‘the right calibre of person’ for positions within the voluntary sector might not necessarily be someone for whom financial reward is such a highly motivating factor. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it was, in fact, the exact opposite. I certainly can’t compare myself to any of these highly paid CEOs in terms of professional qualifications, experience or ability, nor just-one to any of the much larger organisations they represent but, nonetheless, I can’t understand how anyone working in the charitable sector could justify excessively high pay — especially knowing where much of the money involved would have come from and why it had been donated.

Much of this reminds me of a school visit some years back when, during the short Q&A session that generally follows my presentation on just-one’s work, a fifth class pupil raised his hand and asked how much I got paid. I remember sensing the teacher’s embarrassment, as she quickly interjected, telling him not to be so rude and suggesting that I move on to another question. My reply though, while perhaps beyond the understanding of my primary school audience, was that my experience of the charity industry to date had left me convinced that such direct questions needed be asked more often of any organisation in receipt of public funds. I went on to explain that my salary came from a separate fund, sought from the business sector, used for the specific purpose of covering such costs and help ensure that all other publically-raised funds (from schools, private individuals, etc.) would go exactly where those who kindly donate expect it to.

A single such and incredibly generous donation from a local gentleman that particular year, allowed me to openly answer the boy that my salary, at €6,000, was the most it had ever been. Being at the height of our then overheating and soon to implode economy, what I didn’t realise at the time was that this was also, in fact, the highest it would be in any one year to date. Though certainly more than liveable wage for a city as inexpensive as Kathmandu was at the time, it was only half of the €12,000 I had hoped to secure in order to help pay off my debts and start saving for the proverbial rainy days ahead of me. Given that the annual budget for just-one’s entire operation has been consistently low (yet to cross the €50,000 mark), it has always bothered me that the less-than-minimum-wage salary I’d happily settle for, would still appear (visually, at least) as an overly-generous slice of any financial pie chart we could create.

This has yet to be an issue though because, aside from the false (and gallingly public) promises of support from a couple of boom-time big-shots, my fluctuating wage to date has come from the incredible support of a small number of mostly local individuals who’ve very kindly contributed to the ‘admin fund’ I’ve stubbornly insisted on keeping separate from our general donations account. Much to the frustration of the local committee back in Clonakilty, I’m sure, who’ve struggled throughout the recession to find any takers to join what few regulars we have — each kindly paying €1,000 per year to help try paying me a wage for doing my best to keep good ship just-one afloat and sailing forward!

Who knows — maybe you or someone you know would be willing and able to help out in this particular regard? If so, we’d be very happy to hear from you! Alternatively, you may wish to directly support the on-going success of our important grassroots work here in Nepal, by providing some much needed funding (be it once off or on a regular basis) http://www.just-one.org/your-chance/donate. Whatever you might choose, you can remain assured that all at just-one are hugely appreciative of any support we receive. With three more students already embarked upon their third level studies and a further four currently studying hard for this year’s impending School Leaving Certificate, we could certainly do with all the extra support we can get.

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