One of many vivid memories from primary school was the annual delivery of the Trócaire boxes. The local parish curate was the man responsible for ensuring these little cardboard collection boxes were delivered to each child at the beginning of Lent, along with a simple message of empathy, compassion and solidarity with those less fortunate overseas.
For those of a different generation, or tradition, the Trócaire box was a mainstay of most Irish households for 40 days (and 40 nights) every year. First introduced by the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in 1973 as a method of collecting much needed funds to support their work, the boxes became one of the most enduring charity campaign devices of the eighties and nineties.
For nine and ten year olds, the Trócaire box represented competitive giving at its best. Come Easter Sunday, if your Trócaire box wasn’t gaffer taped at the bottom to keep the sheer weight of the donations in, you simply weren’t at the races. If you had secretly requested a second Trócaire box the week before Easter because your original was overflowing, you were sure to be the envy of your classmates.
While the Trócaire box is still in existence (now in its 43rd year), its power to pull in donations has diminished somewhat.
The charity sector is now a significantly more complex one, and the pressure on charities from a corporate governance perspective has never been more intense.
The recent controversy at suicide prevention charity Console was a sharp reminder of the reputational challenges facing the sector in Ireland. From the Central Remedial Clinic admitting to paying the salary and pension of its former CEO with charitable funds, to question marks over consultancy fees paid by Rehab, to the alleged misappropriation of funds at Console (which has ultimately resulted in the demise of the organisation) - all have had a material effect on public trust in the charities sector.
At the height of the CRC controversy, the Sunday Independent carried out a survey which painted a stark picture of the correlation between trust and donations, with more than half of those surveyed less likely to donate money in future. Events at Console are likely to have shaken that confidence once again.
When your very existence depends on maintaining your reputation, and the trust and good will of your contributors, it merits being taken seriously. The charity sector, perhaps more than any other, needs to embed best practice principles of reputation management in how they operate.
The creation of the Charities Regulator is a positive move. Amongst its stated statutory functions is to “increase public trust and confidence in the management and administration of charitable trusts and charitable organisations”. At the same time many leading charities have now placed corporate governance and transparency protocols at the heart of their organisations.
However, with the latest stats showing over 7,000 individual registered charities in Ireland, it will take a collective effort from all in the sector to bring trust and reputation and, as a result, donations, back to peak Trócaire box levels.