I recently spent four days visiting with leaders from civil society, government and business in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to discuss the role and practice of philanthropy. The visit was part of a United States Department of State programme managed by the Irish Institute at Boston College. My full observations on the state of philanthropy throughout the region, including challenges that have plagued the sector and promising opportunities for growth, are articulated across several posts on TPI’s Deep Social Impact blog.
Private philanthropy in Ireland is still a new concept. Until the Celtic Tiger boom years, there was very little surplus wealth throughout the country and the supply side for private philanthropy was limited. Conversely, the demand side for philanthropy is also weak. The governments of both the Republic and NI have made significant investments in the safety net, basic services and arts and culture for many years. Thus, most NGO fundraising has been aimed at getting public funds and fundraising professionals have had limited training in private fundraising.
When John Healy, Chair for Philanthropy Ireland saw my comments, he agreed there was both a supply and a demand issue, but added, ‘On the demand side, there simply isn’t enough asking, and fundraising skills are relatively underdeveloped.’
I also saw a sense of urgency throughout the country to make up for lost time and to develop a private philanthropy culture – yet challenges still exist, exacerbated by the economic downturn. Government agencies that both gave and promised large donations are pulling back and even withholding promised funds. Financial institutions – typically stalwart supporters of community, especially the arts – are in crisis. New NGOs formed and existing ones expanded during the boom are now struggling for funding. Moreover, two of the largest foundations in Ireland, Atlantic Philanthropies and the One Foundation, are time-limited and NGOs are rightly worried about what will replace their giving. John Healy notes that the influence of both foundations is often overstated as both account for a relatively small percentage (somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent) of the private income in the non-profit sector. Still, their spend-downs will be felt.
There are many bright spots, led by enterprising and energetic community and business leaders. These include coordinated efforts to increase diaspora giving, the launch of a women’s fund, creation of giving circles, professional development for fundraisers and strategies to strengthen the role of professional advisers in promoting philanthropy. While there are certainly many challenges, I left hopeful about the growth of the sector in the years ahead.
Ellen Remmer is President and CEO of The Philanthropic Initiative. Email eremmer@TPI.ORG