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The exponential growth in Irish NGOs spurred by foundation grants 

The extraordinary growth of the NGOs would have been impossible without the injection of funds by the foundations. We have seen a prime example of that with the effects of the millions made available by Atlantic Philanthropies. 

A pattern emerging is that the foundation funding then goes on to be more than matched by the state – and this has shaped an enormous NGO sector whose object is might best summed up as shaping the political, economic and cultural direction of the Irish state. Sometimes described as the “advocacy” sector, the role of some of these bodies seems to be how to tell the rest of us how to think and to live our lives. 

Of course, not all NGOs are involved in advocacy. Most are in sectors such as health and social services. Even here, however, the foundation money has shaped many of their stances with regard to issues of public policy. Barnardo’s is a good example of an ostensibly neutral childcare charity that has taken positions with regard to proposed constitutional and political change. Barnardo’s has received over $15,000,000 in Atlantic funding.. 

The growth in the numbers of people employed by non-governmental organisations has effectively created what in many respects resembles a new economic strata, or even class.

 There are large numbers of people who spend their entire working lives within the NGOs. That is particularly striking in the upper tiers of organisations where it is not uncommon for people to move from one to the other with an identifiable cadre of people in the management echelons. 

There is also significant crossover between the NGO sector, politics, academia and the media. Many are qualified through third level courses that seem designed in large part to train people for such positions, not least in the social sciences faculties. Little wonder then that there is so much homogeneity particularly among the advocacy NGOs who are in a powerful position to influence state policy across a wide range of areas.


The key lift off point for the NGO sector as it is now, and for the advocacy NGOs in particular, was during the 1990s and early 2000s. Of 8,159 incorporated NGOs whose date of incorporation was known, 85% had been founded after 1990, with almost 60% between 2000 and 2010.

Irish Nonprofits: What do we know? (Irish Nonprofits Knowledge Exchange, 2012, 13.)

Irish Nonprofits: What do We Know? (Irish Nonprofits Knowledge Exchange (2012), 13.

A 2021 report stated that there were 164,922 people employed by NGOs which had a combined turnover of €13.9 billion, and accounted for €6.2 billion in state funding, which was over 8% of public spending. 

The rate of growth is indicated by the fact that in 2009, turnover was over €6 billion and that overall employment was estimated to be somewhere in the region of 100,000. The value of assets held by NGOs more than doubled from €3.5 billion in 2009 to over €10 billion less than a decade later. 


A snapshot of the role which the philanthropies have played can be seen from comparing the total grants awarded by Atlantic Philanthropies over a 30 year period. In 1989 the total granted by Atlantic to Irish entities was a modest $310,000.  That had grown to over $100 million in 1999, that being a key year as we have seen in the midst of the period of take-off of the NGO sector. 

The table above from 2009 shows that there was a total of €16,454,314 in grants from the foundations that year. Atlantic was by far the major international donor, accounting for 16 of 37 individual grants.

An examination of Atlantic’s database, indicates that in 2009 they granted almost $10,000,000 to Irish NGOs involved in what would be considered to be advocacy. Among the beneficiaries were those involved in the migrancy sector as previously reported, but also groups such as Amnesty International which received a total of $1,150,141; Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) $657,225, and Lesbians in Cork which got the rather amazing sum of $1,679,575.

Lesbians in Cork (LINC) was founded with seven members in 2004 and is unlikely to have grown to the stage where in 2021 it had an income of almost €240,000 and employs three full time and two part time workers without the assistance of Atlantic.  In 2021, the vast bulk of its income was made up of €167,875 from the state, mostly the HSE, and €52,800 from philanthropies. There are many other such case studies, more of which we shall be examining as the series proceeds.

Also among the beneficiaries was the Irish Human Rights Commission which became the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in 2014 as a consequence of amalgamation with the Equality Authority. The IHRC received $365,125 in 2009 and was granted a total of $2,076,542.  The funding by an ideologically biased foreign foundation of what was designed to be an independent publicly funded body is illustrative of the grey area in which the advocacy NGOs exist. 


What is also interesting and requires more analysis is the extent to which state funding of advocacy groups followed the initial Atlantic injection of funds. That surely has consequences when such groups exercise significant influence in key areas. 

For 2009, the year in which most of the 2012 report data was gathered, the total of “incoming resources” accounted for by 401 organisations in the law, advocacy and politics sector was €235,043,560.  Of that sum, 55% was made up of grants awarded by the state or by the foundations, mostly Atlantic. A mere 0.5% of that income came from membership subscriptions and sponsorship.  

The sources of funding, and employment patterns for the advocacy sector are quite different to those for almost 2,000 cultural groups comprised of arts, languages and heritage associations. Less than 20% of their income came from the state and foundations, and that was outweighed by over €113.5 million in money made from their own activities, as well as €35 million from membership fees, donations and other voluntary income. Two thirds of the cultural groups employed nobody, which compares to 43% among the advocacy groups. 

None of the cultural organisations employed more than 100 people, even though several were commercially successful, and just 9% employed 11 or more people.  That compared to the advocacy groups, none of which are self-sustaining, and of whom 2% employed more than 100 people and 19% more than 11. 

There therefore needs to be a clear distinction between the genuine community and cultural sectors – many of which organisations provide not just a hugely valuable contribution to the life of the country but are economically beneficial in terms of their wider impact – and the advocacy sector which is almost entirely dependent on state funding and grants from the foundations.

Next, we shall be looking at the directorships, trusteeships and upper management of the advocacy NGOs, with individual case studies related to their funding, growth and involvement in public discourse.

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