One of the flag ships of the well-connected NGO sector in Ireland has lost its battle for survival. Benefacts, which operated as a one-stop shop for publicly available information on the pretty vast state funded sector – to the tune of over €6 billion a year and employing over 165,000 people – has itself been informed that it will no longer get any money.
On January 14, the Benefacts board issued a statement announcing that the main channel of taxpayers money, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, would not be providing any further funding after March and that Benefacts will be forced to cease operations and take down its website by February 14.
Over the seven years of its existence, Benefacts had managed to get over €6 million mostly from the DPER but also from Tusla. A further €2.54 million according to themselves came from “philanthropic and other income.” Total direct staff costs of €926,468 in 2020 accounted for just under 70% of income and a whopping 93% of their overall operating costs.
This follows several years in which questions were raised, including at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, regarding the company’s claim to be able to become in large part a viable commercial operation. Committee members also inquired into aspects of its internal governance such as tendering.
Originally, Benefacts had said that it would be able to operate on a ratio of 50:50 public : private income, but as its annual report in 2019 showed, this was closer to 85:15. While the site itself does contain useful information, there is nothing on it that is not publicly available and, as others pointed out, it was difficult to imagine why anyone would pay for the services provided.
Apart from that, some NGOs are not very forthcoming in the information provided through their reports, with their designation as charities being a useful excuse for not perhaps telling those who pay them exactly what they do with the money, nor indeed the exact source of all of their income.
One particularly influential NGO, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) landed itself in a bit of bother when it told the state that it had not had the time to present proper accounts for 2019. TENI was threatened with a withdrawal of funds, but seems to be still in operation.
Of course,all of the heavy hitters in the NGO sector have influential friends in court and if anything are even more dominant in the opposition parties like Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats and the rag tag of far left groups. Sinn Féin, apart from the fact that its own staff are often former NGO employees themselves, largely take their policies from them.
Such influence was not enough to save Benefacts. This despite the fact that the current board, as still listed on their site, includes lots of people you would expect to bump into in the places nice people gather to discuss how to make the rest of us a bit nicer.
Among them are Rory Coveney, brother of Minister Simon Coveney and Director of Strategy at RTÉ. Others include Tom Boland the former CEO of the Higher Education Authority, Patricia Quinn who was an Arts Council director and an RTÉ board member, Robert Ottenhoff a former vice President of the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States. Emma-Jane Spollen who has served before the mast with a range of state departments and NGOs including TUSLA, Comhlámh and Integrating Ireland, and Anne Vaughan a former Deputy Secretary in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.