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Sweet charity
Charities Regulator CEO Helen Martin PIC: Cian Redmond

01 Nov 2019 / Regulation Print

Sweet charity

Helen Martin is constantly being told that there are too many charities in Ireland and that she should shut some down. That’s not her job.

The CEO of the Charities Regulator believes that charities will stand or fall by the work that they do – by that measure, it is the public that will determine whether or not they are successful.

The job of the regulator is to make sure that existing charities have proper governance structures. This is what will guarantee public confidence and support and, therefore, their continued existence.

The regulator’s overriding vision is for a vibrant, trusted charity sector that is valued for the public benefit that it provides. Transparency and accountability are key to achieving that vision, Martin notes.

Abridged accounts

She urges trustees to ensure that every charity’s full set of accounts is published online, rather than simply an abridged version.

“We have seen a growth in the number of charities filing abridged accounts. While they may be legally entitled to do it, we do not think it’s the right thing to do. All charities should be publishing their full set of accounts on their websites.”

The Charities Regulator has a compliance and enforcement function under the Charities Act 2009, but also has a role in enhancing best practice in governance. 

To this end, it launched the Charities Governance Code in November 2018. “Our mission is to regulate the charity sector in the public interest so as to ensure compliance with the law and support best practice in the governance, management and administration of charities,” says Martin.

The creation of the regulator put additional administrative duties on the sector, but Martin is adamant that regulation is proportionate and that there is an overall benefit in a more transparent and accountable charity sector – which is essential for sustainability, as State funders, donors, and volunteers expect more from charities.

Fresh fields

Martin had a varied career as a lawyer before arriving in the charity sector, graduating with a BCL from UCD in the mid ’90s, doing a postgrad in competition law at King’s College London, as well as qualifying as a barrister, working in telecoms regulation, and also spending eight years working in the Attorney General’s office as a legislative drafter.

There, she worked long hours as part of the large team drafting the complex laws that created NAMA, as well as other legislation related to the financial crisis.

“When you go in at a time of financial crisis, when everyone was working late hours and long days in the national good, you get to see how committed people were to getting things done right, and working really hard.”

The director of regulation job at the newly formed Charities Regulator came up in 2017. “With my regulatory and legal background, I thought it would be particularly interesting, as a new area of regulation,” Martin says.

Diversity

On her arrival, Martin was initially amazed at the diversity of charities. She saw massive commitment among volunteers with a true belief in their endeavours. “In the charity sector, you’re dealing with fantastic people doing amazing things.

“We register charities, so I have direct experience of looking at the applications and seeing the interesting work that people are doing, whether it’s a cancer patients’ transport network or first responder groups or environmental groups.

“It’s amazing to see the time and effort people put in to serve their communities,” she says.

Passing the test

So far, relatively few applications have been turned down. Martin attributes this in part to the Charities Regulator’s commitment to continually refine the step-by-step guidance on its online registration process.

“People have to really think and understand what a charity is before they apply for registration,” says Martin. Charities are a sub-set of the wider not-for-profit sector, she points out.

The regulator’s staff are trained in how to apply the ‘charities test’ and will rigorously assess whether an applicant meets that test in terms of having a charitable purpose and providing public benefit.

Trust and confidence

A well-run charity sector generates trust and confidence, in both money given and volunteer time offered.

“In a regulated sector, there are far more supports available to potential trustees or anyone thinking about volunteering for a charity … there’s a lot more information available that they can check. They can take a certain confidence from that,” she said.

Having rigorous regulatory processes focuses minds in terms of charitable purpose and activities, Martin says.

“The level of compliance with annual reporting requirements show that charities understand that there’s a value to them in completing their annual report on time, since the information is put online and is a window for the public into their finances and activities.

“It’s also very important to charities that they maintain their Irish-registered charitable status.”

Red flags

No charity has yet been removed from the charities register as a result of failing to comply with obligations under the Charities Act, as the regulator’s initial focus has been to ensure that charity trustees are informed of those obligations.

However, as regulation in the sector matures, there will be a greater focus on compliance and enforcement.

Failure to keep proper books of account or governance lapses are the main red-flag areas. “We are currently building up our team, and will be recruiting lawyers with trust law and regulatory experience over the coming months,” says Martin, “so I would urge anyone with an interest in working with the Charities Regulator to keep an eye on our website.”

A total of 686 individual ‘concerns’ were raised with the regulator in 2018, which amounts to between 50 and 60 each month.

However, not all of these are escalated, and only 44% related to registered charities – the remainder related to entities that were not registered charities.

Professional advice

“All charities should get professional advice, whether it’s legal or accounting, if such advice is required and they don’t have that specialism available to them on their board or from staff,” Martin says.

However, only larger more complex charities will need an in-house legal team, she believes.

And Martin urges charities to get creative about pulling in fresh blood, and looking beyond the obvious sources for new recruits.

A charity’s website is its shop window and should be as good as possible.

“It’s about telling people what you do and telling that story well,” says Martin. 

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie