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IRELAND: Interview with The Wheel – Civic actors were crucial to respond to the crisis 

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Towards a partnership approach between the State and the civic sector

Read our interview with Ivan Cooper from The Wheel, one of the seven laureates from the Civic Pride Awards of 2020.

When the social isolation began in March, civic organisations were faced with two big challenges. The first was how they were going to deliver the essential services in the socially isolated world. The second was how they were going to cope with the collapse in the fundraised and earned income to cover the cost of their work.[…] We pulled together a coalition of 15 Irish membership organisations to identify the scale of the problem and then to seek some governmental support for organisations so they could keep going with their activities« , Ivan Cooper, The Wheel

The Wheel is Ireland’s representative and support organisation for civil society. During the lockdown, the Wheel, together with a coalition of NGOs, secured a €40 million package of supports for community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises in Ireland, a symbols of important recognition by government of the vital work being done by organisations across civil society to support the most vulnerable during the Covid-19 crisis

Can you tell us about The Wheel and your mission? 

The Wheel is Ireland’s representative and support organisation for civil society – we sometimes refer to the sector as the community and voluntary sector, but it also includes social enterprises and charities. The Wheel has 1800 members organisations to whom we provide information, advice and support. We also represent the sector’s interests to build public support and to secure the optimum legislative, policy and regulatory environment. We estimate that 30’000 people in Ireland are employed by organisations that are members of the Wheel.  

How has the civic sector been affected by the pandemic? What challenges did it face in providing this crucial support? 

In Ireland, the community and voluntary sector is a huge sector. The turnover of these organisations is about 14 billion Euro. About half of that, roughly 7 billion Euro comes from fundraising that these organisations do themselves or income they earn every year. Similarly to many countries in Europe, there are lots of essential services that the population depends on: health services, community services, social services… These types of services are provided by voluntary organisations in Ireland, partly funded by the State. 

When social isolation began in March, civic organisations faced two significant challenges. First, how to deliver essential services in the socially isolated world. Second, how to cope with the collapse in the fundraised and earned income to cover the cost of their work. Indeed, all the activities that they would normally be able to do that made them able to raise these funds disappeared overnight. Gathering for events where people could make donations was no longer possible: they could not go for sponsored walks or run together, they could not do collections house to house, they could not gather for coffee mornings… there was a serious fear that there would be a major catastrophe, while the government was not fully aware of the extent of the crisis.  

How has the Wheel supported the sector? 

There are two aspects to what the Wheel worked on in relations to civil society in Ireland during the pandemic. Firstly, civil society organisations in Ireland were well placed to form part of the initial response to support vulnerable people in communities around the country. We in the Wheel collaborated with a few partner organisations and then worked with hundreds of organisations to ensure that people in communities, especially in rural Ireland, had access to a network of individuals, helpers and volunteers that could help them with their shopping and other urgent needs. Secondly, as I said, civil society organisations were hit very hard by the collapse in fundraised and earned income. We pulled together a coalition of 15 Irish membership organisations to identify the scale of the problem and then to seek some governmental support for organisations so they could keep going with their activities. So, there were two dimensions to this work. I was centrally involved in the second one.  

Concerning the collapse of income, we immediately opened up discussions with the lead department in Ireland, the Department for the Rural and Community Development. They told us that they would need more information on the extent of the loss for the sector. Clearly, this was going to be a challenge: how do you assemble information of the extent of an unfolding crisis in the middle of an unfolding crisis when all of these organisations are worried about how they are going to continue to support people in need?! We approached some holders of good quality information about the typical income of the Irish charity sector, broken down by sub-sector, over a typical year; we also conducted surveys of our members to identify the extent of the fundraising collapse they anticipated during that period. We did some mathematics to identify a fairly robust estimation of the collapse in fundraised and earned income. That number came to 400 million Euro for March, April and May.  

Some organisations were going to be worse hit than others. As I indicated, some community and voluntary organisations get a significant amount of their money from the State. One of the early things we were able to do was to communicate to the state funders the importance of signalling to the supported organisations that they were flexible: so the main government partners that provide grants to voluntary organisations sent out letters saying that they would honour the terms of their funding agreements even though the circumstances had changed and organisations might do different things with the money that had been agreed in advance.  

That was good. However, those organisations that were not receiving significant funding from the State were going to be much more severely hit. We went again to the lead department with the research, backed with the results of the survey that the coalition had done, describing the impact on the work of charities as a result of the collapse of the income. The Department was happy to accept the legitimacy of the figure of 400 million Euro.  

There was then a complicating factor: in Ireland, as in many other countries in Europe, there have been different schemes to support employers to continue paying their employees. In Ireland, this is referred to as the Wage subsidy scheme. The scheme applies to charities and civil society organisations if they can demonstrate two things: First, that they suffered a collapse of income above 25%; second, that they are delivering services deemed “essential” to local communities. This was not going to include all of the civil society organisations: some might not have been able to show that they were going to suffer 25% income drop and many are not providing what the State might regard as “essential services”. Advocacy, for example, is sometimes not considered to be an essential service. The government calculated that when the wage subsidy scheme was taken into account, the 400 million Euro income loss dropped to 125 million.  

The Department for rural and community development accepted the case made by the coalition. Its job then was to go and talk with all other government departments that also fund civil society organisations: the Department of Health, the Department of children, the Department of education… After a two-week consideration period, the cabinet announced that there would be a special emergency fund for charities in Ireland to cover the period when the income was lost: the Stability fund for charities for the amount of 40 million. There was an acknowledgement by the government that the 40 million Euro was not the amount that was required. This was just an important start.  

Civil society welcomed the scheme. It was quickly opened, and there were over 1200 organisations that applied for that funding, so the need was most definitely there. From the information we have from the government department, a total application of 180 million Euro was made.  

This collapse in income is going to persist into the future. Many organisations are reorganising their services and have been doing so throughout the crisis period. So phase two of this work is in the context of the budget for the next twelve months that the government will be producing in October. We will be identifying with our members to what extent civil society will be impacted in the long-term and we will make the case with each government department to increase or change the nature of the funding that they provide to civic organisations. For example, to continue to provide services, some organisations have higher needs for personal protective equipment (PPE), or they need to provide employees and staff with additional technical equipment to enable them to work on-site, like laptops, computers, tablets and phones and so on. That involves additional costs. We will need to look into how much any individual subsector will require, and the main lines of communication will be with each sectoral need departments.  

Will the fund for civil society support advocacy work? 

No – they must be delivering front line services. The primary aim of the Stability Fund is to assist the community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises who are experiencing financial difficulties due to a reduction in their fundraising income and/or traded income as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Organisations must be delivering critical front-line services in the Republic of Ireland, before the 1st January 2019, to be eligible to apply.  

What strategies has the Wheel put in place to leverage support for the sector?  

One important aspect was the fact that, in Ireland, the Wheel as the lead organisation for the sector of civil society has very well-developed relationships with senior officials in key government departments.  

A second part of the strategy was that we were not on our own as an organisation. Although we are a prominent organisation in Ireland, we formed an alliance with all the key organisations that work in civil society. We involved the main umbrella organisations working with volunteers, with children and family relations, with people with disabilities, in the area of good governance and charities… By getting all these organisations together into a coalition, we solved a problem for the government department: like any government department, when a crisis hits, it prefers to have one or two strong partners that it can communicate with without being inundated with communication from many different partners. We worked very hard with the members of the coalition to articulate a clear message and to give the government the confidence they needed to devise a solution. No solution will ever be perfect. So when the solution came back, as imperfect as it was – 40 million Euro against 125 million Euro – we were able to provide leadership in our coalition so to make sure that the reaction in civil society was not overly negative.  

The other part of the strategy was to conduct a solid piece of research that could stand of the scrutiny of senior government officials  – and this was very difficult in the time frame that we had at our disposal. People were working 12 to 15 hours days for weeks on end: on weekends, on Saint Patrick day, on Easter holidays… The research had to be suitable to senior officials in government to go themselves to bat in front of the Secretary-General of the central government funding departments. It had to be credible for the government cabinets who ultimately signed off on the provisions. Quality of arguments and solidity of evidence was critical. 

How does dialogue work at the national level? Is there an institutional framework? And was it respected during the crisis? 

There are several components of the framework; it changed over the last 15 years. In particular, it changed from the financial crisis onwards. Civil society has a number of mechanisms to engage with the central government. One of them is the community and voluntary pillar, of which the Wheel is one member. There are 17 civil society organisations in that coalition, and each of those organisations receives some funding from the central government to enable them to conduct research and engage in policy discussions with different departments of State. Amongst those organisations, you have organisations working on specific policy areas: children’s rights organisations, organisations advocating for the needs of older people, organisations representing people who are experiencing poverty, organisations representing people with disabilities and special needs… It is usually two organisations for each of those areas in the community and voluntary sector. There are also organisations like the Wheel that have pan-sectoral responsibilities that deal with the entire sector. Those organisations meet in Parliament about four times a year. Each of them engages with all government departments in bilateral meetings two to three times a year. There is good quality engagement between civil society and policy-making departments in Ireland.  

In addition to that, every year, there is a wider dialogue that takes place between civil society and the government. In recent years, this has been called the “National economic dialogue”. It is a two days event in which all of the members of the Community and volunteering pillar plus a dozen other civil society organisations are invited. That is an opportunity for civil society to engage with senior ministers of the government and talk about policy priorities for the year ahead, in particular in the context of formulation of the national budget. Ten years ago, that partnership was called “Social partnership” instead of “National economic dialogue”. The shift in orientation occurred as a result of perception at that time, twelve years ago, that policy-making in Ireland had become too diversified from the national assembly and had become too corporativist. There was a perception that civil society had too much of an influence. So the dialogue took a step back to be just connected to matters of economics. With the new government in Ireland – which was nominated only one month ago – the orientation is anticipated to shift back toward a social partnership on account of the challenges that the country now faces in the period ahead. Civil society stands in a good place because of the very clear perception by the government that civil society organisations nationally played a major role sustaining people during the crisis in a way that the government could not do on its own. 

I think that during the crisis, the experience of the Wheel and other organisations that we cooperate with, the civil dialogue was like the coming together that can sometimes happen in the event of warfare or of major environmental calamity. Civil society was very well placed to provide evidence and information to the government and act as a communication channel and action partners for the government. Our experience was that there was a great willingness on the side of the government to listen within limits. Indeed, the government was faced with a challenge that required them and all of their civil servants to work 12 to 15 hours a day in the same way I just described in civil society. There was a real sense of everybody pulling together both within the government and in civil society to reduce the impact and reorient services.  

The much more difficult period is what is coming ahead. The immediate crisis has been dealt with, but there are now going to be plenty of challenges and difficulties with lots of contending claims being made to the government, and the government simply will not be in the position to respond to all of those claims. The period ahead will test the extent to which the trusted relationship will continue between civil society and the State. Some of our members believe that despite the government saying they do not intend to return to austerity, it is still very likely that, because of the political reality, there might be some tough decisions that the government will have to make and some that might result in reductions to the funding of the sector.  

Looking at the positive side, we also think that there is scope for the civil society to respond creatively. One example is the collaborative work that members have been engaging with. There may be some organisations to look at more collaborative work and, perhaps, for some organisations, it might be worth to look into the potential for mergers. 

Do you think that the European Union can be an ally for the civic sector? In what way? 

Yes – absolutely. The European Union and the civic sector are natural partners in that they can facilitate mutually inclusive values and goals. The EU values of inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity and non-discrimination are aligned to the work of the community, voluntary and charitable organisations that put social-progress and the common-good on par with economic growth as indicators of a healthy society. 

Public participation, active citizenship and strengthened democracy are key movers to empowering people and communities. With the support of the EU, the civic sector can be a means through which people engage with their European citizenship and participate more fully in democracy. 

The EU can be a great ally to the civic sector by supporting and fostering partnerships with the people and organisations who work hard to ensure that equality, fairness, opportunity and participation are at the forefront of our European way of life. 

What lessons can be learned from the outstanding community and charity mobilisation that can potentially inform a post-COVID-19 institutional and societal response? 

The COVID-19 brought about a host of unprecedented challenges. In response, the country put people’s health and wellbeing first, and the needs of the economy were de-prioritised to bring the virus under control. The network of community and charity organisations played a key role in this response and were well placed, and well connected, in communities, to provide flexible and immediate support and services. The essentialness of these services was starkly evidenced in this crisis, and the vital role charities played throughout the period has been widely acknowledged by the government and the public. 

However, this recognition of the role of the civic sector must be brought forward into statutory and wider societal consciousness in order to rebuild a better society based on this recent experience of solidarity and putting the public good first. 

Although the crisis has highlighted the reach and capabilities of the sector, there are pervasive obstacles that inhibit the work of community and voluntary organisations such as inadequate or uncertain funding, heavy compliance requirements without administrative supports, lack of communication and consultation with statutory funders. 

These should be met with solutions such as multi-annual funding – sustained and strategic resourcing of the community, voluntary and charitable sector. Government departments should increase or change the nature of the funding that they provide to civic organisations. There should also be a shift towards a more partnership approach to working between State and the civic sector, and civil society should be engaged in social dialogue and consultation. 

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