Philanthropy in Ireland: Promising Opportunities

Ellen Remmer
Global Philanthropy
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Despite the current challenges faced by the philanthropy sector in the Republic of Ireland and Norther Ireland, there are many promising and exciting developments which could be built upon.  From my short visit, I was exposed to the following efforts; undoubtedly just a few among many more.

  • Investment in development staff - Both the community foundations and a number of other arts, cultural and educational institutions that I encountered have invested in recent years in development staff whose primary job is to build private philanthropic support.  The success of exemplars such as Queens University in Belfast, which recently raised $40 million of a $50 million campaign for a new library through private fundraising, will inspire others.  Community foundation development staff members are at early stages of creating relationships with professional advisors, who can be a great referral source and promote organized giving among their client base.
  • Population targeted funding – While I was in Dublin, the Community Foundation of Ireland launched a fund aimed at supporting programs that help disadvantaged women and girls.  Such population targeted funds have had great success in the US and elsewhere, providing a platform for expanding the reach of an institution. 
  • Giving circles – I met several members of one of the few giving circles – perhaps the only one in Northern Ireland with such a moniker.  This particular giving circle is comprised of 30 women who each give 1 pound/day to individuals and small groups serving women and children.  The leaders of this giving circle would like to cascade their efforts into 20 more giving circles. 
  • Public support of private philanthropy – In Northern Ireland, I spoke at a gathering hosted by several ministers, and including members of the Legislative Assembly (Stormont) and the US Consulate.  I also participated in a panel for the business community along with the Lord Mayor of Belfast, and once again the US Consul General and her senior staff.  This city, state and international interest in providing forums to stimulate private philanthropy is promising and I was encouraged in particular by the interest of the US Consulate in helping support efforts to grow private and corporate giving.  The presence of President MacAleese at the Women’s Philanthropy conference in Dublin and her call for more coherence to Irish giving was similarly heartening.
  • Business interest in philanthropy – Everywhere I went, I met individual business leaders – both active and retired - who are practicing very entrepreneurial and engaged private philanthropy.  These individuals need both peer and professional support to ensure that they don’t lose interest due to the challenges of making change.
  • Technology based giving – A collaborative effort in Northern Ireland will be focusing on technological approaches to increasing diaspora giving.  The potential for greater technology based giving is also positively affected by the fact that Ireland boasts the highest percentage of young people in their population of all Europe. 
  • Campaign/strategy to promote giving – The Republic of Ireland hosts Philanthropy Ireland – a 6 year old association of foundations whose mission is to “contribute to and inspire an effective and robust philanthropic sector in Ireland.”  While no such entity exists for Northern Ireland, I believe that there is some fresh energy – certainly among my hosts – to catalyze a similar coherent and strategic effort.  The collaborative effort in NI to increase diaspora giving – following a forum sponsored by the American Ireland Fund – is one such example.  During my visit, the NI hosts made a commitment to write up a report on the series of visits and use its dissemination as a catalyst for more discussion and action.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficult economic times (and I might add, this is relative - my last visit to Ireland was in 1988 when the economic situation was truly dire!) the excitement and commitment to growing philanthropic giving, particularly the practice of high impact, strategic giving, is palpable.  There are many barriers to realizing this possibility, some of which I’ve identified in these posts.  There are also some islands of success, providing evidence to the disheartened that private strategic philanthropy can find a powerful place in the civic fabric of both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

If a transformation in culture and quantity of giving is to transpire, it will be very important for the different players to run experiments in collaboration and come together to craft an integrated strategy for change.  I believe this is possible and hope that the leaders who hosted my visit will take on this challenge together.