During my trip to Ireland I made several observations about the state of philanthropy in the country. Organized private philanthropy is young in Ireland. While many claim that the Irish people are very charitable (numbers need to be verified, but I believe they refer to small gifts by the average citizen to charitable drives/requests), the practices of making large private gifts or strategic philanthropic initiatives are unusual. The number of private foundations is small and any momentum begun during the boom years has slowed or even come to a grinding halt.
Why is the field young?
First, the supply side has been limited. The country had little surplus wealth until the Celtic Tiger boom years, beginning only 15 years ago. The prevailing opinion towards the Celtic Tiger years is that there was too much greed in the country and not enough surplus wealth directed towards community reinvestment and philanthropy. We know from the experience of other countries that, among other barriers, it often takes time for new wealth to become confident with their wealth and to think about investing surplus wealth in serious philanthropy. In Northern Ireland, a lot of wealth purportedly left the region. According to my hosts there is also a cultural taboo against public philanthropy as it suggests ostentatious display of wealth. In Northern Ireland this is closely related to the history of conflict and fear of “putting one’s head above the parapet.” I saw only a few examples of donors willing to take a public profile and inspire others to give.
The demand side for philanthropy is also weak. Both the governments of the Republic and NI have made significant investments in the safety net, basic services and arts and culture for many years. Thus, most NGO fundraising has been aimed at getting public funds. The fundraising professionals have had limited training in private fundraising. They self identify as good at “filling out forms and boxes to check for government grants.” They believe that they don’t know how to make a compelling case to the private sector for funds; in short they simply “don’t know how to ask.”
The problem is compounded by the fact that the role of board members has not been defined by capacity to give. In fact, most development people would never ask their board members to give of their own personal resources. There is a strong attachment to the model of board members as experts and community voices with significant aversion to the practice of choosing board members based on ability to give. There is a perception that asking for money suggests that an organization is weak.
All of this amounts to a culture that is uncomfortable and unskilled in private philanthropy. While it is acknowledged that the population is generous and charitable, there is a strong sense that very little strategic giving takes place.
The context seems to be similar in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, although the large supply of “peace and reconciliation money” available over many years in Northern Ireland may make it even more challenging. In both places, there are some noteworthy exceptions to the rule; individuals of wealth doing wonderful, strategic work, and institutions – particularly some universities - which have adopted the U.S. model of development.