Ask the question – how talking about philanthropy can make it happen

1 Jun 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 1 Jun 2018

Siofra Healy (front, centre) and representatives from some of the other groups involved with Philanthropy Fortnight
Siofra Healy (front, centre) and representatives from some of the other groups involved with Philanthropy Fortnight

The Community Foundation’s Philanthropy Fortnight was a success – and the organisation says the more we talk about donations, the more we will see.

Philanthropy happens in all sorts of ways.

Donations range from the establishment of a huge multifaceted trust, to pocket change thrown in a bucket, to volunteers giving up their time.

How these donations are collated and used is just as varied. The charitable sector ranges from large organisations with a full team of backroom staff, including fundraisers, to tiny community groups relying solely on volunteers.

This variety is a good thing but it means that, for those looking to promote and curate the sector, a plurality of approaches and some subtlety are required.

Philanthropy Fortnight, which took place in May, is a series of events organised by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI) - alongside its partners the Belfast Charitable Society, Arts & Business NI, Will to Give and the Fermanagh Trust - which has now been running for six years and is going from strength to strength.

The Community Foundation is itself an independent funder but its role is also about providing expertise in a variety of ways - including connecting potential donors with organisations and causes they believe in, and ensuring all support goes where it is really needed.

Síofra Healy, the Community Foundations Director of Philanthropy, told Scope that the fortnight is about “encouraging, recognising and celebrating” the act of donation.

“There are around 15,000 charities or community groups in Northern Ireland and they are hugely engaged in their local community, doing some fantastic work, and they are supported by people volunteering for them.

“Many don't have any paid staff, and certainly don't have professional fundraisers. Philanthropy Fortnight is about celebrating that and the work that often goes on unseen.

“It has been quite a difficult time for some charities recently and so this is to celebrate what happens on the ground.”

Tough, not impossible

There are several aspects to that difficult time – including both tightened purse strings from many traditional funding streams, and reputational damage to the sector due to some appalling recent scandals, primarily involving multinational NGOs such as Oxfam.

However, difficult does not mean terrible.

Ms Healy continued: “Northern Ireland is a generous nation and trust in charities here is much higher than in the rest of the UK. However, the headline news has been much more negative and does affect confidence in the sector.

“That's not to say it shouldn't be highlighted but we also need to celebrate the brilliant work that goes on and often is not highlighted. As the Community Foundation, our role is to connect those community groups with funders that want to support them.

“Often it will be those small groups in the local community that will struggle to reach funders, and where funders will struggle to reach them - whether they are based in NI or elsewhere.”

Several events took place throughout Philanthropy Fortnight, each with their own particular flavour, each looking at some of the different connections that need to be made for a successful philanthropic environment – and each showing a different side of the Community Foundation’s work.

One of its events was Philanthropy for Professional Advisors, which was pitched at professionals such as accountants, solicitors and wealth managers, to show them how a knowledge of philanthropic objectives could be a competitive advantage for them in their line of work.

“We brought them together for a discussion about philanthropy and how to talk about philanthropy with their clients, including the benefits for the client, benefits for the community and also the benefits for the advisors themselves.”

Ms Healy said this sort of approach is part of a wider need to be more open about the hows, whys and wherefores of charity.

“There is a cultural change that needs to happen in Northern Ireland. We are still quite shy talking about money and talking about philanthropy, even though it’s something many of us are involved in.

“One of the biggest barriers to giving is people’s reluctance to ask. Rarely do you ask for something and the answer is an out and out no – and it’s never a ‘no, never’, you can always change your approach and go back again - so the more conversations we can have about giving the better.”


Other events included looks at the work of funds like the Fisher Foundation and the Barbour Fund; a breakfast with donors to discuss the impact of peace initiatives since the Good Friday Agreement; a discussion about how the arts can raise funds from its audiences; a focus on organisations supported by the Acorn Trust; and a look at the importance of legacy giving.

Over £10,000 was also raised at an event called Charity Champions, where three different charities outlined the work they do to do with issues of human trafficking, suicide, and LGBT mental health.

  • Flourish NI works with victims of human trafficking – doing great work with people in tremendously vulnerable situations, despite only having one full-time member of staff (a frontline social worker) and otherwise relying on volunteers, without any statutory funding.
  • PIPS is an organisation that was built from the ground up in North Belfast after a series of 14 tragic suicides of young people in the community over ten years ago – and, again, they are an organisation that relies entirely on donations and counsellors volunteering their time for free.
  • The Rainbow Project is one of the largest charities dedicated to LGBT issues. The LGBT community is just about the most disadvantaged in NI, when it comes to mental health.

The focus of this event – broadly speaking, mental health – was chosen because of consistent results emerging from CFNI polling.

“We, as a foundation, do annual research into what communities tell us are their main priorities and health and wellbeing would be the top one, followed by education and skills, and then the economy would be third.”

Altogether, Philanthropy Fortnight fits well with the Community Foundation’s own aims.

One of their key objectives is to provide guidance to organisations who know their own core mission well but which can struggle with the administrative burden of being a charity or social enterprise.

In Northern Ireland, 80% of all donations go to 20% of charities. Smaller groups can be left isolated.

“That’s where we come in, because the Community Foundation is an independent funder, so we can prioritise those groups, and maybe take more risks - and by that I don't mean fund something that we shouldn't be funding it, I mean funding something that's unpopular or that is emerging.

“Of course we do due diligence, but we are very careful about what we ask groups to do with funding, in terms of reporting back. We are not necessarily going to ask for reports every quarter or receipts for every bus trip.”

Flexibility is important. Philanthropy happens in all sorts of ways and the shape and nature of charities could scarcely be more varied.

Initiatives like this are a great help and its approaches should be applauded – and replicated. We all need to talk about philanthropy a little bit more.

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