By Sarah Mac Donald - 07 November, 2014
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has welcomed the institution of the new Charities Regulatory Authority as “an event of great importance” and not just “a public relations gesture”.
In his keynote address ‘Embracing the new Realities for Charities’ at the ICTR conference in Dublin on Thursday, the Archbishop said he believed that the overwhelming body of charity organisations genuinely welcomed the emergence of a clear regulatory framework as an important instrument to foster transparency, to ensure public confidence and to foster best practice.
“The charities sector should not be stigmatised for the misdeeds of a few,” he stated.
“When the image of the charities sector is undermined, society is weakened. Society needs the charities sector; it needs a strong civil society,” he said.
Elsewhere in his address, Dr Martin said that having clear norms and common reporting standards which act as benchmarks will be of great help for the entire charity sector.
“The task is not just that of identifying those who are not complying, although this is of vital importance; the task is to lead the sector as a whole to best practice,” he commented.
He said the regulator will above all set out and verify codes of practice regarding governance and financial management.
Elsewhere, discussing the concept of voluntarism and gratuitousness, Archbishop Martin said they are vital for any living society.
“They represent the commitment and the generosity of so many individuals in our society who take up the responsibility of being concerned about the marginalised and those who would otherwise fall through the networks of care and solidarity.”
He said society has an obligation to recognise the service of the men and women who take on responsibility for the public good, from those who voluntarily take on responsibility in boards of governance right down to the day to day hands-on work of caring.
“They play an irreplaceable role in making our society more human. They help us understand what being human means,” he said.
He noted that in the English language, the term charity has become somewhat devalued.
“How often do we hear it said that people need justice and not charity? Charity has been debased into an equivalent of hand-outs and do-goodism,” he suggested.
Charity, some argue, is not the answer to structural injustices which are at the roots of inequalities, deprivation and lack of opportunity in society.
Discussing the characteristics of God’s love, as understood in the Scriptures, the Archbishop said two characteristics which he believes are particularly interesting in the modern world are gratuity and super-abundance.
“I choose these two values as examples because they do not easily match the thought patterns of a market-driven consumer society in which everything is precisely measured out,” he explained.
The work of charity is not just about the delivery of services. It is about enabling people to experience, or re-experience, the “richness of their humanity,” Dr Martin told representatives of the charities sector.
In today’s society many charities are de facto non-profit businesses which deliver a social good. “There is no doubt that market mechanism can be an effective means of delivering social benefit efficiently. But is that enough?” he questioned.
The challenge today is to translate that somewhat paternalistic sense of social responsibility into one adapted to the modern world. Corporate social responsibility is not just generosity; it can be very much a win-win situation for company and for society, he suggested.
But the Archbishop also warned that NGOs can unwittingly become simply the privatised arm of government; with governments outsourcing certain services through them. This is not always without cost to the integrity of the specific vision and mandate of an NGO, he commented.
The distinctions can be even more blurred when for example NGOs and charities draw most of their funding from government.
Charities which are flavour of the month will most likely attract more money from the business sector than some which may really need funding.
We need a new ethics of civil society. Any system of norms must be based on a system of ethics. Today the questions “what is ethics” and “whose ethics” have become a little like Pilate’s question “what is truth”: a rhetorical question with a subjective answer.
He said the very nature of ethics is that personal responsibility must be at its centre.
“We are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our acts. Independent personal responsibility is always at the heart of ethical behaviour.”
He added, “Real corporate responsibility can only be constructed on the foundation of an acute sense of personal responsibility.”