Ellen’s Week | Giving and receiving

As I drove into our village on Sunday afternoon, I got a cheery wave from a tractor-driving bunny rabbit.

As I drove into our village on Sunday afternoon, I got a cheery wave from a tractor-driving bunny rabbit. Yes, you read right. A life size rabbit driving a tractor. Close behind was Snow White, also driving a tractor. A male Snow White at that.  No, I hadn’t been on the sauce.

There followed a convoy of tractors of all shapes, sizes and vintages. It was, of course, a sponsored tractor run, one of many that’ll probably be run for charity this year.

During the week I bought tickets for a draw organised by Waterford RNLI, sponsored a family member doing a headshave as part of the ‘Shave or Dye’ campaign, sponsored my niece who is taking part in a road race as a fundraiser for Cystic Fibrosis,  and dropped a few euro in the bucket of a woman collecting outside the local supermarket for the town’s Lourdes Invalid Fund.

My choice would be to give, in a more organised way, to those charities I have a particular affinity for but I normally do support various different good causes when I’m approached. I think I do it more so because I admire the people who give their time to collect. It’s not easy to be a charity ‘chugger’ – rattling a bucket at passersby in the hope they’ll donate some coins. Nor is it easy to stand outside a supermarket selling tickets.

It’s an unenviable task too to approach family members, relatives and work colleagues as part of fundraising efforts. It’s especially challenging these days, as anyone will tell you, with people’s disposable income cut and so many charities and good causes clamouring for funds.

That’s why the revelations of recent weeks about the enormous salary of Rehab’s former Chief Executive Angela Kerins and the hundreds of thousands of euro in payments former Fine Gael party strategist Frank Flannery got in consultancy fees for work he did on behalf of the charity and their refusal to appear before the Public Accounts Committee of the Dail last week to answer questions is so dispiriting.

It was bad enough, back in January, when it was discovered that the former Chief Executive of the Central Remedial Clinic, had received a golden handshake of €742,000 after admitting when questioned initially only to a pension pay-off of €200,000, and that the money used to fund it came from donations and was paid out of accounts held by the Friends and Supporters of the CRC.

Public trust was greatly diminished as a result and charities across the board reported they were suffering. Fundraising Ireland said charity donations had plunged by 40% in the wake of the top-ups controversy. Deirdre Garvey, Chief Executive of The Wheel, the representative network for the voluntary sector in Ireland, said: “A crisis of public confidence has engulfed the charity sector since the revelations about the failures at the Central Remedial Clinic.” That’s been greatly compounded by what’s happened at Rehab.

What a sickening blow it must be to kind, well intentioned people who ran events and took up collections on behalf of those two bodies, some of them fundraising over many years. It’s hoped that they are the exception.

We need to trust those charities we give to to use our money to help those people they were set up to help; not to pay exorbitant salaries to those who head them up. At least now a charity regulator is to be appointed. It’s not a minute too soon.

I was involved in a major fundraiser a few years ago, to build a brand new oncology unit at the local hospital in the town where I worked. An ambitious project, by all accounts. We needed to raise €1M and we wanted to do it in one year. Conditions at the existing unit were seriously under par.

Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy had to crowd into a small room that afforded little privacy or comfort. It was so small that chairs couldn’t even be reclined. There was no room to bring in a family member or friend. The kitchen was directly across the hall from the room, not ideal for patients made nauseous by the treatment.

The radio station I worked with spearheaded the project. It worked spectacularly well. As a broadcaster I talked regularly about it on air, explaining what it was we wanted to do and how people could help. We divided the county into four and appointed a person in each area to oversee a committee. They in turn encouraged local groups, clubs and organisations to be part of it by running fundraisers.

They responded with enthusiasm, imagination, commitment, effort and community spirit in spades. We had everything from sponsored shaves to coffee mornings and cake sales, family fun days to vintage car runs and rallies, music nights in pubs and community halls, cookery demonstrations, non-uniform days, American tea parties, and card drives.

A fun event that stands out was a ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ night organised by a group of women who brought and sold their handbags and good dresses and party wear and bought more. It raised €1,800.

As PRO, it was my job to go out into communities to give a presentation on the existing facilities, and show people what we wanted to build. I’d tell groups how they could help. I visited towns, villages and practically every parish and half parish in the county. I met GAA players, ICA women, Active Retirement Groups, vintage car club members, pre-school playgroup committees, people from all sections of local communities.

It was a lot of work. I was out every night of the week for six months, first talking up the project and getting groups and individuals involved and returning when they’d hold a second night, usually in the local pub, where the big cheque would be presented by them, congratulations delivered by me, photos taken for the local paper followed by an evening of craic and merriment. As a sociable person generally, I was in my element.

The huge generosity of spirit and the tremendous community effort that was demonstrated was just so life-affirming. Two particular memories of our fundraising drive remain clear. One was a family day attended by nearly 2,000 people. During the day, amid the face-painting and the bouncy castles, the music and the picnics, pink balloons were released by people in memory of a loved one they’d lost to cancer. Looking up to see them fill the sky made for a very poignant moment.

The second was a tattered small envelope delivered to me personally by a local TD. It was, he told me, a donation for the fund from an elderly man in his locality, who wished to remain anonymous. Inside was €1,000 in cash. No name or address to acknowledge his contribution. I was moved to tears.

After six months we had to put the brakes on. At seven months we stopped, having exceeded our target five months ahead of time. We’d raised €1.6M in seven months.

The official opening of the new unit was a proud day. It was broadcast live on the radio. The purpose-built, bright, airy, spacious new facility had individual bays for patients to have their treatment in fully reclining chairs if they so wished. Overhead, were individual TVs to watch, beside them consoles to plug headphones into to listen to music or the radio. Beside them space for someone to sit with them. There were separate consulting rooms. A big aquarium decorated the reception area. Beautiful artwork adorned the walls. There was comfort, dignity and privacy.

Greedy people who damage the kind of goodwill that built that unit deserve public opprobrium. They’re a disgrace.