Public info lacking on hospital charity spending

  • Niall Hunter, Editor

How health charities spend their money has returned to the news agenda as the Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) resumes its investigations into the 'top-up' controversy.

The average punter would surmise that the revelations about health agency top-ups and the use of charity funds to boost Central Remedial Clinic senior staff pay and pensions would have heralded a bright new dawn of greater openness from health charities on how they spend their money.

However, any member of the public currently attempting to trawl through health charity websites expecting to be bombarded with detailed information of where every cent donated goes might be a bit disappointed.

Take some of the major hospital charities, for example. They all undoubtedly do good and essential work in raising badly-needed funds, without which many of the institutions they support would find it difficult to survive.

The websites of these charities publish a good deal of upbeat general information about the type of facilities or research projects the millions of euros in public money they raise is spent.

This is usually accompanied by exhortation to donate funds to the individual charity so that hospital services and/or research can be supported.

Nothing wrong with that, but given what has been revealed in recent weeks, it is not enough these days just to give the public sketchy information and general assurances that all your fundraising goes to good causes.

An internet trawl shows that currently, only three of the fundraising arms of the 10 major Dublin adult, maternity and children's hospitals currently provide the public with a detailed breakdown on their websites of how they spend the money they raise.

Of these 10, fundraising charities linked to the Mater, St James's and Temple Street Hospitals are currently the only three that provide detailed income and expenditure accounts on their websites of how they spend the money they raise.

Charities attached to hospitals such as Beaumont, St Vincent's, Tallaght, and Crumlin only provide general accounts on their sites of the areas in which they spend donations, but do not itemise details on how much money they give the hospitals each year and how much of their income goes on salaries, administrative expenses or other overheads.

The recession has led to tough times for health charities and indeed for the people who donate to them. The challenges facing charities have been made greater by the crisis of confidence caused by the CRC scandal.

So anybody who is thinking about supporting a particular health charity will these days be pondering long and hard about it and will try to do any research possible to find out where the money goes, especially in light of recent revelations.

However, given the dearth of detailed information that's out there, this research might take some time.

In many cases, people would have to download and pay for a copy of the accounts of the hospital charities from the Companies Registration Office (CRO) in order to get a more detailed breakdown of their expenditure. In the  absence of a charities register, this is the only source of such information on a many health charities at present.

The CRO research facility, however, costs €2.50 a pop per set of accounts for each year, so getting an overview of which charity you feel deserves your hard-earned cash most might prove to be a little expensive.

It would be so much simpler and much more transparent if hospital charities published a link to their audited accounts or to a detailed statement of their expenditure on the homepage of their websites, but many currently do not do so.

Surely one of the first and most visible items on any charity's website nowadays should be a link telling viewers how they can access details of where every penny raised is spent.

In light of recent controversies, many hospital charities are now posting assurances on their websites that none of the funds raised by their charities goes to salary top-ups. However, in most cases this is not followed up by complete information on their websites about where all the money goes.

Based on information available to date, the only health agency in which it has emerged that substantial funds were used from its fundraising arm up to recently to pay top-ups was the CRC.

Nonetheless, any health charity concerned about 'a falling tide lowering all boats' would do well to provide greater detail on their websites about their expenditure.

An assurance that monies raised do not go to top-ups, while welcome, is not enough if a charity is trying to effectively reassure people that money given to it is money well-spent. Photos of people running marathons or taking part in golf classics or fashion shows, while good to see, are not enough.

The following hospital charities have their own dedicated websites, with a link to these sites on the websites of their related hospitals.

* The St James's Hospital Foundation publishes an annual report its hospital website, and the 2012 report provides a reasonably detailed breakdown of areas of activity the Foundation spends its money on. In 2012, the St James's fundraising arm recorded income of €2.098 million from fundraising and other areas, and spent €114,910 on salaries and €18,302 on fundraising expenses, with €1.6 million going to the hospital.

* The Mater Foundation publishes an annual report on the hospital website, with details of income and expenditure. Its 2012 report provides a balance sheet which shows the Foundation recorded income of €4.028 million, of which just over €500,000 went on admin and governance costs (salary costs are not specified), with €2.4 million provided in grants to the Mater Hospital. 

* Beaumont Hospital Foundation's-site has general details of how its fundraising benefits services. However, while the site includes headings under 'annual report', and 'financial statement', clicking on the links currently provides no details of either of these publications.

* St Vincent's Hospital's Foundation describes the type of projects supported by donations, and exhorting people to support fundraising, but there is no sign of an annual report or annual accounts on the site detailing its income and expenditure.

* Tallaght Hospital has three fundraising arms:The Adelaide Hospital Society, the Meath Foundation and the National Children's Hosital Foundation. However, none of the three fundraising bodies provide details of their income and expenditure accounts on their websites. The Adelaide Society does publish an annual report online, but with no accounts included.

* One of the country's best-known and successful medical charities,the Children's Medical Research Foundation gives general information about the type of projects its funds for Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin, including research and support for facilities at the hospital, but provides no detailed accounts on the site of the charity's income and expenditure.

* The fundraising arm of the The Children's University Hospital, Temple Street, provides an up to date audit of its accounts on its the hospital website. It raised €3.5 million in 2012.

* The Coombe Hospital has a link to its charity arm, the Friends of the Coombe, on its website. It gives general details under 'what your money does' but provides no annual income and expenditure accounts.

* The Rotunda Hospital website has a link to its fundraising arm the Friends of the Rotunda, and provides quite a lot of information about the type of activities supported by fundraising, but no detailed accounts of expenditure can be accessed.

*The National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street has a link to its fundraising foundation on its website, with a lot of general information about projects supported, events being held and guiding principles, but no detailed accounts of exactly where its money raised goes are visible.

Hospitals and charities associated with them undoubtedly do good work in helping sick people, but even after the top-up and CRC controversies there is still a major information gap in terms of how much the public is being told about where fundraising monies go.

As a major step towards steadying public confidence in health charities, hospital charities should start to to provide more upfront comprehensive details on their websites of how they spend their money.

They are all organisations that do good work for our health service. Putting their money where their internet mouthpiece is, given the current aura of uncertainty and public concern, would certainly do them no harm.

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