The Community Foundation for Ireland - Vision for an equal Ireland

The Community Foundation for Ireland first began supporting the DCU Access Programme in 2015 and have since  gone on to support DCU’s Write to Read literacy project. In this piece, Denise Charlton, Community Foundation for Ireland CEO, describes what inspired them to support these projects and how DCU helps The Community Foundation for Ireland to achieve their vision of an equal Ireland where communities thrive.

The Community Foundation for Ireland has provided philanthropic support to two DCU projects which work to address educational disadvantage and to enable young people to fulfil their potential in life. What inspired you to support the Write to Read literacy project and DCU’s Access Programme?

The mission of The Community Foundation for Ireland, our donors and the grantee organisations we work with on the ground is ‘equality for all in thriving communities.’ It has guided us for 21 years and has seen us invest over €75 million across Ireland.

Both DCU’s Write to Read and Access Programme share this vision. Equality lies at the very core of both initiatives in that they seek to combat disadvantage in all forms and seek to give opportunity to people. Both have incredibly strong records and have been recognised nationally and internationally for the work they are doing. Write to Read and its partnership with disadvantaged schools is combatting literacy in a very tangible and real way which has a lifelong impact. The Access Programme has grown from six students in 1989 to over 1,200 today. They are drawn from all parts of Ireland. Combined, both projects send a powerful signal of the ethos of DCU. It is clear to a foundation based on equality, and with donors who share that vision, that both programmes are powerful ways in which we can achieve our equality goals.

The Community Foundation for Ireland’s vision is for an Ireland where people are equal and communities thrive. To achieve this, you distribute grants to a wide range of not-for-profit organisations across our island. What role do you believe universities like DCU can play as partners in achieving this vision?

Universities are drivers for change. Countless campaigns for positive social change have come from our campuses, led by students and academics. As a foundation which takes an evidence based approach, we value the positive contribution of research and academia both in terms of encouraging debate, raising questions and influencing opinions.

Our universities too offer opportunity. It is in the campuses that people who would otherwise be vulnerable, disadvantaged or even discriminated against, can receive new opportunities. Opportunities not just in terms of their own personal lives but also to become leaders and mentors in their communities. The vibrancy, energy and movements which spring from our universities have always helped shape Ireland. They have been catalysts for change.

We recognise the role they can play in finding solutions to climate change, poverty, food poverty and to inequality in all its forms. The Community Foundation for Ireland also recognises the ability of researchers in identifying emerging trends which have the impact of deepening inequality. We only have to look in recent months at how the collapse of income in some sectors of the economy, the digital divide, and the rural-urban divide have had a negative impact. The Community Foundation for Ireland stands with those finding solutions to these deepening challenges.

DCU’s Access Outreach Programme and Write to Read Literacy Project were just two projects out of 672 that received grants through CFI’s RTÉ Does Comic Relief Fund to adapt their services to the challenges of Covid-19. What are the most concerning issues which The Community Foundation is hearing about from your stakeholders across Ireland during this pandemic?

RTÉ Does Comic Relief was unique. It was a partnership which brought together television viewers, private and corporate donors as well as Government. The combined effort saw €5.8 million generated to assist vulnerable people. In consultation with community groups, charities and advocates, two key areas of immediate need were identified. These were the need to keep volunteers, community workers and others on the ground stay safe from the virus and the need to move services online by building up a digital infrastructure.

The range of projects supported was huge. Everything from Covid-safe therapeutic horse-riding for sick children, online aftercare for people who have suffered a stroke, to providing digital support for lifeboats was covered. In terms of the Arts, we were able to support online tea dances for people with dementia and their carers, community activities went online and we gave laptops to children in direct provision so they could attend virtual classrooms.

In addition to immediate needs, some long-term challenges came to the fore, not least a spike in domestic violence reports which must surely mean that we have finally reached a tipping point in a problem which has been hidden in plain sight for too long. We also see criminals continuing to line their pockets during Covid-19. Human trafficking for sexual exploitation and prostitution continued to profit on human rights abuses across Ireland. Even as we emerge from the pandemic, the issue of food poverty is emerging and looks set to be one which will require an immediate response.

Despite the generosity of our donors and the Irish people, it is a reality that every time we open for grant applications the level of demand is many times that of the support which is available.

The huge displays of generosity from the Irish public have been striking during this pandemic, with record-breaking donations to the RTÉ Does Comic Relief Fund and The Late Late Toy Show Appeal. Do you think the public’s willingness to donate to broader, strategic funds signifies a long-term shift in the Irish public’s attitude towards philanthropy?

Philanthropy is largely untapped in this country. As a result communities are often left fire-fighting social issues instead of looking for solutions to end problems once and for all. The role philanthropy has played during the pandemic has increased awareness – but increased it from a very low base. The reality is we are way behind our European neighbours, the United States and similarly sized countries like New Zealand.

The Government is committed to delivering a new policy on philanthropy, which is due this year. The Community Foundation for Ireland is ready to work with all policymakers and those who have an interest in our work to ensure we get a policy which grows philanthropy and its impact. Philanthropists and the strategic support they bring often provides an opportunity to break the cycle. To find solutions. To make a new start. It is our hope that Government will recognise this.