A Turning Point for Philanthropy in Ireland

Ireland, recently placed 4th in the CAF World Giving Index 2014, is a country that has benefited greatly from philanthropy. However research by Philanthropy Ireland in 2011, found that only 25% the population understood the term philanthropy. Ironically many believe that Ireland provides the classic example of a country where the combination of philanthropy and policy makers has improved the lives of future generations dramatically. So let us look at how Ireland as a country has benefited from philanthropy and yet why philanthropy is now facing it’s greatest ever challenge.

Firstly, it is important to explain that the high ranking on the Giving Index owes much to the provision of overseas famine and relief aid, where Irish people have always been generous donors. This is due to the legacy of The Great Famine of 1845 – 1850 in Ireland, where approximately 1.5 million people died of starvation or related diseases and another 2 million emigrated from Ireland, mainly to the USA. In fact research from 2011 found that 89% of Irish adults give to charity compared to 58% in the UK or 40% in Germany. Although most Irish people give to charity, only 15% donate in a planned and regular way, i.e. by way of a percentage of their income through direct debit.

With a population of 4.5 million, Ireland has been an independent country since 1921, with our own constitution, head of State and parliament.

Currently home to nine of the top 10 Global Software Companies, Pharmaceutical companies and Medical device companies in April of this year Ireland was selected by Forbes magazine as “The Best Country for Business.” One of the key reasons for this concentration of high tech companies in Ireland is the fact that Ireland, while having the youngest population in Europe, also produces the most highly employable graduates in the EU. But Ireland was not always like this and philanthropy has been a key factor in creating these highly employable graduates responsible for shaping our current economy.

In the 1980s Ireland had an unemployment rate of almost 18% and high levels of emigration, particularly among young people. It was to a country in economic turmoil that an American with Irish origins arrived and visited the University of Limerick. Chuck Feeney was later to summarize his view of third level education in Ireland at that time as “Irish education had not kept pace and I just had the experience in my life of realizing that it is with educated people you can achieve more and so we wanted to reinforce the structure of the Universities.” [1]

Feeney began to invest in building the campus at the University of Limerick, with strict guidelines set out in relation to confidentially. Inspired by the success of his philanthropy in Limerick, Feeney began similar donations to other Universities in Ireland “which were all state – funded and lacking capital to expand and modernize.”[2] The results were “new libraries, science buildings, and student villages going up on every campus.” [3] The success encouraged Feeney but he was impatient and wanted to scale up dramatically. This led to his decision to make one major philanthropic act, which was to transform third level education in Ireland and provide the platform for the direct foreign investment in Ireland today. For the first time in their history, Atlantic Philanthropies pledged a matching donation with a sovereign government. The resulting US$250M investment transformed third level education and research in Ireland, with long-term positive effects for all of the economy. The success of this investment also ensured that Irish government support for research in universities would be transformed. Colin McRea of Atlantic Philanthropies described the investment as “the single most successful thing that Atlantic has done anywhere in the world.”[4]

The success of Atlantic Philanthropy inspired other individual business people to engage in philanthropy. The Irish based One Foundation, founded by Declan Ryan who like Chuck Feeney believes in giving while living, was founded to focus on disadvantaged young people. Started in 2004 it had a 10-year self-imposed lifespan. During their 10 years The One Foundation had their work continually and independently evaluated by The Center for Effective Philanthropy. Other wealthy individuals such as The Naughton Family, Denis O Brien, JP McManus, Dermot Desmond and Maurice Healy are all Irish born philanthropists who have contributed greatly over the past decade to education, the Arts and particularly initiatives supporting young people. The economic downturn has, however, had a major effect on the wealth of all involved in property development with the related loss of potential major philanthropists.

Today Ireland faces a major challenge in the area of philanthropy. Atlantic Philanthropy has a completion date of 2016 and One Foundation closed in December 2013 having completed their planned 10 years and €85 million spend. With an economy that is in recovery from a major recession, an austerity policy policed by the International Monetary Fund and major scandals at some of our biggest charities, Ireland now urgently needs an identifiable public champion for philanthropy.

Currently there appears to be no sense of urgency within government to drive change in relation to policy on philanthropy, especially in the reform of a tax system, which currently “offers meager benefits to donors” (Lillington 2014). One organization working to close the vacuum is Philanthropy Ireland, which aims “to increase the level of philanthropy in Ireland and to expand the community of engaged donors who are regular, strategic, long-term contributors to good causes.” [5] With the focus now on finding the next Chuck Feeney and a concerted effort to improve “a poor tradition of corporate philanthropy in Ireland’ (Lillington 2014) Ireland faces new challenges to continue to benefit from strategic philanthropy.

This post is part of an occasional series on the CEP Blog providing international perspectives on philanthropy and foundation effectiveness. Other posts in the series can be found here.

Bernard Kirk is a teacher who is currently Director of the Galway Education Centre. A board member of Philanthropy Ireland he advises Foundations and philanthropists. In 2013 he was conferred with a Masters in Science by the National University of Ireland, Galway for his voluntary contribution to education in Ireland. You can follow him on Twitter @kirkber.


[1] New Decade TV & Film Ltd. (atlanticphil). (2010, June 5) Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMcjxe8slYI

[2]O’ Clery C. (2007) The Billionaire Who Wasn’t – How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune (New York: Public Affairs)

[3]O’ Clery p 269

[4]O’ Clery p 275

[5]Philanthropy Ireland. http://www.philanthropy.ie/about-us/vision-and-mission/ accessed on 2014-12-04

“Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story”. YouTube. 2010-06-05. Retrieved 2014-12-04.

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