11 April, 2016

People from Benefacts staff and Board met an invited group of sector leaders in Airfield House, Dundrum on 5th April, to talk about the planned launch of the new benefacts.ie/beta website, and discuss the kinds of impact it might have on the nonprofit community. Also present were some members of Benefacts stakeholders forum, and Mary Sutton, director of the Atlantic Philanthropy’s Ireland office.

The meeting got a preview of the new website, and a presentation about how it had been developed and built. Mary Sutton talked about the absolute value of greater public disclosure in an era when trust in nonprofits had suffered so much damage. She welcomed the idea that this public transparency initiative was getting underway simultaneously with the roll-out of charity regulation, and talked about how better data could support the work of mission-driven organisations.

Benefacts Board member Brian Sheehan drew an analogy with the agriculture sector – comparable in scale with the nonprofit sector but benefiting from significantly more public recognition, policy and practical supports.

Most people were positive about it, but various speakers discussed their concerns about benefacts.ie – that financial data published on benefacts.ie could be misinterpreted, that the public might not realise that nonprofit directors/trustees listed on the website are unpaid, that the description of an organisation’s purpose taken from its constitution might be out of date.

For us, this was a really valuable opportunity to understand the impact this initiative is likely to have on nonprofits. Over the last ten years there have been surveys and reports that have set out to explain the profile of the sector, but by their nature they have been limited in scope, and they start going out of date as soon as they are published.

Free online access to live data holds out the promise of all kinds of opportunities for nonprofits – for better-informed decisions, for restoring public trust, for interfacing more easily with government – but equally it opened up questions for people about Benefacts role as the curator of all of this data.

This is an important question and one we will come back to, as the website goes live and all kinds of people – journalists, researchers, public servants, the general public, young and old – start to be better informed about the work of Irish nonprofits.