Chartered Accountants and the third sector

Aug 01, 2019
Paula Nyland considers how Chartered Accountants involved in the third sector can improve transparency and prosperity to the benefit of charities and society at large.

The third sector on the island of Ireland impacts directly or indirectly on the work of every Chartered Accountant, whether as a director/trustee, audit practitioner, employee or volunteer. In the Republic of Ireland alone, the sector includes 9,500 non-profits that are incorporated as companies, more than 4,000 primary or secondary schools, and 800 friendly societies, co-operatives, trade unions, professional associations, political parties or charter bodies. Another 15,000 or so are unincorporated associations, clubs and societies.

Chartered Accountants are critical to supporting and directing this sector, and it’s important that they are aware of some of the impacts of changing regulatory conditions on their practice. 

Greater financial transparency and accountability

Since 2014, when it was established under the Charities Act, 2009, the Charities Regulator in the Republic of Ireland has been working to bring greater public transparency and regulatory accountability to the work of the charity sector – about one-third of all non-profits. The Regulator now plans to introduce new regulations that will clarify the reporting requirements for charities in the form of an Irish version of Charities SORP.

Charities SORP is a module of FRS 102, which provides guidance on financial accounting and reporting for charitable entities. It is currently mandatory for UK charities, but only recommended for charities in Ireland. Based on our analysis of all of the financial statements filed by Irish non-profits since 2015, Benefacts has discovered that just 12% of Ireland’s incorporated charities currently file financial statements using Charities SORP on a voluntary basis.

This will change when the forthcoming regulations are introduced. All larger incorporated charities (more than €250,000 in income or expenditure) will be required to meet these higher standards of disclosure, and will no longer be permitted to file abridged accounts. Currently, the level of abridgement in charities’ accounts here is running at 37%, and this is something the Charities Regulator has repeatedly spoken out on – most recently after the launch of Benefacts’ Sector Analysis Report in April 2019.

For the audit profession, there is a clear need to become familiar with these reporting standards, because the question is no longer whether Charities SORP will become a requirement for larger charities in the Republic of Ireland, but when.

Guidelines on fundraising and internal control

Even in advance of the new regulations on financial reporting, the Charities Regulator has been active in setting standards for the charity sector, with guidelines for fundraising from the public issued in November 2017 and a governance code issued at the end of 2018. These measures, coupled with the Internal Financial Controls Guidelines for Charities, have created a strong foundation for control within the regulated charity sector, in particular for the people serving on the boards of charities and non-profits.

VAT repayment scheme 

Elsewhere in Government, there have been measures to respond to campaigns from within the sector. Following years of lobbying to change the VAT regime for charities, Government introduced a new scheme that has made €5 million available for recovery annually by charities against VAT paid from non-statutory or non-public funds for costs after 1 January 2018. The deadline for 2018 claims was
30 June 2019.

DPER Circular 13 of 2014

Without having the full force of regulations, the standards for financial disclosures promulgated by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) nonetheless deserve to be more widely understood by the accountancy profession. Circular 13 of 2014 is the most important statement of the disclosure standards that are expected of all entities receiving State aid, and it is the responsibility of every government funder to ensure that these are being followed. They set out the requirements for reporting every source of government funding, the type of funding provided (loan, current or capital grant, service fee), the purposes of the funding and the year in which funding is being accounted for.

Abridged accounts do not meet the standards of DPER 13/2014, nor do accounts prepared using the new standard for micro-enterprises, FRS 105.

FRS 105 (micro entities)

When the Companies (Accounting) Act 2017 was commenced on 9 June 2017, it introduced the concept of the Micro Companies Regime, which is provided for in Section 280 of the Companies Act 2014. This allows smaller companies (with two of the following conditions: turnover of €700,000 or less, balance sheet total of €350,000 or less, and no more than 10 employees) to prepare financial statements under FRS 105 instead of FRS 102. FRS 105 provides for minimum disclosures: no directors’ report, no requirement to disclose directors’ remuneration, no disclosure of salary costs or employee numbers. In 2017, 5% of non-profit companies reported to the CRO using this standard, including some that receive funding from the public or from the State. 
Charities in the UK are not permitted to report using FRS 105, but as yet there is no such regulation in the Republic of Ireland.

The burdens of disclosure

Many Irish non-profit organisations receive funding from more than one source – some from many sources, as will be clear from even a cursory glance at the listings of well-known names on www.benefacts.ie. As well as multiple funding sources, most major charities are regulated many times over, if you count the oversight responsibilities of the CRO/ODCE, the Charities Regulator, the Housing Regulator, Revenue, HIQA et al. The high administration and compliance burden represents a real cost – including, of course, the cost of audit fees.

At a minimum, of course, company directors must confirm that the company can continue as a going concern; Charities SORP requires that trustees disclose their policy for the maintenance of financial reserves and it is expected that these will reflect a prudent approach to maintaining funds to see them through periods of unexpected difficulty.

These are sensible, indeed fundamental, principles and the annual financial reporting cycle is intended to give confidence to all stakeholders that the directors/trustees fully understand their responsibilities and are fulfilling the duties of care, diligence and skill enjoined on them. The €20 million or so currently spent by non-profit companies on audit fees (as yet the public has no access to the accounts of unincorporated charities) should be money well spent. The better the quality of the financial statements, the more these can play a role in initiatives being explored by a number of Government agencies to explore cost-saving “tell-us-once” solutions, supported by Benefacts.

Who is accountable?

Using current data from filings to the CRO and the Charities Regulator, Benefacts reported in Q1 2019 that 81,500 people are currently serving in the governance of Irish non-profit companies and charities. 49,000 of these serve as the directors of 9,500 non-profit companies, and the rest are the trustees of unincorporated charities. All are subject to regulation, and they include many members of Chartered Accountants Ireland. 

By any standard, this is a large sector with more than 163,000 employees and an aggregate turnover in 2017 of €12 billion, €5.9 billion of which came from the State (8.4% of all current public expenditure in that year). Most of this funding was concentrated in only 1% of all the bodies in the sector.

Voluntary bodies enjoy some of the highest levels of trust in our society, but it has become clearer in recent years that this trust does not spring from an inexhaustible reservoir. It must be continuously invested in and replenished by the work of every non-profit, most especially in the form of ample and transparent public disclosure – about their values, their work, its impacts, and the sources of their funding. Above all, the board carries responsibility for setting a tone of transparency and accountability, and directors/trustees need to be aware of their personal responsibilities in this regard. As professionals, we are often looked to by our friends and family, by our clients, or by our fellow directors/trustees for advice or leadership. We all know that in any kind of business, the consequence of a loss of public confidence can be dire; in non-profits, it can be fatal.
 
Paula Nyland FCA is Head of Finance & Operations at Benefacts and Co-Chair of the Non-Profit and Charities Members Group at Chartered Accountants Ireland.