A fundraising charity run by NUI Galway has come under fire from the country’s charity watchdog over reports of substantial spending on business-class flights and luxury hotels for members of the organisation and their spouses.
The Charities Regulator began investigating the expenditure of the Galway University Foundation, an independent fundraising charity closely linked to the college, in June 2017 after concerns were flagged over spending on business-class flights, taxis and five-star hotels that conflicted with value-for-money policies.
The findings revealed that between 2015 and 2017, the foundation had spent over €48,000 on business-class flights, and that it spent an average of €385 per night on hotels when they were used.
The report said the foundation’s spending on hotels – which involved mostly four and five-star hotels, including the exclusive Shangri-La hotel in Singapore – was “in excess of Revenue guidelines for overseas travel”.
The spending on hotels and travel was “inconsistent with general best practice and value for money considerations”, the report added.
It also found that the foundation spent over €10,000 on 10 trips that flew the spouses of directors to destinations including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Almost €8,000 of this went on flights for the wife of Dr Jim Browne, the president of NUI Galway and then a director of the foundation.
When questioned on the spending on premium flights, Browne said that “we’re expected to be ready for meetings, being there is important and being tired is not giving our best”.
He said that the spending on his wife’s travel was “exceptional” and for “the purpose of building philanthropic relationships”.
The report said it found no evidence that the charity’s policies allowed for spending on directors’ spouses, and added that the foundation had stopped the practice in March.
“The use of business class travel within the charity appeared to form a substantial percentage of flights taken (30 to 40 per cent of flights taken) by certain individuals”, the report found.
Additionally, almost €30,000 was spent on taxi fares, with “no substantial backup documentation on file” explaining the purpose of the journeys. Browne travelled 77 of the 102 taxi rides, stating when interviewed that it was “more efficient and safer to avail of a driver than to risk driving when tired” and that he used taxis when he “could not use public transport to meet the requirements of his diary”.
“The use of charitable monies on a taxi service for long distance travel is generally inconsistent with value for money considerations”, the Regulator’s report said.
The report also said that almost €10,000 had been spent on tickets to Ireland’s international games, and that €61,000 was spent on the Galway Races over the three-year period.
The charity was reported as generally well run, but the investigators warned it needs better oversight of documentation and justification of travel expenses in the future. It also highlighted the potential damage to the charity if Foundation expenditure “appears excessive”.
Established in 1998, the Galway University Foundation has raised over €146 million in donations for NUIG.
In a statement, the Galway University Foundation said it “welcomed” the publication of the regulator’s report. “As requested, we will provide the Charities Regulator with an update on the matters raised in the report”, the foundation said.
In September 2019, the Irish Times reported that publicly funded universities had spent over €1.5 million on flights in 2018, with University College Dublin alone spending over €1 million.