News & Views

Home > News & Views

Five Key Challenges of All-Island and Cross-Border Working

18 Jun 2024
by Andrew Talbot, Collaboration Ireland and Sheila Cahill, Sheila Cahill Consulting
News Image

Share Article

At a recent iCommunity focus group, charity leaders shared their reflections and lived experiences of cross-border and all-island working. All these pioneering charity leaders spoke very positively about their experiences – and were keen to encourage rather than discourage other charities from following in their footsteps. The focus group was followed up with two webinars available to watch on the iCommunity website resources section here and here.

This article is an effort to distil some learning from these conversations – and identify a list of the top five key challenges facing charity leaders who may seek to expand and deliver their programmes or services on an all-island or cross-border basis.   

Challenge One – Building an All-Island Team 

The first challenge common to most charities working on an all-island basis is how to unify and integrate their staff teams whilst working across the two jurisdictions on the island.  

This can be a real difficulty if, say, you have one staff team based in Dublin or Cork which delivers services in the Republic of Ireland – and another staff team based in Newry or Belfast which delivers services in Northern Ireland. 

With many charities now applying hybrid working practices, it can be a real challenge to build a strong and cohesive team which works together effectively, even when their organisation is based in just one jurisdiction. Creating an effective and unified team structure across two jurisdictions is doubly challenging. 

The fact that public holidays are different in the two jurisdictions on the island was identified by a number of charity leaders as an unexpected issue which had arisen when building unified staff teams – and which had needed to be resolved sensitively.  

The charity leaders stressed the importance of making team-building a strategic priority – and scheduling regular (for example, quarterly) whole-team events which bring the entire staff team of the organisation together in one place.  

Another solution has been to pro-actively create mixed teams wherever possible to work on specific projects. This provides an opportunity for staff from the two jurisdictions to work together and develop positive relationships with new colleagues.        

Challenge Two – Funding 

When a charity leader is considering working on an all-island basis, one of the main strategic drivers is often the potential to access new funding opportunities. In a post-Brexit world, this can be a particular driver for Northern Ireland charities eager to access new sources of funding.  

New funding opportunities can however bring new challenges. Some charities have found that funders involved in supporting cross border and all-island work require even greater levels of bureaucracy and quite burdensome levels of monitoring and reporting. Increased red tape and excessively demanding reporting can be particularly difficult to cope with if you are the leader of a small charity with very limited administrative support. 

These issues are made even more challenging and complex where funding is received in one currency, for example Euros, whilst payments out are made in another currency, for example £ sterling. It can also be a challenge for a smaller charity to run two payroll systems with the two currencies.   

Charity leaders planning to expand and deliver their services on an all-island or cross-border basis should therefore set aside sufficient time, energy and resources to deal with higher levels of funder administration, monitoring and reporting – and take the time to put effective processes and procedures in place.   

Challenge Three – Compliance 

Many charity leaders working on an all-island or cross-border basis find that legal and regulatory compliance is a major challenge, particularly in the first year.   

Most well-run charities have developed systems and procedures to ensure that they are compliant with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements within their own jurisdiction.  

For example, Northern Irish charities are used to coping with their compliance obligations in relation to: 

  • Charity Commission for Northern Ireland;  
  • Companies House;  
  • HMRC and Tax matters; and 
  • Specific compliance requirements of their own charity, for example – employment law, safeguarding or health and safety legislation.  

Similarly, charities in the Republic of Ireland are now familiar with the need to be fully compliant in terms of: 

  • Charities Regulator;  
  • Charities Governance Code;  
  • Companies Registration Office; and  
  • Revenue Commissioners. 

Standards of compliance can sometimes be higher in one jurisdiction than the other, and charity leaders generally deal with this by applying the higher standard of compliance across the whole organisation.  

When a charity starts to work and deliver services in a new jurisdiction, charity leaders are on a steep learning curve. The strategic decision to expand into the other jurisdiction on the island is, in many ways, a leap of faith – and compliance with all legal and regulatory requirements can be a serious cause of concern, and even anxiety, for charity leaders until new systems and procedures are put in place.      

Challenge Four – Building Trust 

The serious challenge of building trust in a new geographical area of service delivery was highlighted by a number of charity leaders.  

If people and communities, including their political representatives, have no previous direct experience of you, your organisation and its services, they may be reluctant to trust you and your organisation to deliver services in their area. 

Some charities experienced a degree of pushback and even occasional hostility from communities when they were initially establishing themselves in areas where they had no previous track record for delivery.    

One charity which had experienced exactly this kind of pushback eventually took the decision to move provision of services out of the community setting altogether – and deliver services from more neutral venues, such as hotels.      

Charity leaders therefore need to consider how to win the trust of potential beneficiaries and their communities. How do you positively answer the questions – ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘What benefit are you delivering for our community?’ 

Challenge Five – Governance 

The fifth and final challenge to be highlighted here is the difficulty in identifying the most appropriate legal structure for the delivery of services in the other jurisdiction – and the connected issue of establishing effective governance structures. 

Each charity working on an all-island or cross-border basis operated within its own unique set of circumstances – and there were a number of different approaches to legal structures and governance. Most organisations established linked charities, usually companies limited by guarantee, in each of the two legal jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.  

In terms of more local cross-border working, there were some examples of charities registered in just one jurisdiction delivering services across the border in the other jurisdiction. There were also examples of partnerships between independent charities – where one charity would work with an organisation in the other jurisdiction (for example under a Service Level Agreement) in order to deliver services on a cross-border basis. 

Irrespective of the legal structure for the all-island or cross-border charity, careful thought also has to be given to the board governance arrangements.  

This list of five key challenges could so easily have been expanded into a list of the top 25 key challenges facing charities and their leaders as they expand and deliver services on an all-island or cross-border basis but despite this all the focus group and webinar participants were keen to encourage others to gain the benefits from such work for their beneficiaries and themselves as organisations.  

 More info:

Andrew Talbot: 

Sheila Cahill:

Share Article