Let’s not rush to judgement over Kids Company

I haven’t read every article on the demise of Kids Company. But I’ve read a few. They seem to fall into two categories: how terrible that this should have been allowed to happen. Or that its founder and chief executive Camilla Batmanghelidjh had it coming.

The truth will invariably lie somewhere in between.

I saw Batmanghelidjh speak at the NHS Confederation Conference a few years ago. I was an independent director of the organisation and felt uncomfortable, not so much for the paucity of her delivery (she read her speech of mostly incomprehensible psycho-babble and didn’t connect with what should have been a supportive audience) but more because of her intemperate, unjustified attacks on the services provided by some of our members. They had no right of reply. Nor did they enjoy her freedom to act outside clinical guidelines or good governance.

The following year I met a member of her executive team at another event. Again, psychological gobbledygook was passed off as groundbreaking work. The speaker couldn’t enumerate how many young people were being helped or what this nurturing cost or even consisted of. But she urged us to meet Batmanghelidjh, and appeared to be more than somewhat in her thrall.

I also read a recent leadership article in which Batmanghelidjh spoke in her own words of her legendary poor administration skills, how she needed not one but 5 PAs to keep her organised, and that her office was an extension of her large, warm personality and had been decorated accordingly. The photographs supported this and I recall wondering who had paid for the extraordinary artwork and upholstery.

I have been a trustee of several charities. And it doesn’t matter how small or niche you are, the first rule is that you must follow the rules of the Charity Commission and work towards creating a surplus which will act as a cushion should something go wrong with your funding or some other disaster occur. Small charities should have at least 3 months operating surplus available in cash, larger ones a minimum of 6 months. Why the trustees at Kids Company thought they were exempt from such sensible precautions is hard to say. Alan Yentob and the other trustees must carry a considerable burden of responsibility for the sudden collapse of this high profile charity.

Many people are rushing to put the boot in, as well they might given the patronage Batmanghelidjh enjoyed from senior members of the government and warm-hearted celebrities. This is no doubt fuelled by jealousy because she was such a smart operator. The sight of her continuing to attack and blame dark forces for her fall from grace throws some light on how she used guilt and guile to attract money for a cause that most of us struggle with,  i.e. the mental health of children and young people.

Nevertheless, we need mavericks like her. She may have been economical with the truth about how many young people Kids Company helped. And what they did there may have been less than mainstream. But she has highlighted that there are young people that traditional services are simply not reaching, and that these services are in any case stretched beyond all limits. For that we should applaud her efforts.

I hope that the young people Kids Company helped will find support elsewhere. And that we all wake up to the fact that, if we don’t invest significantly in the mental health of our young people, we are setting the whole country up to fail.

Camilla Batmanghelidjh and others at Kids Company should be considered on their record. Let’s wait for whatever reviews that eventually come out, and not judge any of them, kindly or harshly, until then.

 

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3 comments

  1. I don’t disagree with most of the piece Lisa. However on the issue of reserves, for charities that do deliver public services, it is unrealistic to achieve 6 months reserves and in many cases 3 months is also unachievable. The challenge is that most public funders won’t tolerate surpluses being built up, and in the case of large contracts, they often insist in paying in arrears. However perhaps in the light of the failure by Kids Company, we can once again have a debate about reserves and how public contracts can assist in creating these. What would be required would be for FDs in agencies such as the Partnership Trust to insist that service deliverers create a reserve during the life of the contract and moving forward only fund charities that do have reserves. Clearly that would not change things overnight, but at present it is the opposite of the position adopted by public sector funders.

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  2. I know some public funders act in thus way, Ian. But they are wrong to do so. They need to take their responsibility to users and charity staff more seriously. In the case of Kids Company, we should wait for the review. Undoubtedly mistakes were made in a number if places. Such a dramatic collapse is bad for all concerned.

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