[Disclaimer: this is a bit of a rant, these are just my opinions!]
The spectacular, and very public, implosion of the charity Kids Company took my breath away.
(If you are wondering, “What on earth are you talking about Becca?”, then you can find out about what’s been going on here).
I found myself both relieved and saddened as I read article after article about its demise.
You see, in my former, pre-mama life, I worked for 15 years in the charity sector. And mostly with organisations that sought to help the kind of young people Kids Company worked with. Disaffected youth. Largely-forgotten young people. Sidelined by poverty, inequality and societal expectations. Although I mostly worked behind the scenes – in fundraising and strategy, I had the privilege of getting to know some of the young people along the way. I cared very much for them. I still do.
This kind of work was never glamourous. We were mostly struggling to survive in unglamorous buildings, in unglamorous locations and doing unglamorous work. Yet, from a distance, Kids Company seemed different. With celebrities lining up to endorse and donate to their work, and close government links that led to huge grants, I sometimes envied them. It seemed as though they could do nothing wrong.
The truth is that there is nothing glamorous about teenage skunk addiction, or a dad with addictions. It’s not ok to be left to your own devices aged 13, or to live with a mum whose obsessive hoarding renders your home inhabitable. And the thing is Camila Batmangelijh – the charismatic founder and CEO of Kids Company – knew this.
I would never question her passion for young people or the years of investment in those who had been branded failures by mainstream society. I don’t doubt her hours of work with marginalised young people behind the scenes.
But – and this is the big but – no amount of charm or celebrity-endorsement or government-backing or very-best-intention should give a charity (or actually) a sense that they are above or beyond the law. It doesn’t matter how “worthy” your cause. How big your bank balance. How inspirational your leader. You must be held accountable.
(Actually, the same is true for any organisation).
If we allow powerful people to do as they please; if we excuse controlling, manipulative behaviour as eccentricity, then we become complicit. If we silence the whistleblowers, the truth tellers, we become complicit. If we enable and encourage co-dependency, we end up further damaging those we started out trying to help.
And so, back to Kids Company.
I first heard, on the charity grapevine, about dodgy financial dealings at KC over two years ago. In fact, it was like a badly kept secret in the sector. We knew it wasn’t ok – the inflated figures, the lack of financial accountability – but it seemed as though the cult of charisma would win the day. And I always found myself at the other end of the size-and-budget-spectrum. Working with really small, really wonderful, really local charities. We managed to do some great stuff on a real shoestring. And every time I read about the latest multi-million pound donation to Kids Company, I felt both incredulous and incensed. I would wonder how they could keep spending so many millions, while most of us could only dream of such financial abundance.
And yet, it seems that the many, many millions weren’t enough. It seems that, in spite of more money than most charities can ever dream of, Kids Company needed more. And more. And more. Somehow, they had almost no “reserves” (charity speak for savings). No financial cushion. I find this absolutely extraordinary. Millions of pounds donated and yet none was put aside. How is this possible? How is this responsible? I read yesterday that they spent £100,000 on a party for young people on Christmas Day. Yet they couldn’t pay their National Insurance bill (and somehow persuaded HMRC to write most of it off). Really?
Is this how charities should be run?
I see no remorse at all in the founder of Kids Company, and self-professed children’s champion, Camila Batmanghelidjh. No humility. No recognition that she screwed up. She blames others and casts herself as the victim. In doing so, the lives of damaged young people are being screwed up again.
What example is this setting the young people who she took in, those who respected and listened to her? Why can’t she say sorry and admit her mistakes?
I know this sounds a bit ranty, a bit harsh. I don’t want to be judgy, sitting at my computer many miles away and throwing proverbial stones.
I do, however, want us to think and talk about what went wrong. To ask questions that maybe all of us in the charity sector need to ask ourselves. Is our “doing good” actually doing good? Are we professional in our approach, able to stand up to external scrutiny? Are we too invested in those we are trying to help?
I’ve been there and done that (see here for some of my story). I know what it’s like to blur the boundaries – my “good works” become my reason for living and breathing. And that is never healthy. My “good works” were my baby. An extension of me. And that is not ok.
When things went wrong, it took a long time to get back on my feet. I was floored by my mistakes. Flattened. And deeply humbled.
I hope that Camila takes some time to reflect, some time out to find her true self away from Kids Company.
For redemption is available for us all.