Lessons learnt from the demise of Kids Company

25 Aug

Kids Company, the children’s charity, closed on 5 August 2015.  Reactions across the country were mixed because Kids Company was very much an exotic curate’s egg – magically good in parts – but questionable and self-righteous in many of its practices.

The charity’s founder, Ms Camila Batmanghelidjh, established Kids Company in 1996 in Camberwell, South London, providing a range of support for extremely vulnerable children, including runaways, the neglected and those permanently excluded from school.   It had a policy of never turning a child away.

Over the 19 years of its existence, the charismatic Ms Batmanghelidjh raised over £160 million from the good, bad and ugly – individuals, organisations and the government.   In April 2013, it received £9 million from government to cover two years’ work and £30 million over its lifetime.

However, for several years, a number of people expressed serious concerns about the waste of resources, the most recent being Ms Camilla Long, correspondent and feature-writer of The Sunday Times, who in May 2015 visited the Kids Company.  She wrote a semi-satirical piece on her findings on 5 July 2015 stating, in so many words, that she was mystified by what she saw during visits she had made over two days. 

She had been greeted by a pair of “soporific psychotherapists”. One of the 130 therapists employed by the charity “looked like Andy Pandy”.   She said that he “skimmed through the building (which housed the headquarters in Blackfriars in London) explaining how the therapy programme extends to massage, reflexology and hypnotism”.

Ms Batmanghelidjh looked like “the woman in the nursery rhyme shoe”.  Ms Long met Ms Batmanghelidjh in “her lair, a bizarre grotto filled with flowers, trinkets and love notes (‘wishes’)”.  Ms Long tried hard to “extract simple facts from her” – such as the number of meals delivered at the charity’s main site (3,000 per week was the claim), but was confronted with “a waffle of baffling categorisations and explanations”.

According to Ms Long, Mrs Woolard, a widow from ­Lincolnshire, complained that she had sold her house to donate £200,000 to the charity, only to become concerned a year later that neither Ms Batmanghelidjh nor anyone else could tell her how this huge amount had been spent.

Altogether, 73% of the charity’s budget was spent on staff.  Why?  Employees received considerable therapy. Why?  Shouldn’t funding have been used for the troubled children it was established to serve? Ms Batmanghelidj, herself, had been having therapy “four or five days a week”.  Why?

During the nine hours which Ms Long spent at Kids Company, she met 75 staff members but only two children.   Why?  However, a few more turned up for dinner, though far below the 150 required to meet the 3,000 hot meals a week claimed by Ms Batmanghelidjh. Why?  In fact, a table of six children had almost as many staff members helping them.   Why?

While Kids Company made a great difference to improve the lives of vulnerable children, so too have Barnardos, the Children’s Society and many other smaller, less-known charities, who don’t go strutting their stuff as Ms Batmanghelidjh did.

To understand what had been happening, it would be useful to delve into the history of Ms Batmanghelidjh.  She was born prematurely – weighing only 2 lbs – into a wealthy Iranian family and was sent home without being registered.  Accordingly, she said that her mother could not remember precisely when she was born.  However, she said she was 14 at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, which would give us a reason to believe that she has been half-a-century on this planet.

As a girl, she was dyslexic and struggled at school. She spent three years (from the age of 9 to 12) in a special Swiss school, arriving on these shores when she was 12.  She was educated at the private Sherborne Girls’ School in Dorset.   Her father, who remained in Iran, was imprisoned by the Ayatollah’s followers but released and joined the rest of the family in England in 1982.   He passed away in 2006.

Using a tape recorder (instead of pen and paper), she got a first-class degree in theatre and dramatic arts from Warwick University and followed this up by studying in London to become a psychotherapist.

According to the charity’s website, she founded Kids Company in six converted railway arches in London, having re-mortgaged her house, and worked tirelessly to raise funds.   The charity was established with the noblest motives – to help the most vulnerable children in our society.   The charity said that its aim was to restore trust in the very troubled children who suffered abuse, mental health problems and homelessness. It also claimed that it helped youngsters who misused substances and provide them with an environment “using a carefully designed support system that involves psychotherapy, counselling, education, arts, sports, hot meals and various practice interventions”.

For 19 years, it was a success led by its charismatic founder.  It was praised by politicians and held up as an inspiration for others.  Ms Batmanghelidjh had a glittering array of supporters among whom numbered Prince Charles, Coldplay, who donated £8 million to Kids Company, J.K. Rowling and Mr David Cameron, the Prime Minister.

The charity grew at a frantic pace. In four years, from 2009 to 2013, staff numbers increased from 231 to 496 and the budget rose through donations from £13 million to £23 million.

Ms Batmanghelidjh’s was influential with Westminster ensuring that government funds poured in too — more than £40 million since 2005. However, past workers, a former minister and political aides claim that both, the former and present Prime Ministers, Mr Gordon Brown and Mr Cameron, were so enchanted with her that they ignored profound, repeated concerns.

In August 2015, it had 650 staff members – 140 were full-time key workers, with mentoring and counselling roles. Another 70 did some of this “key work” alongside other responsibilities.  The charity also employed masseurs and therapists.  Staff members offered facials, manicures, acupuncture and even hairstyling to children, parents, teachers and colleagues.  It spent £100,000 on its Christmas Day dinner and party inviting 4,000 guests, many of whom travelled in taxis paid for by Kids Company.

By the time it closed, it operated in three major cities in England – London, Bristol and Liverpool.  It claimed to have helped 36,000 youngsters.

Ms Batmanghelidjh may be dyslexic, but she knew how to charm the “pants” off those with influence and power.  Her approach towards these people was as colourful as the clothes she wears.  She is certain (always) that she is right.   In fact, she won a stream of accolades and awards – honorary degrees and fellowships from University College London (UCL) and the Open University (OU), among other institutions, and been granted a CBE by the Queen.

However, over the last decade, the chorus of criticisms – especially from a number of civil servants – grew.  They described cases where finances were being mismanaged. They also referred to the chaotic manner in which Kids Company was being run.   Despite this, the charity continued to receive millions in government grant. Prime Minister David Cameron had been “mesmerised” by the boss for the work she did chimed in with his vision of the “Big Society”.   Other officials and ministers were not as impressed.  One source said: “She was a good news story for the Conservative Party. It was a case of glamour over substance.”

Earlier this summer, the government finally agreed to release £3 million only on condition that the charity downsized and Ms Batmanghelidjh resigned.   The letter that Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Officer, wrote to ministers was devastating and stark.

More bad times for Kids Company followed by sexual allegations made against it.  In particular, a staff member claimed that she reported a colleague for sexually harassing her, but nothing was done to investigate her complaint.  She quit because she said that she did not feel that the children and she were protected.  A teenager, helped by the charity, alleged that she was ignored when she reported that another client had sexually abused her.   As a consequence, private donations – which had been promised – failed to materialise.

Ms Batmanghelidjh is on record as saying that no one at Kids Company had been abused in any way over 19 years.   So assured was she that she eventually lost the confidence of the government and a potential donor, who promised £3 million, withdrew the offer forcing the charity to become insolvent and close.

Kids Company – like Topsy – grew not only because of the brightly-coloured and outspoken Ms Batmanghelidjh, but also because of our creaky care service. There is no question but that its death will result in many vulnerable children being left very exposed and without the safety net of this former charity.   However, its continued existence had become untenable and unviable.

So what are the lessons for us as a nation from this sorry, tragic saga?

(1)          First, it is important not to be seduced by flamboyance and charisma.   All of us, of course, need to be inspired to do “good deeds” for humankind – like Ms Batmanghelidjh.   But equally important is ensuring that there is substance behind the charisma.

(2)          Second, having aims which are noble are not enough.  Charisma and compassion are good but insufficient to run a charity.   Kids Company had impeccable objectives, brought stability to many children and cared deeply for the less fortunate.

(3)          This leads to the third lesson, i.e. if an organisation is to survive if not flourish it needs to have systems which stand up to scrutiny, and operate effectively and efficiently.

(4)          In this whole sorry sage, the trustees did little that was positive? The chair of the trustees, Mr Alan Yentob, who is also the creative director of the BBC, was reported to have lobbied the Labour government to waive £700,000 in unpaid taxes owed by the charity.  More recently, it was rumoured that he tried to influence BBC’s reports to make the Kids Company and Ms Batmanghelidjh look to be the ones who were wronged rather than who did wrong, something in which he did not succeed.

Instead of spending time defending Kids Company, Mr Yentob and his fellow trustees should have been scrutinising the financial reports on the charity, in the same manner in which school/academy governors and trustees have to do with their institutions.

(5)          The government was culpable.   All three parties, Labour, the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats – when in power before and after 2010 – have questions to answer about why they did not heed the warnings of the civil servants, and people like Mr Tim Loughton, Conservative MP and former Children’s Minister.

(6)          Finally, all of us are accountable to one another.   Kids Company’s founder thought she was above the accountable “masses” and often condemned everyone who had the insouciance to criticise any aspect of her management style.   This was a bit rich, given that her charity was blessed with so much of taxpayers’ (i.e. our) largesse. Kids Company’s collapse was a stark example of hubris being followed by nemises.

Many years ago during my student days, I did voluntary work for a diminutive and unassuming nun of Albanian origin working in the most deprived areas of Calcutta with the impoverished and dying, rescuing them – including pulling abandoned babies from dustbins – and giving them new hope and life.  Her name was Mother Theresa, the saint of the gutters.

On the hot, dusty streets of a bustling and dirty city, Mother Theresa worked with an absence of fanfare and flamboyance – but had determined grit, dedication and devotion working with the forgotten in our society.   She was one of those most unusual and rare persons who made the world a better place without wanting any recognition, setting up the Mission of Charity.   She instructed her nuns to have only two sets of saris – one to wear and one to wash – because, if she was go to work for the poor, she had to walk the walk and not simply talk the talk.

After many, many years, Mother Theresa gained iconic status and following her death was made a saint. Her work with the unfortunate in our society is the one that we – including Ms Batmanghelidjh – could emulate when we decide to help those less well-off than us.

One Response to “Lessons learnt from the demise of Kids Company”

  1. Henry November 13, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

    I read your piece concerning Kids Company, found it quite an eye opener. I will ask you about just one section of it when I see you on Thursday.


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