The collapse of Kids Company – a settling of accounts

“From the beginning Kids Company appears to have pursued a rather high risk political and media strategy”

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Kids Company, the high profile charity founded in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh to work with severely disadvantaged young people, became insolvent and closed its doors in August 2015. This came after an apparent stand-off with the UK government over funding, close media attention and finally the announcement of a police investigation over allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the charity.

There has been no shortage of analysis attempting to make sense of what is a very sorry tale. Is it a case of a charismatic Chief Executive who was very good at fundraising but unable to manage the work and finances of a complex multi-million pound operation? Or a case of a charity unwilling to turn vulnerable young people away and overwhelmed as a result? Or perhaps the trustees were at fault for not taking responsibility for the organisation’s direction and fragile financial model. Or are government ministers guilty of boosting and then betraying a once-favoured charity? Few people associated with the charity’s demise seem to come out well and individual reputations have been tarnished. Rather damningly, relatively little is being heard by or about the young people the charity was aiming to support.

A host of post-mortems, including a broadcast documentary and through print and social media, are trying to account for what happened. In recent days the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has published its own report of what went wrong. It is an uncompromising read. The committee’s Chair, Bernard Jenkin MP, refers to the whole episode as ‘an extraordinary catalogue of failures of governance and control at every level: trustees, auditors, inspectors, regulators and Government’.

But stepping back a little from claim and counter-claim, we can appreciate a bigger picture. From the beginning Kids Company appears to have pursued a rather high risk political and media strategy, through its outspoken Chief Executive, in seeking to draw both attention and resources for supporting highly vulnerable and disadvantaged young people otherwise abandoned by existing statutory youth, family support and child protection systems. In doing so it gained friends in high places, including politicians keen to promote ‘Third Way’ or ‘Big Society’ voluntary action beyond the state and the market. Kids Company appeared to fit the bill. As such it’s apparent ‘success’ (in responding to social policy failure) was a product of its and our times. It also shows perhaps the perils for voluntary organisations in getting close both to government and the media, as things can turn awry very quickly indeed. In fact it sits within much more intense and critical media and government scrutiny of the work of charities of late, covering, for example, salaries, fundraising, deals with private companies and most recently the use of public funds for campaigning.

Underlying all the clamour about Kids Company, we can also see four linked general processes in operation in varied attempts to frame and make sense of the issues. Firstly there is ‘animation’, where heightened interest in an organisation or social issue raises the stakes and draws people in. The issues faced by Kids Company become matters of wider public concern. Secondly we find ‘translation’, where protagonists and commentators pitch in with more or less persuasive hobby-horses narratives of a situation. If you think, as some claim, that charities tend to be poorly governed, then you might see the Kids Company story as a failure of the Board of Trustees, or if you think there is a gathering crisis in the statutory child protection system, of which Kids Company’s travails are a by-product, you might say that the charity was undermined politically for speaking out about the issue. Kids Company thus becomes a case study, and translation involves piecing together elements of fact, hearsay and argument to create a more coherent story of what it is a case of. Thirdly, there is ‘escalation’, where the demise of Kids Company is taken beyond its immediate context and generalised to a broader set of issues. We see this in the government’s proposal to create a central grants register of voluntary organisations it funds in response to criticism of its funding of Kids Company. Finally, in a public policy equivalent of ‘unfriending’, you can see processes of ‘distinction’, where others disassociate themselves from Kids Company. One charity commentator, for example, highlighted that Kids Company was atypical, tweeting that ‘imagining all charities were like Kids Co would be like thinking all British men were like James Bond.’

The possibility of a definitive explanation for the collapse of Kids Company looks rather remote in the short term, given the reputations and positions at stake. But over time the various accounts about what happened are likely to ‘settle’ around a single dominant narrative. There is some evidence of this occurring already, as the select committee report and others emphasise financial mismanagement and a failure of governance at the charity. In the months and years to come, how will we remember the Kids Company? Our future memories are being forged now, and in this settling process, some claims – for instance of government interference and betrayal, or a crisis in child protection – are being side-lined and look like they will be forgotten.

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