Being charitable or being a charity: the difference is immense, and the UK’s Kids Company is a case in point. As a charity that had a significant public persona – and personification, in the shape of its leader and founder Camila Batmanghelidjh – it came under scrutiny after failing to sustain itself financially. Interesting parallels exist between the charity’s reality and the fiction of the movie Zoolander, as well as with the stories that surround the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The place of the charity in the world of business and organization has rightfully come under scrutiny. Kids Company was not necessarily a bad place – but it was not supposed to be a company, and certainly not a charity.
From charitable to charity
A very insightful documentary on Kids Company was shown by the BBC in February 2016. It showed the downfall of Kids Company, which had been set up in 1998 by Ms. Batmanghelidjh. She recruited others to be charitable to underprivileged children. Whatever they needed was what this group of charitable people wanted to provide, genuinely and from the goodness of their hearts. From the outset, it sought to be a full-service charity that supported children with very dim prospects. Full-service in this case meant the deployment of all efforts that a loving parent would make if they had the means. In the documentary, Ms. Batmanghelidjh states that she recognizes that love and professionals do not really match or even mix. The charity's failure mostly comes from its inability to professionalize love, and from Ms. Batmanghelidjh's naive conviction (the spelling here might be "confiction") that she could and had made it work.
As it stood, Kids Company failed when it ran short of funds. Of course, there were many accusations made against this very public charity. It had claimed to serve 36,000 children, which was, at best, an exaggeration. Also, there were accusations of child abuse. Ex-employees accused the charity of simply giving away large sums of money to children. This accusation seems to be both accurate and unjust; it was indeed common practice to give money to children, lump sums in envelopes to help them cover such costs as transport. It is highly likely that not all children used these funds as they were supposed to. It is quite likely that some children were pressured out of their money by others - that is, robbed. And it is somewhat likely that the sums disbursed were not always small or measured to meet agreed costs. Yet, the chief cause of public outrage was against the random disbursement of large sums of money. It appears that former employees that disagreed with this policy found the media keen to hear their criticism. Amongst the other chartered charities, it is a highly uncommon practice.
Kids Company was an incorporated and registered charity. That meant that this was an organization that had to abide by the rules that apply to charities, more specifically those that relate to care for and interactions with children. Thankfully, those rules are strict, so that children are protected from exploitative and predatory individuals that claim to be their benefactors.
Corporatizing the company
Early in the BBC documentary, Kids Company is shown headquartered in an expensive office building in a the City of London. Such a location has its merits – the ability to safely receive celebrity and wealthy donors is one. Yet, it can be considered a waste of charity money. A parallel can be observed here with the comedy movie Zoolander. In its epilogue, the protagonist Derek Zoolander has achieved a dream: a (boarding) school for children with learning difficulties. Named The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too, it is situated in a massive building, crowned by a huge open book, situated on a very large site with a fountain, on the waterfront of New York. It is a blatantly expensive and over-the-top institution, for comedic effect. In the case of Kids Company, the costly office space reflected badly on the charity, but it seems that most criticism was levied after it was exposed as troubled and unprofessionally run.
With its wage bill of about 12 million Pounds, Kids Company had clearly grown into a sizable organization. It served many more children than when it started out, exaggerated numbers or not. An organization of this size must professionalize, but Kids Company seems to have been lacking in this area. Though large, and with a management structure as well as the obligatory board of trustees, Kids Company did not meet all the standards. That said, few companies, let alone caring charities, are run in a fully professional way. In this case, however, there was a fundamental disconnect between the way the charity aimed to distribute its good work and the demand placed on a formally constituted and rather large organization. Kids Company, like innocent but ignorant Derek Zoolander, sought to do good by kids, but went about this in an unconventional way. By providing as much support as was needed, to the level of ultimately being a physical and psychological surrogate parent, Kids Company’s approach, though appealing and thus successful with regard to raising money, ultimately could not be executed efficiently on a larger scale.
Effectively providing safety and love cost more money than Ms. Batmanghelidjh and her partners could raise. This caused frictions that were unprofessionally handled, although it is doubtful whether they could have been dealt with professionally whilst continuing the provision of care. The Greater Good of caring for children became a leitmotif for bending the truth and for growing the charity beyond what it could financially muster.
Crucially, as it later turned out, the organization lacked some scenario planning, such as what to do in the case of any kind of allegations from former employees. This left any actions to be taken in such an event in the hands of founding director Ms. Batmanghelidhj or the board of trustees. Their interplay in such a matter seems to have been unregulated, and would therefore prove to lead to an unstructured approach by both parties, each treating the other as, at the very least, something less than a full partner and ally.
As Derek Zoolander is a supposed male supermodel and fashion icon, instantly recognizable across the world, so too Ms. Batmanghelidjh is highly recognized in the UK. She really personified Kids Company, having been the founder and being its chief operating officer (at least in practice) during its existence. She managed to draw extensive funds to the charity by virtue of her convincing arguments, her personality and the way it was manifested.
Ms. Batmanghelidjh has the appearance of a celebrity. Without drawing anything away from her ability, she makes a striking visual and aural impression. Her voice is distinctive and expressive, her laugh even more so, and both are emotionally rich. Ms. Batmanghelidjh walks with some difficulty, possibly as a result of being quite a heavy person. This attracts attention, regardless of whether this is justified. The most striking about Ms. Batmanghelidjh, however, is her highly colorful sense of dress. As shown in a flashback in the BBC documentary, she dressed with some smidges of extravagance. As the years have progressed, Ms. Batmanghelidjh has turned to a style that can perhaps best be expressed as “bright patchwork”. She wears robes and a headdress of several different patterns and fabrics and seemingly several layers. She exudes a brightness, which is highly befitting her intensive and joyful contacts with children.
The figurehead spearheaded the organization’s last gasp attempts to sustain itself, by approaching former and would-be donors, with considerable success, as well as receiving government support. However, as time progressed, Ms. Batmanghelidjh seems to have changed this persona somewhat, to a Mother Goose who sees dangers that the children need to be protected from – namely, politicians and the media. Although there is some truth in claims that politicians and media publicized negative messages about Kids Company, Ms. Batmanghelidhj’s attitude seems to have improved her standing among “her” children and staff, whilst decreasing her credibility elsewhere.
Desperately clinging on to her charity. Ms. Batmanghelidjh showed that she believed herself to be indispensable to the organization. This may be true in whole or in part, but nevertheless this put her on display as an egotistical person, clinging to power. She also denied being to blame for the failures and flaws of Kids Company, admitting only to not being able to raise enough money to sustain the charity’s activities, but not that its activities would in any way cost too much money.
The press chose to watch the program and then harshly judge Ms. Batmanghelidhj, although mentions of limousines are exaggerations. When she spoke of “never breaking the law”, only to “stretch” it, she was sitting in her office, and she is never seen being driven in anything larger than a Mercedes private taxi or a large Ford Galaxy MPV of the outgoing model. The vehicle seen most often is a Toyota Prius that is at least 6 years old, driven by an apparently overpaid driver who can send his children to a private school. So the picture is more mixed than some media would like us to believe. And so, The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston’s review is more balanced than Euan Ferguson’s article (in the Guardian). As clearly as ever, it displays that organizations and individuals can become victims of however they are portrayed in newspapers, on the web and on TV.
The child abuse wrecking ball
What ultimately shut down Kids Company were accusations of sexual abuse that had happened under its care. The government funding had just come through when the accusations reached publicity. Despite Ms. Batmanghelidjh and her staff vowing to answer the questions the police and other authorities might have, the trustees decided to close the charity. Ms. Batmanghelidjh claimed the accusations were false, had never reached her, and that any events of several years back were not a reflection of the current goings-on within the charity. There were witnesses and people who claimed to be victims, so it was definitely more than a rumor.
Here, the Kids Company story runs parallel with the way musician Michael Jackson suffered from accusations of child abuse. Regardless of the truth, the accusations were circulated and recirculated, spiraling upward in strength, as one mention was used as “proof” for the next, until sensationalists could claim to possess “overwhelming evidence”. Michael Jackson was called a perverted human being and guilty before there was ever any proof that had been corroborated or had been put before a judge. His image was stained beyond repair, especially in the United States. As Kids Company only worked in the UK, its operations stood no chance of surviving the scrutiny of the British media if they brought along predetermined convictions of what “must have been” the situation at Kids Company.
As even the mighty catholic church has experienced, allegations of sexual misconduct that involve children are detrimental to an institution’s image and its following. Such accusations have ruined the careers of many celebrities – some justly! Protecting children is immensely important, but these accusations have, in this case, destroyed careers and also harmed many families in deprived areas of London.
The allegations came to nothing, the police investigations were closed in January 2016 – but the damage had been done. The charity had ceased operations because it had behooved its trustees to close it after the allegations. The government had demanded its money back, and obviously new donors did not seek out a closed charity. Kids Company was dead.
Ms. Batmanghelidjh has been trying to revive Kids Company, or at least filling its void, with her small band of former employees, volunteers and a few benefactors.
Could it have been any different?
Kids Company fell apart because of several factors:
- Allegations of sexual misconduct by some of its employees and volunteers (that have been disproved)
- The board of trustees’ decision to close the charity after the allegations came to light
- The government’s demand to return its final grant of about 3 million pounds
- The lack of communication and trust between the charity’s management and its board of trustees
- The negative exposure given to the charity in many media
- The consequent loss of trust in the charity and its leader Ms. Batmanghelidhj by the benefactors
- Mismanagement in several areas, mostly the ever-increasing scale of the charity
- At the core, a mismatch between the charity’s approach to helping children and its ambitious growth towards a wider reach and its status as a formalized institution
Showing children love and care is wonderful. This is philanthropy, but it does not work as a registered charity. It has no rules that supersede whims. What Kids Company did is allowed and in many ways very good, but it cannot be state-sponsored. The state must function with checks, balances and regulations. Kids Company could not offer its brand of care within such regulations, and Camila Batmanghelidhj proved her ineptness by blindly growing the charity to its ultimate size. A Godzilla cannot be humane, and this one fell apart trying.
One might ask, whether Kids Company might have succeeded if it had been away from the public eye. This question fails to grasp the weight of Kids Company’s earlier success. The organization would never have come as far if it had not been so public. It was ultimately running at a 24 million Pound budget, because it had achieved widespread recognition and had used this to accrue large donations from high-profile sponsors, as well as government funding. Had it been situated in a small town, and not been led by a true figurehead, it could never have achieved such scale.
Could Kids Company have done other things to prevent its ultimate demise? Certainly. It could have been a union of smaller organizations, each providing similar loving care to local children in given areas. By not wanting to be all things to all children, it might have had more longevity than its 19 years. As one big company, it made mistakes, both in its actions and its presentation, and Ms. Batmanghelidhj showed that she was not as fully capable as she believed herself to be. She should not have let vanity get in the way of recognizing to a fuller extent where her skillset had its limitations.
The structure of Kids Company was, in essence, wrong: Ms. Batmanghelidhj got too much freedom to do as she pleased (as I’m sure Anna Day will agree). The board of trustees was essentially one of her enemies, which she tried to avoid contact with. It believed that increasing its scale would benefit more children, but failed to see how this would endanger the care it already provided. Children and their families were dependent on Kids Company, and severing this dependence by closing the charity has put many into trouble.
Another alternative structure for Kids Company would have been that of an educational institution, like in Zoolander. As a boarding school, running on donations, it might have provided the safe environment for underprivileged children. It could even have been situated in the same poor areas of London, allowing children to be close to their families, yet live apart from them and their troubled environments. Granted, this structure would have limitations and drawbacks as well, and it would come with even stricter regulations to follow. But it would have had roughly similar effects for the children it provided for.
It is essential to note that Kids Company was doing mostly good work. Although dismantled with good reason, every individual it cared for should be taken over by other charities and by government institutions. At least, Ms. Batmanghelidhj has seen this, and is participating.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camila_Batmanghelidjh , retrieved Feb. 22, 2016.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camila_Batmanghelidjh , retrieved Feb. 22, 2016.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kids_Company , retrieved Feb. 22, 2016.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/02/03/camilas-kids-company-the-inside-story-bbc-one-review-devastating/ , retrieved Feb. 22, 2016.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2jbYQP5mnU , retrieved Feb. 22, 2016.
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/kids-company-corporate-governance-conflicts-interest-david-doughty?trkInfo=VSRPsearchId%3A826115121455877519523%2CVSRPtargetId%3A6035000104631484416%2CVSRPcmpt%3Aprimary&trk=vsrp_influencer_content_res_name , retrieved Feb. 22, 2016.
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/5-reasons-kids-company-got-wrong-nich-bull?trkInfo=VSRPsearchId%3A826115121455877519523%2CVSRPtargetId%3A6103097718110978048%2CVSRPcmpt%3Aprimary&trk=vsrp_influencer_content_res_name , retrieved Feb. 22, 2016.
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/five-lessons-we-can-learn-governance-from-kids-company-anna-day?trkInfo=VSRPsearchId%3A826115121455877519523%2CVSRPtargetId%3A6036986359913205760%2CVSRPcmpt%3Aprimary&trk=vsrp_influencer_content_res_name , retrieved Feb. 22, 2016.