The very public spat that’s been played out recently between the Government and Kids Company and its high profile chief executive, Camilla Batmanghelidjh, should not have come as a surprise to those within the not for profit sector.
There have been rumblings for a long time of the paucity of some of the charity’s governance and management and suggestions that their marketing rhetoric – ably led by their charismatic CEO – outstripped the reality. Many have bemoaned the ‘special treatment’ the charity has managed to extract from Ministers, no doubt fearful of coming under fire from the formidable Ms Batmanghelidjh and her impressive list of celebrity supporters.
But there are plenty of other charities whose bark is ‘better’ than their bite – organisations that are far better at selling themselves to funders than they are helping their beneficiaries. They rarely come under the sort of attack that Kids Company have found themselves subject to.
The reason for that should also not come as a surprise to those who have experienced working with this government – or the Conservatives that made up the Coalition: they are fully prepared to accept ‘collateral damage’ to stamp on those they want to get one over on. Dissent and challenge is not welcomed from those they fund. If young people suffer as a result of digging their heels in over Batmanghelidjh’s continued presence at the helm of Kids Company then so be it.
When I was chief executive of Urban Forum, our long-standing relationship with a number of government departments counted for little. We were firmly in the ‘awkward squad’ and so – through a highly subjective ‘assessment process’ deemed surplus to requirements and our funding cut. Prior to this – and for all their faults – the previous Labour administration had, to my mind, been more comfortable with dissent (without ever relishing it). I felt that I was being funded to speak out on behalf of our beneficiaries – not paid to be silenced.
Clearly something has snapped within government that they no longer feel able to work with the current CEO and Chair – Alan Yentob – but it is not appropriate for them to dictate changes of personnel at independent charities. It is, in part, our charities’ independence from the state that makes them the envy of the world. If government – or any funder for that matter – wishes to raise concerns about governance or delivery or anything else, that is their right. But they must recognise the boundaries of their influence. They can say they no longer wish to fund something because it is not delivering what it was supposed to.
‘We don’t like you so we’re not giving you money’ is no more appropriate as a way to administer public funds than the worst accusations Batmanghelidjh’s critics have levelled at her.
The very public spat has not done any favours to the reputation and trust of charities and the inevitable sensationalist reporting of the story doesn’t help. It is a complex picture where neither side comes out particularly well.
Poor governance is an issue in much of the charity sector and more could be done to strengthen it – in that respect it’s not very different to the private sector – but this government are particularly disinterested in supporting infrastructure. A major shift in the Coalition’s approach to charities from the previous Labour government was to scrap investment in major programmes aimed at strengthening governance (among other things).
Government Departments are often very poor funders. They don’t adhere to good practice of the kind set out in Julia Unwin’s Grant Making Tango (and cited by the Treasury in their review of the Third Sector). Playing vindictive games to oust or damage individuals is not just petty it is irresponsible – completely disregarding the trauma that will face countless children and young people.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to wade into this topic as it is complex and I am reluctant to criticise those who are doing good work – the risk is that others see this as an attack on ‘unaccountable’ charity, that erodes public trust. However I feel ultimately if we are to have a more intelligent debate about the role of the state as a funder and our expectations of charities, then we need to start flushing out some of these issues.