Love without structures: learning from the collapse of Kid’s Company

Camilla's Kid's CompanyThis week the BBC screened a fascinating documentary, Camila’s Kid’s Company: the Inside Story, on the demise of the famous children’s charity.

What made the programme so compelling was its intimate portrayal of the Chief Executive, Camila Batmanghelidjh.  We see her close-up, as she lived through the collapse of the charity she had founded, in the full glare of the media.

The importance of love

A few years ago I met Camila when we were both on a panel discussing poverty at the National Prayer Breakfast at Parliament.  What most struck me then was her willingness to talk about the importance of love. She spoke in a completely different way to any other ‘charity CEO’ I had heard.

I used to be the Manager of an emergency hostel for homeless young people in Soho, central London. I worked with the most damaged and chaotic homeless young people imaginable, but she challenged me to think differently about the core needs of the young people I worked with.  As she repeats in this documentary:

“Love is not a word that ‘professionals’ are comfortable with”

The documentary captures the way Camila managed to establish a project based on her core convictions: to show the love and acceptance of a family.

Scandal

But as we know now, Kid’s Company is no more.  It closed last summer in a blaze of negative publicity and scandal about financial mismanagement and accusations of dubious practices. Further reports have come out since with strong criticisms of the failure of the Trustees to hold their charismatic CEO to account.

The Kid’s Company story is a parable about the need for organisational structures and good management.  In order to remain safe and sustainable, the good intentions to show love and acceptance need to be framed within structures which provide boundaries and accountability.

‘Mr Double-glazing’

There is a particularly telling part of the programme where Camila goes in to see a new Chief Operating Officer who has been brought in by the trustees to bring some order to the organisation. She stands outside his door telling the camera that she calls him ‘Mr Double-glazing’. This is because he acts like a salesman but also is emotionally detached from the work they do, so its like talking to someone behind a window.

The tragedy is that Camila could not recognise the vital contribution that a good operations manager could have brought. However inspirational or gifted they are, the wisest leaders surround themselves with people with skills they don’t have.

Good process

More than anything Kid’s Company probably needed one or two key people who were able to detach themselves from the emotions involved in the work and ensure some good process.  In an age obsessed with inspirational leaders, we easily forget the basic importance of good management.

The sustaining of charitable work involves good planning, clear communication and strong financial systems.  Good process and proper governance are not ends in themselves but are ‘just structures’ which should serve and sustain the front line work.

These kind of organisational structures play the same role that our bones do in our bodies. They give shape and structure to the whole body and protect the vital organs.  The heart and lungs are dependent on the protection that the rib cage gives.  Like bones, organisational structures provide a framework around which everything can function safely.

Learning

Everyone involved in charities, churches and youth work can learn lessons from what happened to Kid’s Company. Churches are particularly vulnerable to similar problems because of the value they put on the charismatic power of their leader and the cultural tendency to avoid asking hard questions.

But it seems clear that within Kid’s Company the emotional demands of the work continually over rid the necessity of any meaningful self-critique. The fault always lay outside – with the media or the government.

Rather than pay any attention to the structural weaknesses of her organisation, Camila believed that the hemorrhaging of funds could simply be filled by more and more fundraising. But however skilled she was at persuading the likes of Coldplay, JK Rowling and David Cameron to donate funds, it was not enough to save the great work they did.

Watch BBC’s Camila’s Kid’s Company: the Inside Story

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About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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6 Responses to Love without structures: learning from the collapse of Kid’s Company

  1. Agent X says:

    Is detaching ourselves from emotions to ensure good work something Jesus does? Is it something He teaches? Is it some feature He personally lacks but makes up for in one or more of the disciples?

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting Agent X and its a good question. You could say there are some examples – like Jesus’ relentless focus on his mission and his determination to do what he feels called to do. In one example he refuses to heal someone because they are not Jewish (before relenting). You could say that Jesus was the master of not doing what the crowds wanted and maintaining boundaries, such as protecting his time of prayer when there was so much need around him. His rejections of the Devil’s temptations were about not meeting needs immediately but operating in the way that God called Him to.

      It is hard though to make too many direct connections. Jesus started a movement which obviously looks very different to the needs of a 21st century charity. When people are being paid and activities are being run then we desperately need good structures to contain and sustain the work. I think this is more akin to what Paul teaches the early church about ensuring good order and not allowing the freedom in Christ to mean a loss of accountability. Also, its worth saying that KC was not a Christian charity.

      I know that a form of Christian anarchy is quite fashionable these days and structures are not a very exciting thing to write about – but I do feel that the sustaining of good work is dependent on them. I feel Christians need the Holy Spirit to inspire us in how we construct organisations as well as the more spontaneous gifts it can bestow.

      • Tom Cole says:

        I think you hit on a key point when you say that Jesus started a movement very different to a 21st century charity.

        When it comes to organisations, especially when people are getting paid and large sums of money are involved, I agree that good structures are crucial. However, I wonder to what degree that merely raises the questions of: 1) what is the place of organisations within the body of Christ? 2) how should we who serve earn a livelihood? 3) how big is too big?

        I wonder whether, by settling for organisations, we are settling for so much less than fullness. I quite intentionally say fullness rather than scale, though scale likely follows in time! Ultimately, what we are called to do is *love* and make disciples, not to provide services, which are dead. In this paradigm, we sustain good work by being brought into fullness ourselves and then pouring out the love we have received which transforms others who do go and do likewise, and thus it propagates and sustains… The ministry of those who are transformed will likely be different to ours, so when we go our ministry may well go with us, unless God calls someone else to take up the baton. So be it, we have too little energy to waste it on sustaining ministries that aren’t those that the people running them are called to.

        And organisational structure is a radical different beast to Jesus being relentless in pursuing his mission, and meticulous in maintaining boundaries, and uncompromising in operating the way God called him to. To keep us on this track is a knockout reason why all we need personal accountability, close discipleship and uncompromising love unwaveringly anchored in the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth – if we refuse such counsel, then surely that automatically disqualifies us from leadership? The greater the scale of the ministry, the greater the accountability required, the tougher the love required to keep excesses in check, the more that transparency and humility in the face of challenge are core to being allowed anywhere near the stage in the first place. If we do not count the cost, and plan accordingly we are infinitely more likely to fall.

        I’m not sure that structures, at least in the conventional sense, are necessarily the answer to such questions. Outsourcing accountability, discipleship and love to structures feels like a cop-out, unless those structures merely facilitate / encourage / catalyse the forming of genuine relationship and jog our memory on those things which we otherwise might forget / be sloppy with – never rigid, never restricting us to boxes, always strong warnings rather than dictats, always pushing us to face the consequences but never jumping to conclusions as to what the consequences might be before they are known.

        In a 21st century charity, or business, that’s a slightly different matter, and we are to exercise wise stewardship over what we are entrusted with and we can only work within the beast we inherit (unless we blow it apart!). But let’s not allow the exercise of such wisdom from limiting our horizons, settling for less than fullness, or outsourcing the heart of our callings as followers of Christ to heartless structure.

  2. Oliver Medla says:

    Apart from Paul and his teaching on order, Jesus actually said something about emotions without planning in the context of discipleship: Luke 14:28 “But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They would say, ‘There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!'”

  3. Jon Kuhrt says:

    Thanks Tom for your thoughts. For me, structures are not about outsourcing anything but are exactly in order to ‘facilitate / encourage / catalyse the forming of genuine relationship and jog our memory on those things which we otherwise might forget / be sloppy with – never rigid, never restricting us to boxes, always strong warnings rather than dictats, always pushing us to face the consequences but never jumping to conclusions as to what the consequences might be before they are known.’ I think you put it well – charisma and the ability to move people with your words is one skill-set – and careful planning and ordering is another and both are needed in the kingdom of God. I feel there is a propensity to make an idol of the leaders who can inspire and sideline those who follow-through and do what they say they will do. I don’t want to set up a dichotomy – none of us have it all but we can all be committed to bringing in and appreciating those in who have skills we don’t and make sure we have a balanced team.

    Structures should always be ‘mission-shaped’ and never allowed to take over. We must always be careful of the tendency for any group of people with a purpose to go from being a movement, to a machine and from a machine to a monument! There is plenty enough examples of this in the Church!

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