This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Sign up to receive an email for every new R&R post – see right hand tab
- Like the R&R facebook page