We need to talk about Kids Company

11th February 2015 Blog

Kids Company’s Urban Academy: to really convey the place in 2008 you’d need an immersive experience. Invasive noise, overblown primary coloured frescoes of flowers on every wall, papier mâché models of fish stuck here and there, a powerful smell of fried chicken inside and marijuana outside, all overlaid with the threat of violence –something altogether more pungent than Proust’s madeleine.

Founded in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh, a psychotherapist and entrepreneur, Kids Company is a medium sized charity that delivers a range of services to disadvantaged children in south London, Kilburn, Bristol and Liverpool. I first got to know it in the summer of 2008. Initially I worked as a part time volunteer tutor, then a full time tutor, then a tutor and key worker (with a caseload of one) and finally a kind of floating educator/bid writer/researcher with a touch of ongoing key working thrown in. I left in December 2009. That may not seem like a long time, but it felt long. Kids Company is like that. It’s a very intense place filled with very intense people.

Most of the time ‘people’ meant staff rather than children because the youths were a more casual and fleeting presence and the staff were always around. I’m grateful to Kids Company for giving me the chance to meet them. The workforce really is as diverse as the charity suggests. But they were not collectively a wholly welcoming bunch, nor was their conception of professional boundaries of the kind you might find in ordinary working environments. Intense personal disclosure was normal. Violent altercations between staff members were not unknown.

Fridays at the Urban Academy in 2008 were a more extreme version of the rest of the week. On Fridays little packages of cash were handed out to every young person through a small window in reception. It was always tense. There were tears. There was shouting. There were threats. There were fights. There would have been even more of all these things if it hadn’t been for the presence of Kids Company’s security. Educational it may have been, but not in the sense described on the website

In no way did it feel to me like the things it was supposed to be. A safe, caring and therapeutic environment? I have never, before or since, felt more unsafe, less cared for and more destabilised at work. I was shocked by the way in which my expectations of what a charity for vulnerable children would be (calm, considerate, professional), and the reality I found when I went through the doors of this particular charity, differed. But although my own reactions were real enough, and at times extremely uncomfortable, they may also be entirely irrelevant.

Why after all should my violated expectations matter to Camila Batmanghelidjh? She might quite reasonably retort that my feelings are entirely beside the point; that my expectations were simply out of place. This is the kind of retort she has often made to justify what are certainly controversial methods. I am aware that the sorts of things that I found unappealing could just as easily be presented in a very different light and experienced very differently by others. The real point here is that even though the Urban Academy may not have been a nurturing environment for me – privileged, educated white woman from a loving and unbroken home – that really couldn’t matter less as long as it nurtured the children who attended the centre.

So the question is then, what does Kids Company do for the children who attend its centres? And how do we know?

How accountable are charities?

Whether a particular charity fulfils its aims is a question that doesn’t only apply to Kids Company. There is a broader point here about how we judge the kinds of services that are delivered by charities. I’m writing about Kids Company because I know it from personal experience, and because it offers a good illustration of the kind of problems that apply more widely, not because it is unique.

There is a strong tradition in many charities of defining accountability primarily in regard to stakeholders. Kids Company does this. A characteristic passage can be found in an LSE report on the charity’s organisational model. Kids Company, says the report,: “bears witness to the level of services delivered to vulnerable children and aims at holding the state accountable to children.” Without undervaluing that important work, it is nevertheless a different kind of accountability to that rightly demanded by taxpayers of those who deliver public services. As a Demos report on charitable accountability notes, “service deliverers are truly accountable only to those who exercise sanctions over them.”

This is trickier territory, for this is precisely the kind of accountability that is difficult to enact in the case of charities. The existing system demands little direct, sanctionable accountability when compared with the regulation of public services. There is no mandatory inspection or oversight. To narrow the field to youth charities, youth work providers can, and some do, choose to be inspected by Ofsted, but many, including Kids Company, do not. The Charity Commission itself has no inspection mandate and although it can investigate misconduct it has been repeatedly found to fall short in doing so.

The Charity Commission does require an annual report but the stipulations of the report itself are vague, and many charities share more pictures than information. These reports are not comparable to the level of detail that is shared voluntarily with the public by many companies in the private sector. Voluntary sharing aside, there is also increasing emphasis on transparent reporting of financial and non-financial information for all quoted companies, regardless of their size.

In that light it is curious that charities should be immune from the drive towards transparency, that there should have been no demand that, for instance, the Freedom of Information Act should apply to them, at the very least when they are contracted by government. This is even more surprising when you consider that according to a 2007 Charity Commission report, for 67% of charities with an income over £10 million delivering public services, public funding makes up more than 80% of their income. The same report tells us that 62% of all charities with an income over £500,000 deliver some form of public service, and that number has risen steadily since the report was published. That doesn’t stop ACEVO, the charitable umbrella body, from lobbying against the FOIA’s extension to charities.

This absence of regulation and demand for it perhaps stems from the public trust from which charity leaders benefit. Some of that trust comes from the misplaced belief that charities are, in fact, regulated in ways not dissimilar to public services, as both the 2013 National Audit Office report and Ipsos Mori poll for 2014 showed. Regulation is in fact far more minimal than the general public believes.

There is no public record of how the public funding received by a charity has been spent unless they report it voluntarily. Kids Company does so only minimally. Since 2008 the charity has received around £30 million in public funding, including an £8 million award which concludes in March 2015.

For this sum they have supported 750 children and young people annually. At least it might be 750 children and young people. Kids Company refers to the 750 children in the government group in its latest annual report, but the government contract available online through a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office, shows that 1,750 children fall under the scope of the contract. There appears then to be some inaccuracy in the reporting to the Charity Commission, but this is a minor quibble, and we can assume that the grant 750 (or 1,750) are included in the broader Kids Company claim to “intensively support” 18,000 young people and “reach” 36,000 of them.

It’s hard to get more detail of the breakdown of these numbers from publicly available information. It seems at least moderately clear, however, that the individual centres are not attended by anything like this number. The current level claimed by the charity for the Urban Academy, for instance, is only 320. So the numbers being “reached” and “intensively supported” appear impressive but the detail of delivery is rather less so. 

Equally obscure is how the different activities conducted by the charity are affecting the lives of young people. Kids Company does not systematically publish its evaluations, instead quoting short passages from them on its website and in its annual reports so that we know, for instance, that:

Kids Company has been evaluated 15 times since 2000.

All of these evaluations have found that Kids Company’s interventions have success rates of between 80% and 100%.”

The most recent annual report gives us a little more information, again in the form of selective paragraphs and percentages such as:

96% of clients aged under 16 were helped to either return to education, or sustain themselves through our additional support.”

These are impressive statistics. Taking them seriously, we might assume that even in the absence of detailed information provided by the charity itself, publicly available data would corroborate the effectiveness of its work. The charity has been operating for 18 years in Southwark and Lambeth: we might therefore expect to see some improvements in outcomes for young people in this area given the charity’s reach (36,000 young people) and its rates of success (80%-100%).

We might for instance expect to see reduced rates of injury amongst young people. Yet King’s College Hospital’s Emergency Department, on the Southwark-Lambeth border, has not experienced a drop in assault-related injury amongst 13-19 year olds in this period. Instead presentations remain steady at around 700 a year. London Ambulance Service statistics show similarly consistent figures for assault across the two boroughs. Health service data would not tend to support the conclusion that Kids Company’s presence has had a tangible effect on reducing hospital presentations of its client group.

Given the charity’s claimed success in educational engagement for under 16s (96%) we might perhaps expect to see changes in the number of permanent exclusions from school. But these remain consistent in Southwark and Lambeth at around 0.1% of the school population, and this despite national trends showing a consistent fall. Exclusion is not, then, one of the indicators that demonstrates the effectiveness of Kids Company’s work.

Southwark and Lambeth still top the list of London boroughs for rates of homicide. The two boroughs also top the lists for gun and knife crime. Research shows that young men under the age of 25 are the most likely to be both perpetrators and victims of violent crime. A recent report from the Office of National Statistics noted that: “…[men] aged 16 to 24 were more likely to be victims of violence than older age groups”. This data strongly suggests that violence is a concern for Kids Company’s clients, and indeed research sponsored by Kids Company demonstrates this, yet public data does not suggest that the charity’s work has reduced its prevalence in their lives.

It could be argued that this kind of data is simply too general to demonstrate the ways in which Kids Company has made a difference to at risk young people, that individual trajectories need to be assessed in more subtle ways. That may well be so. Nevertheless evidence ought to inform policy making and funding in youth services, and this evidence can and should be provided transparently. Indeed this is something for which Kids Company has itself campaigned, funding an excellent study by Cambridge University into (the lack of) peer-reviewed science in mental health policy for young people. Robust evidence matters.

The current paucity of robust evidence for the success of youth work is demonstrated by Project Oracle. Of the 166 youth work projects assessed by the children and youth evidence hub, only 3 have been validated as showing evidence of impact. Kids Company has not submitted its interventions for Project Oracle assessment, but the discrepancy between its claims and the statistical information in public data sources argues for an increased transparency concerning its work. 

Without evidence and transparency how do we, as taxpayers, know that we’ve received value for money? Where is the evidence of success? Who has provided this evidence? Are they independent? Can we trust what we’re being told?

This seems particularly important given that in September 2014 Kids Company called again for more government funding, not through an open commissioning or procurement process, but through the national press.

Does the charity deserve another grant more than, and on different terms to, other youth service providers?

The data in the annual reports tell us too little to make an informed judgment. Curiously a PowerPoint presentation of the Stephen Briggs study cited in the 2012 annual report, tells us that for 13 children in the study sample positive outcomes outweighed ongoing challenges after 12 months. That is less than 50% of the original 29 children interviewed at baseline (with 7 dropping out of the study). For very vulnerable young people that is still unquestionably a truly positive outcome, but it does not quite accord with the larger percentage figures often cited by the charity. Once again, available evidence seems somehow at odds with the charity’s more expansive claims in the annual reports.

Kids Company has received very significant sums of money already, sums greater than those usually granted to regional youth charities of its kind without specifically contracting for a service. Whether it ought to receive more on the public insistence of its CEO is a question that deserves more scrutiny than it is currently receiving, not least since the charity itself makes large claims about the negative impact of cost-cutting measures in the sector whilst annually making considerable increases in its turnover.

How moral authority substitutes for accountability

Part of the reason that scrutiny and accountability have appeared to play a minor role in Kids Company’s receipt of public funding may be to do with the moral authority of the charity’s leader.  This rests in part on celebrity endorsement. Kids Company has been very good at building celebrity support. In its calls for increased government funding the charity argue that public money is needed to supplement the generous donations made by Coldplay and others. This argument seems to rest on the notion that if Chris Martin is unable to fund Kids Company on his own, the taxpayer should step in to do so.

This assertion fits into that trend that Alan Finlayson has called ‘Bonoism’. Bonoists see “social or economic problems as opportunities to demonstrate [their] importance in the world”. The Bonoist “wants to help the poor, but he wants to do it by setting up his own charity”. Exemplified by the U2 singer who gives his name to this style of philanthropy, Bonoists believe that they have the “creative genius” to ‘make the world a better place’. Political leaders and the general public are invited only to follow where this genius leads.

Although Finlayson doesn’t go into the details of applied Bonoism, we can infer that Kids Company is something of a Bonoist organisation. We see this particularly in the central role played by Batmanghelidjh within the charity’s organisational structure and in her profile as a moral celebrity.

It is perhaps not surprising that Kids Company should be so attractive to so many celebrities. Batmanghelidjh’s is an approach – unique, creative, emotional and entrepreneurial – that talks their language.

It is also grandiose.

In June of this year Kids Company launched a campaign, See The Child, to petition for a taskforce to investigate failures in childcare services. Many campaigning charities use petitions to raise awareness, but most do not take the additional step of appointing national taskforce members themselves. It takes considerable chutzpah to dismiss a Royal Commission because it relies on an elected government to create it, and instead to “proactively set up an independent taskforce”. Here we see Batmanghelidjh’s Bonoist distrust of democratic process at work.

This episode highlights the fundamental tension between Bonoist entrepreneurial energy, and democracy. In many cases determining public benefit will, and should, take time and be based on evidence rather than personal conviction. Moral authority, however glitzy its celebrity endorsement, should not substitute for democratic accountability, and no charity, however morally authoritative, should be exempt from scrutiny. Nor, by extension, should a charity be able to bypass scrutiny and fair competition in its receipt of public funds by staking its claims through the media.

From Bonoism to Scrutiny

As well as drawing on Bonoist celebrity endorsement, Kids Company makes a more substantive claim for direct government funding. This is based on its provision of a service that is supporting maltreated children and young people who have been failed by the statutory system.

The focus turns here to the suffering of the UK’s children through unrecognized abuse and neglect. That is an accusation that needs to be taken seriously. Taking it seriously need not, of course, mean funding Kids Company. It ought in the first instance to be a response to the substantive claims that 1). There is a problem that is insufficiently recognized, and 2). A system that cannot deal with it. There is no direct line to the conclusion that Kids Company is the only, or the best, answer.

However the government has laid itself open to being swept from points 1 and 2 directly to funding Batmanghelidjh. It has done so by placing so much emphasis on the role of social entrepreneurship as the solution to intractable social problems.

In Big Society, Not Big Government, David Cameron asserts that we need a different kind of society “where the leading force of progress is social responsibility, not state control” and this is to be achieved by “breaking state monopolies, allowing charities, social enterprises and companies to provide public services ”. Well and good, but this brings us right back to the question of how we know that Kids Company, or any other charity, is doing a good job.

The Charity Commission is certainly not going to tell us.

If charities, social enterprises and companies are going to deliver public services then we need to know far more about how they are going about it. We need to know it in just the same ways that we do with current public service delivery, through efficient monitoring and data transparency. All charities staking their claims on public service delivery must acknowledge that scrutiny helps to improve services.

Kids Company, with its remarkable media profile, could lead the sector towards greater transparency and accountability by volunteering to share the evidence of its success through the open and transparent publication of its evaluations. This is not a matter of occasional open days, interviews and media visits. It is a matter of the systematic publication of evidence, not only of need but of outcomes and impact. In publishing transparently Kids Company would still be colourful, it would still undoubtedly be controversial in many ways, but it would also be grounding its influence in evidence. Nothing could more surely silence the charity’s critics.

Press enquiries about this article should be directed to jweir@osca.co

Photo by Monica Arellano-Ongpin