20 September 2016
Throughout this summer, the St Matthew’s Project in Brixton, south London, has been running free football sessions most days in Brockwell Park for local boys and girls. The project has also been providing food – up to 70 meals a day – as many of the children will get free school meals in term time but may otherwise be going hungry.
At the London Youth network, we embrace around 280 youth organisations, including St Matthew’s, that offer support and opportunities to young people throughout the year. When the charity Kids Company collapsed 12 months ago, we rallied these organisations and joined other partners – including borough councils and the Cabinet Office – to help any young people and families whose support network might have disappeared with its demise.
In the event, we collectively managed to run a very effective operation, without the drama or disaster that some predicted, and without anything like the funding Kids Company had access to (although the Cabinet Office was able to find a small amount of short-term investment).
Reflecting on this period, when in effect more than £20m of annual resource intended to support young people disappeared overnight from our sector, it is clear that we’ve all still got some thinking to do. From talking to youth workers in London there are at least six insights that might help us serve young people better in the future, while protecting us against the kind of implosion that brought down Kids Company.
Local authorities still have a vital role
The recent report by trade union Unison on funding for youth services highlighted that the days of large-scale financial support are gone. But local councils’ role in identifying need, supporting young people at risk, and coordinating provision – all things that Lambeth and Southwark delivered when Kids Company collapsed – are vital and should be enhanced.
There is entrenched need in communities
For all its problems, there was no doubt that, at its heart, Kids Company was about meeting need. And that need hasn’t gone away. With more than half a million young Londoners estimated to be living in poverty, the reality of inequality can’t be ignored. The London Fairness Commission made clear recommendations earlier this year (pdf) to tackle this challenge and we urge the new mayor, Sadiq Khan, to prioritise them.
Community organisations foster long-term outcomes
When the state fails, or big players collapse, it is invariably local community organisations that step in. The government should match its investment in the valuable, but short-term, National Citizen Service with equivalent funding for long-term, community youth work providing fun and opportunity out of school.
Quality services and strong outcomes don’t need to cost the earth
It is ironic that St Matthew’s – with annual turnover of less than £100,000, no celebrity supporters and largely volunteer-run – is still going strong, while Kids Company, with all its profile, pop stars and celebrity friends, is no more. St Matthew’s has achieved London Youth’s accredited standard of quality assurance for youth work; it is an FA Charter standard club; it measures its outcomes and is truly part of the local infrastructure. If we could reallocate the investment Kids Company enjoyed, think what more St Matthew’s and others could do.
Governance is key, but undervalued
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is the need for good governance. In a competitive financial environment, the pressure is often on charities to find board members with funding or business connections. But there are also broader skills needed that can be undervalued: local expertise, safeguarding skills and youth work knowledge. The inquiries into Kids Company have identified that at least some of these skills were missing from their governance. Charities must be willing to learn these lessons.
The media need to be less cynical, but more inquiring of the sector
The way Kids Company’s collapse was reported was symptomatic of a wider critique of charities over the past 18 months. Charities should not complain about this: public scrutiny is good, and people are entitled to ask questions when things go wrong. But there has to be more understanding of our world. While media outlets have specialist correspondents for everything from technology to the environment to transport, there are very few journalists with a strong knowledge of how charities work.
In a world where we are getting used to things changing rapidly, and sometimes surprisingly – from voting to leave Europe to changing the prime minister – it is important that we do our best to learn from things that go wrong and target investment and effort where it is needed. Young people’s pressures and aspirations change – but the need for great youth work to support them over the long term is constant. Let’s agree on this, at least, and prioritise investment in community-based approaches in future.