17 August 2015
Monday 17 August 2015
Reflections from the storm surrounding Kids Company
Over the last week I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to journalists and others about the consequences of the Kids Company closure and what could be done to support young people affected. During this time my biggest observation has been just how far we – as voluntary youth organisations – have to go towards making the wider public, and in particular its gatekeeper, the media, aware of the way our world works.
Regardless of the real story behind what happened at Kids Company, there are some pretty fundamental misunderstandings in how the work of charities has been explained and communicated.
‘If one service disappears there is literally no provision left for young people’
Things are more complicated than that. Clearly the loss of any service – particularly one of significant scale – is going to present challenges and cause young people to need to find alternatives. But young people are consumers – and many use different services for different needs. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t argue for more resources for additional services – but many of the opinion pieces and articles which said that we must either save or replace things ‘like for like’ did not explore the range of other options which might be available.
‘There are too many charities out there’
Whilst in some ways contradictory to the first, there is an increasing notion that there may actually be too many charities and we are all boosting ourselves with big salaries and perks at the expense of our donors and beneficiaries. This reduces trust, confidence and support for all of us.
‘Gut feelings and decision-making’
Thirdly, there are often sympathetic commentator and supporters of charities willing to offer the genuine and heartfelt view that because they’ve seen the work up close, they know for a fact it must be brilliant. Of course, this support is welcome. But it comes with a risk that people get the idea that we simply plan our services on hunches or gut responses, rather than using real evidence.
‘No evidence means no impact’
The other downside of this kind of anecdotal support is that we are less able to defend ourselves against one of the other charges that has been made in recent days, such as from the apparent experts who say ‘I’ve seen no evidence that what they do works, so it can’t be any good’.
‘Charities are run by well-meaning amateurs’
We must collectively challenge the view that charities are run by well-meaning amateurs, which is as often pointed out sympathetically as critically. It isn’t the case. Even small charities are quite sophisticated and complex organisations. But we need to show leadership, and demonstrate our competence and capability above all else: we’re asking people to trust us, with money and with the care of vulnerable people. And most of the time the majority of us do that exceptionally well.
At a time when resources are scarce, and our work with young people is even more crucial, it is really important that we try to do something about this if we are going to build trust – and therefore investment – in our organisations.
So with those challenges in mind, what do we – the charity sector – need to do?
1. We must be honest about our work. About the scale of a problem and its complexity: that we might not be able to solve it quickly, and there is a possibility that some of the things we do won’t work. Also we need to be open about where we get our money from, what we spend it on and why people give it to us. Donors have to give us space and support to do this too.
2. We need to continue to collaborate and publicly acknowledge each other’s role. Lots of organisations issued statements saying they were willing to help support young people affected by Kids Company’s closure, which was a great response. However, fewer of those statements seemed to explicitly acknowledge the need for partnership and collaboration. In the scramble to look impressive to our own donors and funders we can risk exacerbating some of the misunderstandings above. This is about real leadership. Speaking together, with a clear voice, so that we are trusted, and accountable. And foregoing, perhaps, some of the ‘positioning gains’ for us as organisations, because actually others may be better placed.
3. We must improve our communication with the media, letting journalists know what we do, how we do it and why. When people asked the question ‘Who can help the children who will be left behind once Kids Company closes?’ the answer in some of the media was not ‘the many other charities out there that will do their very best’ but instead was ‘Coldplay will do a fundraising gig’. But we can’t expect them to write intelligent stories about our work if we only give them ‘rags to riches’ case studies or unalloyed success stories to deal with.
If things go wrong – as they will – we need to show we can learn from them, and work together to put them right. And we must do this from a position of strength and trust, of which better and more joined up communication from all of us is a vital part.