Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh – who reportedly had five personal assistants and turned her office into a palatial throne room with a tree in the centre – ran her organisation into the ground and dumped the thousands of young people who relied on the charity at the foot of the taxpayer. And yet even now, people are falling over themselves to say how great she is.
It has often occurred to me that if you wanted to perform any great con trick these days you could do no better than to have a hard to pronounce name, wear achingly ethnic clothing and cultivate a sort of ‘mother earth’ persona. The search for authenticity is such that before long every culturally embarrassed media and political creep would beat a path to your door, sit at your feet and hug you like a tree. In reality you would never need to do anything much because you’ve already ticked all the culturally correct boxes.
He’s right. Despite having made thousands of young people reliant on the services of Kids Company – and, through her own financial mismanagement and the negligence of her trustees, left them high and dry when the charity collapsed yesterday – most other commentators are still falling over themselves to praise Batmanghelidjh for her supposed pure-hearted, selfless altruism.
Here’s Fraser Nelson, balancing accurate and deserved criticism of Batmanghelidjh on the one hand, with the almost obligatory effusive praise on the other:
Yes, she created something amazing that did a lot of good for a lot of people. I have huge admiration for her, and what she achieved. There will be hundreds, if not thousands of disadvantaged young people whose lives will be permanently better for what she and her colleagues were able to do for them.
Even Miles Gosslet, the journalist who first broke the news that there were concerns about the way Kids Company was operating, uses painfully cautious and almost apologetic language when reaching his conclusion:
There are a number who believe that Kids Company has perhaps grown too quickly and would, despite its undoubted achievements, benefit from a review of its operations and controls. They worry that Kids Company has become too famous, untouchable, and now acts as a drain on well-meaning donations that might otherwise go to better causes. Having investigated the charity for several months, I’m afraid I agree.
Murray was right when he said that there is an aura around certain people – and around certain professions and political stances too, one might add – which makes close scrutiny and robust criticism almost impossible. And you can hardly do better escaping scrutiny than if you happen to work for one of those favoured organisations which enjoys the favour and blessing – and ministerial veto – of senior government officials, people who are guided by the opinion polls and an all-consuming obsession with how things look over how things really are – or could be.
But when is a charity not a charity?
Here’s a clue: If your organisation receives millions of pounds from the government, and if the state eclipses private and corporate philanthropy as the main benefactor and source of income, then it is not a charity. It is a QUANGO, a Public Service In All But Name, a de facto arm of the government. It comes with all the cons of financial burden on the taxpayer with none of the transparency or oversight that government spending at least pretends to ensure.
There are hundreds of Kids Companies operating up and down the country, charities in name but in reality monopoly providers of social care and other services under exclusive contract to local councils. This broken, unaccountable model should never have come to represent British philanthropy and charitable giving.
Is this David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society – an oligarchy of wealthy, privately educated upper middle-class types, each with their own personal vanity charity which is showered with government cash and totally exempted from any criticism?
Imagine if a private company had just done what Camila Batmanghelidjh has done to the thousands of children and their families who rely on the services of Kids Company. Imagine if a for-profit company was woefully mismanaged, deceived its shareholders by obfuscating performance stats and financial results, and then shut up shop with next to no notice, unceremoniously dumping all of its “service users” on the doorstep of local government and other local charities who have neither the resources or the expertise to pick up the strain.
If a private youth service provider failed in this manner, there would be absolute outrage. There would be anguished columns in the Guardian tearing apart the company and its directors for being bloodsucking vultures seeking to make a profit from social deprivation and misery, and for failing in their duty of care to the people they supposedly served. People would be dusting off the statute books to work out whether they could be criminally prosecuted for their failure, in a great sanctimonious show trial.
And yet when the “right sort” of person does just this, we all have to waste our first two paragraphs writing about how wonderful they are, how altruistic, and well-intentioned, and what a pity it is that they found themselves ‘out of their depth’.
We furiously overlook any benefit the perpetrator might have received behaving the way they did – financial, social, status-wise or otherwise – and assume that the lady with the epileptic seizure-inducing dresses and the preposterous hat was operating solely with the children in mind, that she was a living saint who was brought down because she just didn’t fully grasp the dull, technocratic details of running a large organisation.
Well, I’m sorry, but I won’t join in that parade. Camila Batmanghelidjh’s sins didn’t suddenly begin in the recent months and weeks when it became apparent that Kids Company was in trouble. She built – in fact, she helped pioneer the very idea of – a ‘charitable’ organisation which, almost from Day 1, spent vast sums of money ‘helping’ a very small and narrow group of ‘service users’, fuelled by celebrity glitz and the assurance of never-ending government largesse.
And by failing so spectacularly, Batmanghelidjh has done for her service users exactly what Gordon Brown (in his self righteous pomposity) did for the millions of additional Britons he deliberately made dependent on state welfare: left them high and dry, exposed and vulnerable, once the laws of common sense and economic reality finally and inevitably reasserted themselves.
A proper charity tries to draw widely from as broad a field of donors and supporters as possible, acknowledging its duty of care to the people who come to rely on it by ensuring prudent financial management and strategic planning. A proper charity puts and keeps the focus on the people it tries to help, and doesn’t act as a self-aggrandising vehicle for its founders and patrons. And – one likes to think – when all else fails, a proper charity, knowing that it faces closure, would use a final disbursement from central government to carry out the restructuring required to continue serving its beneficiaries, not to pay the salaries of its bloated employee roster.
The disruption to thousands of disadvantaged young people who relied on Kids Company is a terrible thing, but we must also focus on the bigger picture. We must ask ourselves what it is about our society which perpetuates the impossibly difficult environment in which many poor children grow up, and fuels demand for organisations like Kids Company in the first place.
And we must re-examine the role of government, our excessive tax burden and our limited culture of philanthropy, all of which combine together to breed so many quangos passing themselves off as charities.
But be under no illusion: Kids Company was not a charity. Not in the traditional sense of the word, but barely even by the vague, woollier definition that we have come to use today.
No, sadly Kids Company was a scam conceived by its bien pensant leadership and enablers, in collusion with government ministers, perpetrated on the British taxpayer – but more importantly, on the very people it claimed to help.