Most Admired Charity: The Children's Society, winner

The chief executive of the Children's Society says all children have the right to a good childhood, and it is battling to win public support for helping vulnerable groups.

Children's Society chief executive Bob Reitemeier (left) receives the award from Stephen Pittam, chief executive of last year's winner, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust
Children's Society chief executive Bob Reitemeier (left) receives the award from Stephen Pittam, chief executive of last year's winner, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

Children's charities operate in a crowded marketplace, where everyone is competing for resources, reputation and media coverage. The Children's Society does not enjoy the high profile of some of its peers - but anyone concerned with children's welfare knows it well, because over the years it has established a position as a respected leader in its field.

The charity has changed substantially since it started out in the 1880s as the Church of England Central Home for Waifs and Strays. The CofE links, however, remain. Technically, the charity's full name is The Church of England Children's Society, and the charity is closely intertwined with the church, from the two archbishops who are presidents of the society and the vast majority of the country's bishops to the church's network of schools and advisers.

"One of the things I like most is the way that it has kept its Christian values at the heart of the mission while reinventing itself to ensure a broad appeal," says Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust. "It is determined to go where it's needed, heedless of whether the cause is a popular one. Other large children's charities could learn from its integrity."

Today, that Christian mission is realised in a commitment to children of all backgrounds and faiths, underpinned by core values of love, justice and forgiveness. The society focuses mainly on four priority groups: children in trouble with the law, runaway children at risk on the streets, disabled children 'without a voice' and refugee children facing exclusion.

It also hooks those four priorities into its main campaign, the Good Childhood Inquiry. This links the opinions of 8,000 children and young people from around the UK with those of "leading experts and influencers", and takes six themes of family, health, friends, values, lifestyle and learning.

"It's all very well saying 'these are the groups we most want to work with', but we also have to find a way of talking to the public," says Tim Linehan, director of campaigns and media.

"There is always a risk that children's charities can effectively end up ghettoising the children they most focus on. We're going about it in a different way, saying 'this is all the experience of childhood - and these children are the ones most losing out on a good childhood'."

The charity is still campaigning and lobbying Government. Linehan is particularly proud of a recent Guardian leader column that referred to the society as "a stuck record for children".

Chief executive Bob Reitemeier says that, to change public attitudes towards children and the status of childhood, you have to reach out to the public. "For instance, too high a percentage of people think that reports of child poverty are exaggerated," he says. "We need to raise awareness and stimulate action.

"I think charities are beginning to engage with the public in a different way. We need to revisit the status of childhood as a whole and strengthen our commitment to making this a better world for all children."

Linehan adds: "We know that refugee children, for instance, figure right at the bottom of popular concerns. They are, quite brutally, the most disliked children in this country, and there is a lack of public concern about anything that happens to them.

"We start from the premise that all children have a right to a good childhood and extend that to look at the childhoods these children have. This gives us a far greater opportunity to bring people along with us, to see why we need to make changes in these children's lives."

The society's media coverage has tripled as a direct result of the Good Childhood Inquiry - and most of it has been positive. The final report and recommendations are due next February.

This will mark only one stage in the Children's Society's constant campaign to improve the lives of disadvantaged children.

"It is our duty in our sector to stop and revisit how we help children and how we value and treat them," Reitemeier concludes.

"We think childhood should be hugely valued. Not only because children are future adults, but also to support them and value childhood in its own right, not as something less than adulthood and less valuable."

Radhika Holmstrom

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