Bob Reitemeier: He's back, and this time it's different

Bob Reitemeier left the Children's Society to work in a local community foundation, but has returned to the national scene to run a specialist speech and communication charity for kids. Andy Hillier spoke to him

Bob Reitemeier
Bob Reitemeier

Bob Reitemeier has the look of a man who is back in his element. His eyes are bright, his smile is broad and he quickly launches into a fluent routine about the need for society to support vulnerable children and young people.

For a decade, Reitemeier was chief executive of the Children's Society, becoming one of the highest-profile figures in the charity sector. But in late 2011 he stepped down from the national scene to become chief executive of the Essex Community Foundation, a local funder.

Four years later, he is back at the helm of a national children's charity, albeit a less well-known one. Since January he has been chief executive of I Can, which helps children and young people who have speech, language and communications difficulties (see "The plan for I Can", below), replacing Virginia Beardshaw, who stepped aside after 10 years.

So why the return to the national scene? "I was very happy at the Essex Community Foundation," says Reitemeier, who was headhunted. "It was a great team and did great work. But the I Can role provided an opportunity to come back to the national arena and, more specifically, to work for a charity involved in a single issue. It was very much a pull factor."

Before joining the Children's Society, Reitemeier worked for the international charity ActionAid after five years in Chad working for a non-governmental organisation based in his native US. Both jobs covered a broad range of work. "I'd always found it very rewarding, but I'd also always wondered about working for an organisation that did one thing really well," he says. "That's what I Can offered."

There is a personal aspect too. Reitemeier, now 58, has three children and the middle one has autism and a speech and language disorder. He says that communication is neglected as a fundamental aspect of people's lives, and this job gives him an opportunity to try to change this as he enters the autumn of his career.

Reitemeier grew up in rural Minnesota, where he says he was blessed with parents who taught him that "we all have a role in and responsibility for helping others". At 16, he studied a module at school about Africa that, he says, opened his eyes to the realities of the world. It led him to volunteer for the Peace Corps in Zaire in the early 1980s before he went on to work in international development.

In 1994, he moved to the UK for a job at ActionAid and has been based here ever since, becoming a British citizen six years ago. "My career has been about righting a wrong," he says. "When there are groups of people or individuals who are disadvantaged and not getting the support they need, that's a scandal. I think we should be judged as a nation by how we support the most disadvantaged."

His move to the Essex Community Foundation early in 2012 was unconventional, given his national profile. But he says he enjoyed it, and that it is the only charity he has ever worked for that has a truly sustainable funding model. After the Children's Society, which was typically involved with large-scale projects, he says he found it refreshing to see the huge difference modest grants can make to a community.

And he says he believes that community foundations in the UK, most of which are less than 20 years old, could be further nurtured and supported.

"They don't get any air time in Westminster, but they're a vital source of support to neighbourhoods and communities," Reitemeier says. "They need to be part of our long-term thinking as a nation. If you look at community foundations in North America, they are now giving out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants each year. When you get to that sort of level, you can do some amazing things."

As an experienced chief executive, he has seen charity crises come and go. He won't go so far as saying that the current climate for charities is the most difficult in recent memory, but he believes that there has never been as much scrutiny of the sector, and says it is getting harder to bring in the funding charities require. "I still think that a good cause, led by good people, can do wonders," he says. "I wouldn't want to paint a picture of difficulty, but rather one of opportunity."

The media has been heavily critical of charities after recent events such as the Olive Cooke case and the high-profile collapse of Kids Company, but Reitemeier believes the sector isn't nearly as badly managed as some of the press suggests. "I think the sector should be extremely proud of what it contributes to British society," he says. "It would be a different animal if it didn't have the charity sector. But the sector needs to concentrate on what it actually does and start talking about that more loudly, because it makes an enormous contribution to society."

But he accepts that cases like that of Olive Cooke provide a salutary reminder about how charities should go about their fundraising. "What has been lost in fundraising is that it's all about relationships," he says. "If you're developing a longer-term relationship, you do that out of mutual respect. I think we need to bring relationships back into fundraising, because maybe it has lost its way."

During his time at the Children's Society, Reitemeier got to know Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company. He describes the negative media coverage about her and the charity as a "pretty unattractive witchhunt", but adds that charities have to pay close attention to their finances and put strong management systems in place. "No one should be immune," he says.

He believes that Kids Company has in fact left a positive legacy for the sector. "What it did show is that, in order to reach out to the most disaffected children in society, you have meet them where they are and work with them over time," he says. "That is something I don't think we've been talking about."

But has Kids Company's demise created a more difficult environment for children's charities? "I don't see it as more difficult," he says. "But we do need to demonstrate we're making a difference to children's lives. We should be doing that anyway. If you are confident in your management systems and the way you're providing services, there's nothing to be afraid of."

Times might be hard for charities, but Reitemeier believes they should be looking to the future. "We're kind of stuck in this austerity and a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality, but we have to lift our heads up and say what the world is going to be like in 20 years. I think all charities need to think a bit more about preparing for the future."


I Can, now led by Bob Reitemeier, runs one specialist school in Nottinghamshire for children with speech and language problems, and another in Surrey. It runs programmes that help educational staff to identify and support children with such problems. It also raises awareness and lobbies government and statutory agencies for improvements in speech and language provision.

The charity's income has varied between £9m and £10m a year for five years. But last year expenditure outstripped income by more than £440,000, largely because income from statutory grants and grant-making trusts halved from the previous year.

Reitemeier says fundraising will be one of his immediate concerns. "I want to look at where we need to focus our energies in fundraising, because we do need to turn it around - there's no question about that," he says. Key areas will be major donor fundraising, corporate donations and grants from trusts and foundations, he says, but he concedes that the charity is unlikely to attract significant donations from the public: "There are relatively few charities that can invest in mass marketing and do it successfully."

Recent funders include the UBS Optimus Foundation, the charitable trust of the financial services firm UBS, which contributed "a six-figure sum" to I Can's Early Talk Boost programme (right). This provides support to three and four-year-old children with delayed language development. Almost 80 per cent of children who have been through that programme have caught up with their peer group, Reitermeier says.

Four years ago, I Can set up a social enterprise that uses a network of 500 speech and language tutors to train nursery staff and teachers in how to spot and support children with speech, language and communication difficulties. "Setting it up was a brave decision at the time, but, in hindsight, it was a good decision," says Reitemeier. "We have an incredibly rich resource in all our speech and language therapists and special teachers."

Last year, the social enterprise made a profit of about £500,000 for the charity, and Reitemeier hopes to increase this - but he sees it as an important part of I Can's funding mix rather than a panacea. "I came here because I think this cause is so important to the nation and it's time to start shouting about it," he says. "We only get so many chances in life to do something valuable."

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