Andrew Barnett: the real lessons of Kids Company

Modern charities need balanced, collaborative leadership and a healthy dose of modesty, says the director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Andrew Barnett
Andrew Barnett

On the closure of Kids Company, I struggle to see the upsides. Staff, donors and, most importantly, the vulnerable young people who relied on its services, have all lost out; its founder, once vaunted, is now (no doubt unfairly) demonised. Camilla Batmanghelijh’s larger-than-life character may have fuelled the media coverage, but it's important not to allow her personality to obscure the wider picture: the changing qualities needed of our leaders, the role of charities, and the questions of how big they should grow, how they should grow, and at whose behest.

In an era of austerity, more is expected of charities and those that fund them. When funders take decisions, we need to believe in the charity’s cause, have faith in its leadership and buy into its ambitions for sustainable impact. That confidence is maintained where we see that charities are responding to the changing nature of service provision in twenty-first century Britain. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s experience as an organisation that funds and works with charities in the UK is that they are generally well run and punch beyond their weight. The record of charities is at least a match for private business: last year, some 240,000 private sector companies folded - a higher proportion than of charities de-registered. Efficient and effective charities remain a bedrock of our society, side by side with government and the private sector.

They work in areas where government, however well-intentioned, often struggles to perform - providing befriending services for older people, respite care, and youth clubs, to name a few. This is not a narrative about the failure of the state. It’s an acknowledgement of its limitations and of what can be achieved by charities when they focus on what they do best: targeting individuals’ needs and speaking truth to power. The criticism by some of charities’ voice is self-defeating, not least when so much more is expected of them. New ways of doing things and high ambitions should not be off-putting: they are windows through which we see the future. The boundaries between the public, private and charitable sectors are increasingly blurred and we know that complex problems cannot be solved by the lone ranger.

I recently attended a focus group where people were asked what they thought of primary care services  - GPs, dentists and the like. What struck me was how sector-blind people are. People want a good service that meets their needs, wherever and whenever they arise. They don't give a stuff who provides it. Similarly, the success of the collaborations we have nurtured as a charitable foundation – the Making Every Adult Matter coalition and the Campaign to End Loneliness for example – are testimony to the added value charities provide when they work together across boundaries and share the limelight.

All this requires reflective, adaptive and collaborative leadership: authentic and passionate people who can also navigate ambiguity, put purpose first and blend it with due regard for process and teamwork. Those whose preference is to be lower-key don't generally possess the celebrity that newspapers crave. There’s an important space for charismatic people, but we should value a balance of qualities across teams.

This balance is also important in warding off the tendency for some social sector organisations to grow at any cost. Charities are, by and large, motivated by what is best for their beneficiaries. But this shouldn’t always mean doing what they do for more and more people. Impact and scale don’t necessarily correlate. Different sorts of services - hospices or dance classes for example - have different economies of scale; our collective duty is to find the right model, tone and scale to deliver most impact. The magic of so many charities is that they operate on a human scale and avoid the warehousing that often typifies state provision (think massive hospitals and schools). Relentless growth can imperil what makes charities special. Leaders should think through how to maximise the benefit for those whom they care about: openness, collaboration and alternative diffusion strategies can be legitimate substitutes for relentless growth fuelled by high octane leadership.

As people look beyond the state for solutions to the problems we face, we need a combination of dynamism, coordination and a healthy dose of modesty. Charities will need a different balance of leadership as they mature, grow and take on those challenges. That means charismatic individuals must be bolstered by strong and effective governance to enable them to do what they do best and mitigate the risks. While leaders like Camilla Batmanghelijh are highly visible, the role of trustees behind the scenes is critical in ensuring balance between the strengths and weaknesses in the team and holding up a mirror to the colourful leader on whom the sun shines (and on whom, without the right support, the sun can also set). Charity is a team effort and we need to find the right balance if we are to do our best by the people we serve to meet the challenges of the present and  future.

 Andrew Barnett is Director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in the UK


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