Camila Batmanghelidjh: 'What happened to us could happen to any charity'

In the week her book is launched, the Kids Company founder tells Andy Hillier why she fears about the implications of her case on senior managers in charities and trustees

Camila Batmanghelidjh
Camila Batmanghelidjh

Witch. Liar. F@cking thief. Camila Batmanghelidjh has been called all three – and worse – since Kids Company, the children’s charity she founded, crashed and burned in the summer of 2015 amid allegations of child abuse and misspending public money.

But sat in the back room of her small and vibrantly decorated north London flat, Batmanghelidjh, wearing her trademark patchwork turban and kaftan, comes across as far from bitter.

After all, she has some things to be pleased about. First, she remains a free woman: no criminal charges have been brought against her despite some serious allegations being levelled against the charity at the time of its collapse. Second, her new book, Kids – Child Protection in Britain: The Truth, is to be published on 17 October. Having written the book in conjunction with the journalist Tim Rayment, Batmanghelidjh wants to put her side of the story and challenge what she sees as a whole host of inaccuracies and myths about Kids Company that she says ultimately led to its demise.

People look at my appearance and think I’m chaotic and random, but I’m not. I couldn’t have founded two charities and raised £168m if I was that chaotic

Camila Batmanghelidjh

Her professional life is on hold, however. She hasn’t worked for two years – would your charity employ Camila? – and the Insolvency Service has begun proceedings to disqualify her and the charity’s eight trustees from being directors. Batmanghelidjh was not a director of Kids Company, but the IS is making the case that she was a "de-facto director" because she had the power to make strategic decisions as chief executive. She also awaits the findings of the Charity Commission’s investigation into Kids Company.

In the meantime, she remains in professional purgatory and living off the generosity of friends.

When we meet, she seems less concerned about her own fate and more worried about the implications for the charity sector. "My worry is that what happened to us could happen to any charity" she says. "I fear that due process and vigorous inquiry were not facilitated. Instead, rumours and inaccuracies were allowed to be communicated unchecked."

And, boy, were there rumours in the months preceding the closure of Kids Company. There were the allegations that Batmanghelidjh used charitable funds to pay for a private chauffeur and owned three mansions. Then there were stories about how the charity put children up in luxury hotels and money given to children to pay for food was spent on drugs.

"People went to the news and said that Kids Company was a cover-up for trafficking Iranian children and that I ran a brothel in east London, from which I was collecting the money," she says. "I was also supposed to have had a private nurse. It was rubbish, absolute rubbish."

She is particularly incensed by the accusations that Kids Company had its own private chauffeur and that she used one of its properties as her own leisure centre. "The man described as a chauffeur had worked at Kids Company for 17 years," Batmanghelidjh says. "He’d been trained at the Tavistock [mental health] clinic. He was working with the most high-risk kids, but he ended up being ‘the chauffeur’.

"The house in north London was for young people with mental health problems. It had two live-in carers and a swimming pool. The pool was too dangerous for the kids to use because there was a problem with the lining."

To help fund the pool’s refurbishment, she says, she decided to cancel her existing leisure centre membership and pay a fee to Kids Company to use the pool. Her directors approved the idea, she says. "It seemed a good idea because the charity was getting paid and the kids couldn’t use the pool," she says.

Batmanghelidjh maintains that the charity was shut down not because it was doing anything illegal or wrong, but because no one was properly scrutinising the allegations made in the press and everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. "I think we need to have a code of conduct," she says. "If there’s something that needs to come out of this, it’s some kind of understanding between charities and the media, or some kind of code. Charities are uniquely vulnerable to this reputational damage."

The same pattern repeated itself, she says, when she was called in October 2015 to give evidence in parliament to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee hearing on the collapse of Kids Company. "The very disruptive, flawed media then presented their false evidence to parliament," she says. "And they didn’t check it.

"The public don’t realise this; nor do charities. They think parliament is a robust environment and will behave justly. In fact, it was a sham."

In her view, the only person who came anywhere near to telling the real story was the civil servant Sir Chris Wormald, then permanent secretary at the Department for Education, who gave evidence at the Public Accounts Committee’s hearing into the demise of Kids Company in November 2015. "He kept saying that Kids Company’s reports were on time and it was value for money," she says. "He was the only one that dared to speak truth to power."

Another allegation made against Batmanghelidjh was that she used the media to blackmail both local and national government. "As a matter of principle, I never used my relationship with the media against any local authority or government. The only thing I said in the media was that we did not have money."

PACACCamila Batmanghelidjh and Alan Yentob appear before the PACAC

One of the most damaging accusations levelled against the charity was that it had vastly inflated the numbers of children it worked with, but Batmanghelidjh strenuously denies the claim. "I didn’t decide off the top of my turban that we worked with 36,000 kids," she says. "The numbers were given to me by our audit department. We worked with 48 schools. Each school had a team leader and they would gather all their data. At the street-level centres, the kids had key workers who created the data. There was no hocus pocus about it."

But she concedes that Kids Company was not perfect. "No organisation can be," she says. "But we were working all the time on improving."

Batmanghelidjh is generally portrayed as the do-gooder leader, unsuited to 21st-century management, but she says people should judge her by the evidence. "People look at my appearance and think I’m chaotic and random, but I’m not," she says. "I couldn’t have founded two charities and raised £168m if I was that chaotic."

She describes herself as analytic, saying she created a lot of the structures at Kids Company, but her learning difficulties, which include struggling to write and issues with spatial awareness, meant she was reliant on other people to deliver them and run the administrative functions of the charity.

"From the start, because of my learning difficulties, the practical functions of the organisation were always managed by someone else," she says. "We always had a senior number two. There is an overestimation of my role. I worked much more in a team than people imagined. We had 11 directors. Everything I was weak at and couldn’t do was delegated."

She says she had also wanted to step down from the chief executive role and take up a more clinical post at the charity, but its constant financially perilous situation prevented her from doing so. In the book, Batmanghelidjh says that government minster Oliver Letwin had promised to give the charity £20m to place it on a firmer financial footing, but the money never materialised, leaving Kids Company living a hand-to-mouth existence. "We never had a consistent funding pathway," she says. "The chief executives we approached were always anxious about whether we would survive and were worried about paying their mortgages."

But surely poor financial planning on her part was partly to blame for the demise of Kids Company? After all, the charity had raised more than £150m since it was founded but had hardly any reserves, even before the media started its attacks. "I put together two committees of business leaders to try to raise the levels of reserves, but they couldn’t raise the money," she says. "Philanthropists would not give the money for reserves. The general funds we raised covered our administration because no one would fund that."

One of the charity’s corporate partners, the bank Morgan Stanley, purchased a building now worth about £1.2m on behalf of the charity. Batmanghelidjh says that, technically, this was its reserve. But she believes no amount of shrewd financial planning would have saved the charity given the severity of the allegations made against it. The charity’s costs were running at about £2m a month because of the number of children with complex needs it was working with.

It took the police seven months to complete the investigation into sexual abuse at the charity and to conclude there was no case to answer. In the meantime, funders had abandoned the charity in droves and Kids Company would have needed £14m in reserves just to have stayed afloat, says Batmanghelidjh.

On the broader picture for charities, she bemoans how the way government funding is allocated has pitted organisations against each other. "They’ve all become competitive," she says. "They appear to be collaborative, but there’s a lot more competition."

She believes too many charities have become complicit in the government’s game and are too scared to speak out. "Everyone is afraid of losing funding and of losing favour," she says. "They’re afraid of not getting their promotions. They’re afraid of being seen as problem-makers."

Children’s charities that "design a protest", as she describes it, particularly infuriate her. "They produce a little report that says this number of children are being abused and neglected," she says. "Then they get a minister to speak at the conference, and the minister promises to do better. Everyone pats themselves on the back. Stop it. This is not real work. Policy recommendation has become a substitute for real work."

Batmanghelidjh gets most upset when she talks about the effect on the trustees. Alan Yentob, the charity’s former chair, gave an estimated £250,000 of his own money to the charity and ended up leaving his job as creative director at the BBC over the Kids Company affair. "I cried when Alan Yentob resigned," she says. "It was so unjust. All he did was fight for those kids. The trustees ended up being maligned in this way."

Given what has happened to her trustees, she says she would struggle to advise people to become trustees. "These were people at the top of their professions," she says. "What did they have to gain from working with a street charity? I would say don’t become a trustee until you find out what happens with Kids Company."

And what of the Charity Commission, which is yet to publish the findings of its investigation into the charity? She says she was interviewed by the commission nearly two years ago but has had little contact since. "The questions being asked were predominately along the lines of why did I put this kid in hotel at this cost?" she says. "They seem to be investigating the material generated from the malice-makers. When I asked them to investigate the people who brought them the material, they said it wasn’t within their remit. I’m worried about fairness and how it’s being presented."

However, she does credit the commission for not leaking any information because she believes some government departments and agencies have been briefing against her.

The commission’s powers were extended last year and Batmanghelidjh could face range of sanctions, including being barred from holding senior positions in charities in the future. Batmanghelidjh believes her fate may well be sealed with the commission. "The Charity Commission will want to put all of the blame on me because it wants to protect the trusteeship situation," she says. It’s safer to blame the chief executive than deter people from becoming trustees, she says.

She and the trustees are now trapped in a legal process that could last up to three years. Batmanghelidjh says it could cost her £500,000 personally. Nevertheless, she plans to fight the case all the way. "I don’t believe the blame resides with us," she says. "We were short of money and asked for help repeatedly. If there’s anything else that I’ve done wrong and someone can demonstrate it, then I will take responsibility. But what we’re being blamed for – the chauffeur, the mansions – is not true. People want me to say sorry for things that were not true."

Kids Company

Was Kids Company financially mismanaged?

The charity has been widely accused of financial mismanagement, but Batmanghelidjh has put together a document, seen by Third Sector, that she says shows it was regularly audited and no concerns were raised about its financial management.  

The document includes a summary of a report written for the Department for Education in 2010. It says that Kids Company had high levels of assurances for controls and governance, for deliverables, which included providing evidence of activities, and for its key financial controls.

Batmanghelidjh says that another DfE document, from quarter two in 2013, shows that the department was happy with the way its grant was being spent and the charity was hitting or exceeding the targets set. "We can confirm that not only are Kids Company meeting the specified numbers of clients and interventions, in some cases they are achieving three or four times the number of target interventions," says the document, seen by Third Sector.

In 2013, Batmanghelidjh says the accountancy firm Kingston Smith carried out an audit of how the charity had spent its grant for the DfE’s Improving Outcomes for Children, Young People and Families programme. A summary of the report, supplied by Batmanghelidjh, says Kingston Smith concluded that the "grant offer conditions had been met in all material respects and the grants monies have been expended in accordance with the purposes intended by the department".

Kingston Smith declined to comment on the document.

In 2014, says Batmanghelidjh, the accountancy practice PKF Little John conducted a review of the charity on behalf of the Cabinet Office. A summary of the report, supplied by Batmanghelidjh, says the firm found no problems with the charity's policies and procedures, governance arrangements, management accounting, purchasing and procurement, or payroll systems. It did, however, make some suggestions to strengthen the charity’s financial systems and highlighted the serious cash-flow problem the charity was experiencing. 

"They told us that everything was high assurance, except that we didn’t have enough cash flow, something we’d been telling government," she says. "Our business strategy and planning was appropriate. We had 19 years of audit without fail."

PKF Little John did not respond to Third Sector's request for comment within our deadline.

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