Stella Smith: Kids Company reminds us there are two sides to every story

We must not rush to judge and lay blame when things go wrong, writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

I've always loved a good story, like those classic fairy tales with instantly recognisable heroes and villains. They have a comforting simplicity about them and it's disorienting when someone insists on a different version of what happened.

I formed my own story about the collapse of Kids Company some time ago. I didn't know the charity well and had, like many, formed my opinion from what I'd seen on TV and read in papers and on the internet. My assessment was of a charismatic, unconventional and strong-minded chief executive with more flair than financial nous unchallenged by a timid board of trustees. Not an especially complex story.

Having made my mind up, it was with some misgivings that I approached reading Third Sector's recent interview with the ex-chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh. Would she be able to shine any further light on what had happened?

The interview reminded me that, before its failure, the story was very different. From an external perspective, the charity looked in pretty good shape. Reputable accounting firms had given the organisation a clean bill of health. Government reports were similarly positive. By most standards, the board was impressive, not lacking in governance experience and better qualified than most to detect problems and hold senior managers to account. It was certainly unorthodox, but complex issues, such keeping vulnerable children safe, often demand a different approach.

That story was quickly turned on its head. Allegations of sexual abuse and financial mismanagement planted seeds of doubt. Soon we were all reviewing what we had heard, questioning the wisdom of that unconventional style, and from there it all rapidly unravelled.

We've seen stories like this before. In 2014 there was the demise of Beatbullying, another charity feted by government, with a strong female leader, the great and the good populating the board. It seemed to be doing a fine job. But it too was heavily reliant on state funding and, when rumours of bullying and allegations of financial mismanagement spread, it collapsed. It was, however, subsequently cleared of wrong-doing by the Charity Commission.

Such failures hit service users and other stakeholders hard, and we need to understand what's happened. If there is evidence of wrongdoing, people must be prosecuted. But we also need to guard against premature conclusions. Batmanghelidjh is probably right when she says: "People look at my appearance and think I'm random and chaotic, but I'm not." We all tend to form judgements on little evidence, but in the age of social media this inclination is magnified. A fleeting idea or a spiteful thought can be communicated widely in minutes, and we're all vulnerable to giving it undeserved credibility. It is a reminder that charities need more than ever to manage how the public perceives them. It's not enough to be doing good work; we must work proactively to maintain people's trust.

We also need to make sure that we are not jumping to conclusions with little knowledge. Having read Batmanghelidjh's interview, I am still not clear what went wrong. What I am pretty sure of, though, is that there are two sides to every story, it is rarely just one person's fault and the truth is often uncomfortably complicated.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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