Thursday, 6 August 2015

When love doesn't save the day what happens ?

Believe me when I say the above not with cynicism, but with a heavy heart. You already know that I am a big fan of love - I am soppy and embarrassing, with Hubbie, my family, friends and my children. Despite my vow not to, I slobber all over my sons when I drop them off anywhere, much to their embarrassment. Yes, even the almost 2 year old ! 

You can't have missed the news about the closure of the charity Kids Company and the subsequent fallout in the media. On the one hand there are accusations that the charity was not financially viable and on the other the claim that it is the speculation in the media that led to donations drying up. I have over 20 years experience of the charity sector starting out as a volunteer with Terrence Higgins Trust in 1994, working with children's charities, overseas agencies and as a fundraising director in latter years. I have seen a lot of what goes well and plenty of what goes wrong with charities. I've never known a charity to close like this. The Diana Memorial Fund closed a few years ago following a court case they took against the Franklin Mint in the US. The fund lost resulting in a large payout of legal fees that made dent in their finances. There were many charities that relied on funding from them who faced closure and it was a salutary lesson to the sector to diversify funding and not to rely on one major source of income.

We haven't heard the full story about what happened at Kids Company yet and may never truly know. It's terribly sad for all the young people who were helped by the charity and for all the staff who were committed to the work they loved doing. Now, I'm not an expert, but I've learned a lot in the last 20 years and some of what I know might help explain what seems inexplicable here.

Work your way out of a job:

First up charities exist to meet a need that is not already being served. Barnardos, Save the Children and Kids Company all came about to provide care for children who would otherwise be left uncared for and neglected. Medical charities are often started to support people who are confounded about how to cope with life changing circumstances. The Anthony Nolan Trust was founded by parents who were alone and in need of help when their son Anthony was ill and needed a bone marrow transplant. For years they have provided this support to others and now also campaign to encourage more people to become bone marrow donors. My point is that a charity is started to fill a gap and at some point surely the aim must be to negate the need to exist at all ? After all what says success like not being needed any more ? Isn't it more of a win for a charity to say 'we have eradicated this disease' than to say 'we have helped more people with this disease this year than last'. Ok that is probably utopian, but it has been my observation that as charities grow their aim is to diversify and increase revenue to deliver more and more services rather than to work towards their own end. After all when you have offices and staff salaries to pay for why would you want to wind down the organisation ? Well, maybe because you have succeeded in making the service you provide a mainstream one that is available or because the need for the service has gone. That might seem idealistic, but isn't the headline aim of any charity working with vulnerable children and young people who have been neglected or abused to stop the abuse happening in the first place ?

Charisma at the top:

I've worked for my fair share of visionary charity founders. They are inspiring, driven and charismatic. Rarely are they also managers or business minded. When you have a mantra like, "love will cure all" why deal with boring details like salaries and tax returns ? It's so easy to praise the 'front line' services and castigate agencies for having managers and back office staff. Well how do you think those front line staff are CRB checked, insured and paid ? Or have the equipment they need to do their work ? That the offices you work in are paid for and the paper in the photocopier is bought and the broadband is connected and working. Someone has to fundraise to pay for all of that, someone else has to have legal knowledge to ensure that young people, children, older people and anyone else is safe and protected. It's not glamorous, but it is essential. If you've ever had an operation did you get a call from your consultant to book you in or did someone in an admin department advise you of the date you would be seen ? Back office is necessary to enable front line to function. The face of the organisation rarely takes any interest in the functions that make their charity tick.

Love is all you need:

When a founder/chief executive says something like, "love is what these children need," I agree, of course they do. They also need a safe place and trusted people to support them. Love doesn't pay for accommodation and it isn't ensuring they are safe from harm. An abuser will say they love the person they hurt. A parent who has neglected their children will insist they love them while also destroying their childhood. Love will definitely make a big difference, but so can care, nutrition and a safe place to stay - all of which can cost money. Which brings us to...

Show me the money:

Believe me when I say it's not easy to ask for money. I wish it was a case of just saying, "this is really important work, you know that, please fund it." It isn't. When I am fundraising by doing something daft like dancing for 6 hours or walking all night it's friends and family who I'm asking to give money to a good cause. It's asking them to support what I'm doing in the name of a good cause. When I'm fundraising for a charity that I work for it's often trusts and companies who I am applying to. They are being asked by other competing charities whose causes are just as compelling, so how do they decide ? Well they often have very clear criteria of what they will fund - that makes sense. Others will refuse to fund existing work or salaries or capital projects. All of which means that once work is established it's very difficult to fund it to continue. Some charities respond by repackaging what they are doing so it looks new and shiny. Others chase the money and change what they do in order to keep going. It's not a great situation either way. What it does mean is that everyone is fighting for the same pot of money.

Friends in high places:

When the head of a charity is always in the media portraying their own take on the charity instead of the reality it is very difficult for the work of the charity to continue. That same founder / Chief Executive figure will most likely refuse to listen to the people who do pay salaries and fundraise because they have the bigger vision and don't want to get bogged down with the boring stuff like the bottom line. If that same person then says they will go and get a handout from their 'friendly donor' it's neither transparent nor ethical, but you're not allowed to challenge the person at the top. When that friendly donor is high profile and decides to withdraw support what happens ? Well, I have had to negotiate with a corporate donor who wanted their money back because they had no idea what had been done with it. No one wants to have to do that, but if you aren't being open and honest with donors that will happen. Worst case scenario you will have to pay it back. Even worse case scenario you will have no money and have to close. Leaving the benefactors and staff with nowhere to go.

It's not all work, work, work:

Most people I've worked with in charity have a deep commitment to the cause. They also have a love of what they do because - let's face it - they aren't in the best paid jobs. The backbone of the charity sector is the work of volunteers. They deliver services, collect donations, fundraise, organise events, bake cakes, answer phones and without them it would just not be possible to function. No one wants to stop delivering services they believe in or to leave children and young people or older people or animals without any care or support. I say this as someone who has spent time overseas with children in orphanages and refugee camps - it made it glaringly obvious why the cause was so important. I have also worked to fundraise for organisations that provide support to care leavers and young people at risk of crime. It's not an easy cause, but it's one that needs the money as otherwise no one else is doing it.

There isn't room for everyone:

Not every charity will make it and the phrase 'too big to fail' cannot be truer here. Some are such leviathans that it's seen as irresponsible to let them go bust, but why are they so big in the first place ? It's not like any one charity is genuinely unique any more. There are many cancer charities. Myriad medical charities. So many children's charities. The minute differences are negligible. More importantly they're often delivering work we don't realise is charitable. Were you aware that air ambulance is a charity that has to fundraise ? An emergency service provided by charity. Most services for prisoners are delivered by charities as are support services for looked after children. Aren't these public provisions ? Well maybe they should be, but with little regulation and new charities being created every day the money just won't go round. If a charity is able to use public funds like a personal piggy bank and then to not even account for the money how is that fair ? 

This is a blog post I never intended to write, but with so much comment and inference about the current news story I just wanted to add my two pen'orth. Fundamentally there are too many charities. There's not enough money for everyone. If you're fortunate enough to be funded well you owe it to those you work with to be responsible and make that money work the best way. This doesn't mean going back to keep asking for more to fill gaps, but being honest about where it's spent and why. If you can't and that results in funders deciding not to keep funding your cause you can't then lash out at everyone with guilt inducing accusations of service users let down.

Not being sustainable and claiming that love will feed, clothe, counsel and heal wounded children is irresponsible. More importantly it's devastating for the young people who will lose out at a result of this. Right now the last thing they are feeling is loved.  

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