Mesmerised! Many of us were…
Much was made of David Cameron being ‘mesmerised’ by the founder of Kids Company in the blanket media coverage of the charity’s demise. He wasn’t the only one. I first met Camila Batmanghelidjh at a national conference, where she had delivered – and there’s no other word for it – a ‘mesmerising’ keynote speech.
Amid the sea of grey suited and booted people, she was an exotic flower in her trademark pink turban, multi-coloured patchwork dress and retro specs, and she spoke without a single note, driven simply by her drive to make a difference (although I later discovered, also her inability to read notes due to severe dyslexia). The auditorium was pin-drop silent as she challenged her audience of GPs and primary care professionals, pharmacists and pharma industry executives to base their work on compassion not process, to nurture and heal and to remember always that it is within their gift to make or break the life of a traumatised or abused child.
I talked to Camila briefly afterwards, and a week later found myself in a tiny, cramped Dickensian house in south London being ushered into a room every bit as exotic as Camila herself. Why have a desk when you can stretch out on a once beautifully embroidered, and now much repaired, chaise longue? And why a utilitarian office chair when a wobbly stool lovingly crafted by one of your children speaks so much louder?
As we sat on our wobbly stools, it was very clear that this was not the talk of some woolly do-gooder. She has a piercing intelligence and spoke with clarity and precision. In an ideal world she would have been at the frontline with her children all the time, but in the real world she also had to ensure the charity’s survival and the small matter of changing the world. In the dwindling light of a cold December afternoon she told us she needed to raise £1m to fund a significant programme of work, with life changing and society changing potential.
Camila has worked all her adult life with children who have been abused, neglected and traumatised. Anyone who has spent time with her will very quickly understand the appalling adversity that many children and young people endure. Kids Company provided practical, emotional and educational support to vulnerable inner-city children and young people, tailoring support to the needs of each individual and providing a family environment where none existed, and vital care where public provision failed.
We worked with Kids Company for two years on a pro bono basis, launching a fund raising and awareness campaign, Peace of Mind, One Neuron at a Time, to make their first full research programme into the impact of trauma and neglect on young people’s neurophysiological and psychological functioning a reality.
This was at a time when Camila’s high profile supporters were legion. At one early meeting where Camila was warming up a slightly resistant pharmaceutical policy director, Chris Martin from Coldplay dropped in. Within minutes the deal was done. When Kids Company moved from the tiny Dickensian house to a new HQ, an army of volunteers transformed a soulless, south London former DHSS building into a wonderland as far removed from the dingy, dank surroundings most of Kids Company’s clientele were growing up in as was possible to imagine.
But there was, indisputably, another side to this flamboyant, high profile organisation. We spent a morning one December wrapping Christmas presents (a first world salve to the sophisticated Christmas lunch we were heading for), and questioned the need for £150 trainers, designer handbags, and computer games we wouldn’t have dreamt giving to our own children. We were reassured that all the goods had been donated, most from global brands and that damaged children gained self-respect from expensive stuff. One of the trustees – the wife of a household name – reduced one of our account team to tears, arrogantly dismissing a request for a tweet by another household name, despite this originally being her suggestion. And we never could quite work out the numbers. 13,500 children morphed all too quickly into 36,500.
As an organisation, it was probably over-staffed, and new intelligence, which confirmed our observations, suggests cash flow was always precarious, despite advice from the well paid professionals it employed. None of this is surprising. Camila was an idealist, not a business woman. Her personal passion and energy were directed at only one thing – to make the world better for thousands of children who had no means to make it better themselves. If there were a million pounds in the bank, that meant food and care for more children, but that message was diluted when we saw her swimming in a luxurious underground swimming pool as part of an ill-judged documentary that aired after the charity had collapsed. Salix was not advising at the time. She could be, and often was, disingenuous in her management of the media and in the end it backfired.
Only time will tell what really lies under the surface, and whether the impressive Board of trustees had any meaningful cojones. The chair, Alan Yentob, responded emotionally to needling questioning on Channel 4 but frequently failed to give satisfactory answers. His most telling comment was that no one told Camila what to say. He could have added that no one told Camila what to do.
It’s possible her powerful cloak of political, media and celebrity protectors persuaded her she was invincible but the most likely explanation to the charity’s demise is simply that Camila was unable to compromise and balance idealism with pragmatism. Which is probably why she mesmerised so many of us.
The Kids Company Peace of Mind campaign raised more than £1 million for the charity.