DAVIS Francis

Francis Davis is Professor of Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham and a long term volunteer with charities and social enterprises  in the central South and English North West. He is a co-founder of the Cathedral Innovation Centre in Portsmouth and the St Peter’s Innovation Centre in Derby.

Only once the insolvency practitioner’s report is in, and an independent external review is commissioned, will we know for certain the real reasons for Camila Batmanghelidjh’s spectacular crash from almost secular sainthood.

But in the meantime, and with conceivably greater consequences, the collapse of Kids Company risks bringing the whole voluntary sector into disrepute while distracting from the opportunity that the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review presents: it has called into question the judgment of the Government, turned a spotlight on to the financial sustainability of childrens’ and other social care causes, and provoked calls from one senior philanthropist for the creation of an ‘OFSTED for Charity’. How best now to move forward?

For those of us who have given thousands of hours to the nation’s charities and non-profit institutions, the failure of a charity is sad but not as astounding as the media have made it seem in recent days: More than half of new SME start-up businesses in the private sector do not make it to the second generation – so it should not be surprising that some charities follow suit.

Just as in the private sector, there are bodies in the charitable sector creatively founded but poorly managed, and those who have become over-dependent on a single revenue source. Others, despite their brilliance, are unable to secure consistent funding because their client group is either little known or under-appreciated. The domination of the donor market by cancer charities, for example, enhances the challenges of raising funds for, say, poorer neighbourhoods a long way from London, or for conditions such as schizophrenia or anorexia which can be greatly misunderstood. Attend a meeting where some of the nation’s eight million unpaid carers are gathered, and the visitor will graphically discover how forgotten by the mainstream some striking needs can be.

But with risk comes opportunity. It was the voluntary sector that won for us lead-free petrol with all of its attendant environmental benefits. Rotary clubs across our country and beyond, working with the Gates Foundation, have played a powerful role in coming close to eradicating polio globally. Serious homelessness would never have become defeatable without the Cyrenians and the Simon Community, Centre Point and scores of local initiatives. Muslim communities raise as much during Ramadan for charity as wider Britain does for Children In Need.

The best in the voluntary sector knowingly choose to earn less than their true market value because of their passion to deliver social improvement. Millions work without pay in a genuine gift relationship with the localities and causes around them. Hundreds are as inventive in addressing pressing social concerns as a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg, but without ever seeking – or ever being likely to receive – the same adulation. Because one high profile and perhaps over PR-ed CEO has failed, we should not desist from championing the vibrancy of the sector as a whole.

There is a challenge here, though, for the voluntary sector and the Government. Some in the sector have used the Kids Company crisis as a means to make wider calls for greater unrestricted funding, and to lament the pointlessness of bidding for some public sector resources. Others have conflated the financial pressures for caring for the most vulnerable young with the wider question of how to sustain youth work which has been at the forefront of reductions in local government investment.

But none have called for the moment to lead to a refashioning of resource use with pooled budgets, enhanced leadership and greater innovation – as the best in the public and private sector have done. This is a moment for extreme innovation rather than rants in defence of business models that are passing. That said, progress has perhaps been held back, too, by the (almost utopian) search for a  voluntary sector of pure activists who never seek public funds and always advocate relationality and a face to face society, which takes place in some Conservative quarters.

For the Government more widely, and the Cabinet Office especially, recent events have been particularly trying. Just as the now closed Big Society network failed to scale while burning through significant Cabinet Office support, so have the struggles of the Cabinet Office-backed Kids Company led some to question the effectiveness of that department’s  ‘Office for Civil Society.’  Is it, they ask, fit for purpose?  And if new innovation is needed in the voluntary sector, how might government best assist?

Every department of state needs the voluntary sector. From prisoners’ family support to rape crisis care, from hospital radio to Alzheimer respite, from canal side volunteers to museums, from Djibouti to the Amazon the Home Office, the Department of Health, Defra, DCMS and DFID all know at first-hand, how the sector delivers again and again. On the home front, perhaps uniquely,  DCLG cuts across all these strands with its daily engagement with local authorities and fire services, directors of Social Services and housing providers, diaspora communities, planning and economic policy, religious communities and construction companies.

Could it be that a stronger social dimension to DCLG’s role in devolving central resources from across Whitehall for civic action in England through the City Deals process could provide a new frame for unlocking civil society’s future potential?  Might MPs strengthen the Cities and Devolution Bill to that effect as it enters the House of Commons after the summer recess?  Making DCLG the lead means by which the skills and the resources of the centre are driven across the country and the very best of voluntary bodies would certainly add flesh to the language of re-balancing and One Nation which forms the backdrop to the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.

For whatever turns out to have triggered the end of Kids Company, one hopes that, like other entrepreneurs before her, Camilla Batmanghelidjh will learn from her failure and begin to prove once again that children are more important than profile.  More importantly, the hue and cry that this failure has produced needs to subside as we get on with the serious job of asking for more and better from those of us who work in the voluntary sector – that and a step-change in the quality, creativity and decentralisation of the Government’s engagement too.

7 comments for: Francis Davis: Transforming lives means taking risks. Don’t let the collapse of Kids Company persuade you otherwise.

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