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Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

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2 Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company

Camila Batmanghelidjh is a driven person, driven by a sense of ‘vocation’, as she puts it. As The Guardian reported in 2013:

As a child, Batmanghelidjh would sneak food out of her home in Tehran and leave it on poor people’s doorsteps; aged nine, she announced she was going to found an orphanage; by 14, she had written the business plan for Kids Company. She was influenced by her grandfathers – one a paediatrician dedicated to healing the poor children in his neighbourhood; the other an entrepreneur who was a multimillionaire at 21. She remembers her grandfather and uncles sitting around the table at lunchtime, ‘and they would say, “let’s build the biggest ski resort in the world,” and within a month they’d started. So I had this model of people who made decisions and started on them. There was no barrier.’

(Saner, 2013)
Photograph of Camila Batmanghelidjh.
Figure 2 Camila Batmanghelidjh

This newspaper report, in common with many before and after the collapse of Kids Company, refers to Batmanghelidjh as possessing personality beyond what one would expect of a normal human being: ‘To describe Batmanghelidjh as a force of nature seems a bit inadequate’ (Saner, 2013). Batmanghelidjh is no charlatan – she is an expert in child development and psychotherapy, completing her masters in psychotherapy at Regent’s University. Prior to that she gained first class honours at the University of Warwick (Alexander and Batmanghelidjh, 2015).

Establishing Kids Company in 1996, Batmanghelidjh’s mission was to offer familial assistance to poor and vulnerable inner city children and young people. The organisation offered a mix of orthodox and unorthodox approaches to support: counselling, friendship, some (tailored) financial support and even massage therapy. The charity’s core offering was a drop-in centre model and by the time of its closure it had opened four such centres in London, worked out of other centres in Bristol and ran an arts programme in Liverpool. By 2013, the charity was spending £23m a year. Batmanghelidjh herself had raised £120m during her time in charge of Kids Company (Camila’s Kids Company, 2016). The charity employed around 600 members of staff.

Described image
Figure 3 Camila’s Kids Company

The charity closed in 2015 because it simply ran out of money. A final government grant of £3m, some of which was used to pay its staff for the month, was not matched by private donors, many of whom were anyway turned away because the charity’s trustees had taken the decision to close (Cook, 2015).

A common theme of much of the analysis of Kids Company is that the charity is closely tied to the personality, strengths and weaknesses of its founder. Batmanghelidjh’s charity enjoyed financial support from a number of celebrities and successful business people. Author and journalist Harriet Sargeant (2015), who featured an anonymised Kids Company in her 2012 book on gang life, reported the following encounter in a Telegraph newspaper article:

At my first meeting at Kids Company, I watched [Batmanghelidjh] dazzle a group of businessmen with claims about the link between emotional development, brain size and violent behaviour. She talked passionately and with love, using not just the language of a mother – which has so charmed everyone from David Cameron to Coldplay – but a mother who had the backing of science for her method of loving.

In the middle of the meeting, she excused herself. One of her kids was having a crisis and needed to talk to her. The businessmen watched her leave admiringly.

One said, ‘Imagine a kid like that interrupting us in the middle of a meeting!’ They all shook their heads in envy. I marvelled at her cleverness.

(Sergeant, 2015)

Batmanghelidjh impressed successive UK governments (Labour and Conservative-led). An unnamed former government minister told the BBC that Batmanghelidjh had ‘mesmerised’ the Prime Minister, David Cameron (The Guardian, 2016). The National Audit Office (2015) found that throughout its life, Kids Company had received £46m of public funds.

Powerful and influential people were impressed by Batmanghelidjh’s abilities, vision and personality. Media reports referred to her as ‘captivating’, ‘charismatic’, ‘colourful’, ‘convincing’, ‘persuasive’, ‘dedicated’, ‘intelligent’, ‘passionate’ and ‘loving’. Ultimately, she manages to combine deep professional knowledge with forceful and persuasive personality attributes. You will return to Batmanghelidjh’s leadership traits, and explore them in more depth, as the week continues. The course now moves on to consider the theoretical background of the traits perspective on leadership.