Never judge a book by its turban. As a chief executive and founder I’ve had an interesting journey. In the early days, I would turn up at the board meetings of major companies to be interviewed for their charity of the year. The surprise on the board members’ faces was almost comical. Dressed in their grey-to-navy suits, they would look at me like I was some mad, fat genie who had popped out of a teapot and landed there by mistake. It wasn’t unheard of for chairmen to ask whether I had, in fact, written the application, because the rigour on the page didn’t match my ramshackle look.
As I became a bit more well-known, the tone changed. Now I was being told by other chief executives that perhaps it was best if I was left taking care of the children while a business-savvy person, usually referred to as a male, could come and run the business. I realised I had four flaws: I was a female, I cared for children, I dressed funny and I was fat!
Dance to your own values, not someone else’s. A few appearances on Newsnight, Question Time and the Today programme slightly changed the dynamics once again. When they watched me gobble up a few neutral politicians with my child-defending fury they decided that I wasn’t compliant enough. So a couple of funders withdrew their support. I wasn’t enough of a doormat or servile beggar to merit receiving a donation.
Integrity is its own reward. The prejudice that has come my way is slim compared with the extraordinary support we receive from companies, philanthropists and the general public. Accumulatively we’ve managed to raise £150m to help vulnerable children over the years and, in the process, shifted the clinical model toward a greater understanding of the impact maltreatment has on vulnerable children’s brain development and their subsequent behaviour-management challenges.
Don’t sprint toward a "finish" – always keep running. Our turnover is £23m with an additional £7.5m generated through volunteering and gifts in kind. However, Kids Company continues to live hand-to-mouth, begging for money in order for the children’s needs to be met. Last year our income came from more than 75,000 different sources, with central government contributing a 20% grant and the rest coming predominantly from the general public.
We have 600 staff – we’re thought to be the biggest employer of psychotherapists outside the NHS – and annually we have 11,000 volunteers. An evaluation by the London School of Economics found that our staff satisfaction and efficacy scores were between 92% and 97%. Despite all these positive outcomes, it is a constant struggle to maintain momentum.
Always stay open to how, and what, you learn. Sometimes I’ve felt like a jousting warrior having to fend off opinionated people from consultancy companies who were convinced they could run the charity better than I because they’d had elite management training. But running a business in gangland Britain is an entirely different ball-game. Children as young as 13 hand in their firearms to us. UCL found one in five of our children had been shot at and/or stabbed, with 50% of them witnessing shootings and stabbings in the past year. A third of our under-14s are sleeping on the floor because they don’t have a bed; 20% don’t have any underpants (they call it "going skinny"); and 85% are reliant on us for their evening meal.
Run your organisation on love and passion. Every day desperation stares us in the face. We have no predictable income and are entirely reliant on the goodwill of complete strangers. It’s not been easy being a relentless beggar, but in the process, collectively, we have created an extraordinary organisation that runs on love. No apologies made.