Youth charities and the media: reflections from the storm surrounding Kids Company

jim-mintonJim Minton is director of membership and communications for London Youth, a network of 400 community based youth organisations delivering support and opportunities to children and young people throughout the capital.

Over the last week I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to journalists and others about the consequences of the Kids Company closure and what could be done to support young people affected. During this time my biggest observation has been just how far we, as voluntary youth organisations, have to go towards making the wider public, and in particular its gatekeeper, the media, aware of the way our world works.

Regardless of what the real story behind what happened at Kids Company is, there are some pretty fundamental misunderstandings in how the work of charities has been explained and communicated.

‘If one service disappears there is literally no provision left for young people’

Things are more complicated than that. Clearly the loss of any service, particularly one of significant scale, is going to present challenges and require young people to seek alternatives. But young people are consumers, and many use different services for different needs. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t argue for more resources for additional services – but many of the opinion pieces and articles which said that we must either save or replace things ‘like for like’ did not explore the range of other options which might be available.

‘There are too many charities out there’

Whilst in some ways contradictory to the first, there is an increasing notion that there may actually be too many charities and we are all boosting ourselves with big salaries and perks at the expense of our donors and beneficiaries. This reduces trust, confidence and support for all of us.

‘Gut feelings and decision-making’

Sympathetic commentators and supporters of charities often give the heartfelt view that the work of charities must be brilliant, because they’ve seen it up close. Of course, this support is welcome. But it comes with the risk of people getting the idea we simply plan our services on hunches or gut responses, rather than using real evidence.

‘No evidence means no impact’

The other downside of this kind of anecdotal support is that we are less able to defend ourselves against one of the other charges that has been made in recent days, such as from the apparent experts who say ‘I’ve seen no evidence that what they do works, so it can’t be any good’.

‘Charities are run by well-meaning amateurs’

We must collectively challenge the view that charities are run by well-meaning amateurs, which is as often pointed out sympathetically as critically. It isn’t the case. Even small charities are quite sophisticated and complex organisations. But we need to show leadership, and demonstrate our competence and capability above all else. We’re asking people to trust us, with money and with the care of vulnerable people. And most of the time the majority of us do that exceptionally well.

At a time when resources are scarce, and our work with young people is even more crucial, it is really important that we do something about this in order to build trust, and therefore investment, in our organisations.

What do we need to do?

  1. Be honest about our work, specifically:
    • the scale of a problem and its complexity
    • that we might not be able to solve it quickly
    • the possibility that some of the things we do won’t work
    • where we get our money from and why people give it to us
    • what we spend our money on.
  2. Donors have to give us space and support to do this too.
  1. Collaborate and publicly acknowledge each other’s role
  2. Lots of organisations issued statements saying they were willing to help support young people affected by Kids Company’s closure, which was a great response. However fewer of those statements seemed to explicitly acknowledge the need for partnership and collaboration.
  3. In the scramble to look impressive to our own donors and funders we can risk exacerbating some of the misunderstandings above. This is about real leadership. Speaking together with a clear voice so that we are trusted and accountable. And perhaps foregoing some of the ‘positioning gains’ for us as organisations, when others may be better placed.
  1. Improve our communication with the media
  2. Letting journalists know what we do, how we do it and why. When people asked ‘who can help the children left behind once Kids Company closes?’ the answer in some of the media was ‘Coldplay will do a fundraising gig’, rather than ‘the many other charities out there that will do their very best’.
  3. We can’t expect the media to write intelligent stories about our work if we only give them ‘rags to riches’ case studies or unalloyed success stories to deal with.

If things go wrong, as they will, we need to show we can learn from them and work together to put them right. And we must do this from a position of strength and trust, which better communication is a vital part of.


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