Kids Company: confirmation bias, intention & charity effectiveness

by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2015

camila camThe charity Kids Company hit the headlines a few days ago, following a joint investigation by the BBC’s Newsnight and BuzzFeed News which revealed the Government was withholding funding from the charity unless its founding chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh was replaced.

Ms Batmanghelidjh didn’t take this lying down: “Some ugly games are being played. The facts are that the vulnerable children of this country remain largely unprotected. There’s no point in shooting the messenger if the message is uncomfortable. I am being silenced.”

The Cabinet Office issued a more diplomatic statement: “Making sure that every child has the best start in life is our top priority, so we will continue to work with Kids Company to ensure its important work is sustained.”

Instantly my Twitter/Facebook timeline divided in two.

For the Camila-ites, this was a clear case of the Tory government pursuing a cuts agenda and stifling dissenting voices. Inevitably this view was soon echoed over at the Guardian’s click-bait trove, Comment is Free.

For the Camila-sceptics, it seemed more the case the charity had grown too big to manage itself well — pointing to troubling and well-sourced articles in The Spectator, The Sunday Times, Buzzfeed News, and the Osca blog — and that the Government had tired of caving into its repeated demands for public money to plug budget holes.

I don’t know whose side you take in this. Or, perhaps, you take the reasonable view that few of us looking in from the outside have enough facts to judge (if so, don’t try and pitch that to Comment is Free). Either way, three brief thoughts from me:

1. We are all of us guilty of confirmation bias, viewing news stories through our own lens, interpreting the facts to fit our own pre-existing views. That’s how the Kids Company story quickly became a cipher for the usual ‘Evil Tories’ rhetoric, complete with Harriet Harman press release.

2. We need to separate charitable intentions from charitable effectiveness. I’ve no doubt Camila Batmanghelidjh wants to do good, that she has devoted her life to helping the vulnerable inner-city children, young people and families which inspired her to found Kids Company. But that does not mean she, or any other charity, should be immune from challenge.

3. Charities need to get better, much better, at evidencing both their effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. That means being open to independent evaluation and to being able to attribute causal impact to what you do. It also means recognising that being asked how much what you do costs is a reasonable (in fact, essential) question, given we all operate within scarce resources. ‘Would the public money given to Kids Company have been better spent by another charity?’ is the kind of question I expect any government to ask.

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One comment

I agree.

by Paul Frame on July 8, 2015 at 10:02 am. Reply #

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