Kids Company won’t be the first organisation to suddenly collapse in a flurry of gossip and panic and it won’t be the last.
At the time of writing there’s a real lack of clarity around what’s happened there but what the media has shown us seems to suggest that Founders Syndrome may have some part in this drama.
Most of us won’t set up a charity let alone a successful one. We won’t gather a group of people around us who are dedicated to our vision of how the world should be and how we can get there. It takes a certain kind of person – charismatic, passionate, endlessly inspired, dogmatic, tireless – to create and develop a project that other people will come to feel similarly about.
These are not ordinary people. A great deal of workplace whoopla extols us to develop traits that set Founders apart – every job description ludicrously requires applicants to be ‘passionate’ – but very few of us have the drive that marks them out.
Richard Carr Gomm was born into privilege and decorated for bravery. After WW2 he walked across Italy as a tramp, ‘to see what it was like,’ and discovered how very differently a person is treated, not because of who they are but because they look, sound and are forced to live the opposite of prosperously.
The experience inspired him to leave the army and become housekeeper to four elderly, impoverished people whom he invited to live in one of the Bermondsey houses owned by his family which he and a group of volunteers renovated. The model was a success and, surrounded by growing numbers of enthusiastic volunteers, he opened five more homes, creating the Abbeyfield Society which now provides accommodation for 8,000 elderly people. But just 8 years later Carr Gomm was forced out of Abbeyfield ‘ accused of power complexes and egoism.’
So he set up the Carr Gomm society, a similar housing concept for people under 45, and then the Morpeth Society for people who could afford luxurious homes but were lonely.
Richard Carr Gomm was a doggedly determined man with unending energy. If he thought something was worth doing he put everything he had into it and inspired others to join him. That force of will is vital to launch a project through the sheer weight of disinterest at best and, at worst, hostility that greets most new philanthropic models.
Here are some of the symptoms of Founders Syndrome:
· The organization is strongly identified with the person or personality of the founder.
· The founder makes all decisions, big and small, without a formal process or input from others. Decisions are made in crisis mode, with little forward planning. Staff meetings are held generally to rally the troops, get status reports, and assign tasks. There is little meaningful strategic development, or shared executive agreement on objectives with limited or a complete lack of professional development. Typically, there is little organizational infrastructure in place, and what is there is not used correctly. There is no succession plan.
· Key staff and board members are typically selected by the founder and are often friends and colleagues of the founder. Their role is to support the founder, rather than to lead the mission. Staff may be chosen due to their personal loyalty to the founder rather than skills, organizational fit, or experience. Board members may be under-qualified, under-informed or intimidated and will typically be unable to answer basic questions without checking first.
· Professionally trained and talented recruits, often recruited to resolve difficulties in the organization, find that they are not able to contribute in an effective and professional way.
· The founder responds to increasingly challenging issues by accentuating the above, leading to further difficulties. Anyone who challenges this cycle will be treated as a disruptive influence and will be ignored, ridiculed or removed. The working environment will be increasingly difficult with decreasing public trust. The organization becomes increasingly reactive, rather than proactive.
When a person is in this situation it is almost impossible to see beyond it. But it’s a matter of self-preservation that they do. The real issue with Founders Syndrome is that because their working model is a crisis model the Founder and their inner circle can easily believe that they have to remain to resolve the crisis, which creates more crises. I would guess that this is precisely what is happening with Camila Batmanghelidjh.
She has become the structure, the energy source, around which Kids Company has formed. Without her and despite the endless policies and procedures that it would have had to have to pass all the inspections and audits that it has, Kids Company felt unable to sustain itself, and collapsed. There was no one – more necessarily, no group - to hand over to. In similar situations people within the organisation who are concerned about how indispensable one person has become are treated with suspicion and hostility – and it’s often difficult to find the right words to be clear that it is concern for the individual and the organisation rather than resentment or jealousy.
Too often, Founders become badly burned-out martyrs and the people who take over feel superior that they’re now modernising and rationalising and streamlining and implementing efficiencies. In a Channel 4 News interview during yesterdays Kids Company march to Westminster a member of staff said, “We never turn a child away,” and the reporter shot back too quickly, “Perhaps you should.” To remain effective, Kids Company should have turned desperate children away. Which children? The homeless children? The malnourished children? The children who are being abused? The children whose parents are being fed by Kids Company? For me, that’s the issue. Kids Company has needed crisis management because children’s services have never been out of crisis.
In this mire of accusation and counter accusation thousands of children and families have not been able to twist themselves into shapes that satisfy statutory services. Now, those vulnerable people have once more been abandoned. Let’s hope that another inspired, inspiring, passionate, indefatigable person emerges from this mess to offer new hope. And lets wish that they have excellent friends, colleagues and Trustees around them rather than disciples.
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