Toxic corporate responsibility

Camila Batmanghelidjh


Posted in: Community

Toxic corporate responsibility

February 01, 2007

‘Corporate citizenship’ is a new buzzword and companies are lining up to buzz to it.

As a charity we have been at the receiving end of many company’s giving. With 11,000 vulnerable children supported by us, Kids Company needs resources to provide therapeutic, social work and practical interventions for children who are often left to survive their experiences of childhood. They are alone because their parents are unable to care for them appropriately.

The help received from the business world is hugely instrumental in the survival of Kids Company. For 9 years we received less than 10% state funding for our work because the children were hearing about our services at street level and self-referring. Word of mouth amongst children meant our little clients would arrive at the door with no adult taking financial responsibility for the services they received from us.

For the last two years less than one third of our budget has been given to us in a Treasury grant. Every year we continue to be reliant on individuals and the business community to raise money and to mobilise resources in order to meet our children’s needs. In 2006, 1,400 volunteers contributed and we received approximately £2m worth of resources of goods in kind. Our annual budget is £4m. On Christmas day 2006 we catered for some 800 children who had no where else to go.

What I’m about to say may please some and offend others, but I owe it to vulnerable children to state the truth.

Some companies and business leaders are genuinely compassionate and philanthropic, others pride themselves on their giving, but they give with ‘an agenda’. Their brand of philanthropy is narcissistic. Charities are not fools – they can tell the difference between a genuine donor and one who intends it as self-promotion. I anticipate your response – why can’t the charity benefit and the business get its outcomes? I too am in favour of mutual benefits, but I would like to search this issue for more genuine gains.

Genuine giving can only happen in the context of compassion. The essential characteristic of compassion is that those who notice and seek to lessen the vulnerability of the disadvantaged must do it while rising above their own personal needs. In genuine compassion the object of attention for both the help-giver and the recipient is the pain of the recipient. In having an impact, which benefited another through the transformative power of giving, the helper is rewarded. The reward is a spiritual elevation, an enhanced sense of energy, which comes from being connected to another more in need and above personal need.

However, with the corporate drive to package compassion for the annual report there is a risk that a ‘compassion-negative’ stance is unwittingly taken up by corporate responsibility advocates. The characteristic of a compassion-negative gift is that the donor decides what he or she thinks the recipient should receive and cajoles, demands and rewards the potential recipient into meeting this conceptual framework. This is the company who is telling us where their volunteers would like to take our children, i.e. a Shakespearean play (which disturbed children can’t sit through) rather than asking us where the children would like to go. It is also the company that sends us lots of volunteers for a volunteering project expecting them to paint a house in one day but without paying for the materials. As the paint is merrily slapped over the window frames, and the volunteers talking away on their mobile phones, our workers stand back counting the cost in time and resources in order to clean up the mess and make the painting good.

In addition, we are told how the family at the receiving end of this ‘gift’ should not look ‘ugly’, ‘unappreciative’, ‘lazy’, and they must represent poverty like Oliver Twist. All in the service of the volunteers’ romantic brush with poverty; miraculously transformed in one afternoon. We are not allowed to tell the truth – that disturbed parents, who wreak havoc in their homes and in the lives of their children, are unlikely to stand, smile and graciously thank the donor.

The same dilemma presents itself in a brand of philanthropy where the donor, who has achieved much in their financial world, suddenly decides that money gives the power to engineer social change. Rather than exercise humility and curiosity to find out from people who have worked years with the client group as to what might be effective, the narcissistic philanthropist decides outcomes and demands them. Invariably, the outcomes his money can buy are concrete – it’s a computer suite, a building, a certain number of children in college, young people with qualifications – so that the mindset of accumulating goods can be expressed even in his philanthropic endeavours. Who pays for painful psychological gains, which are sadly invisible but a genuine prerequisite for success?

Depleted charities short of cash swallow their resentment and in a servile attitude deliver the desired outcomes to the business world. A discrepancy in power and resources means the truth is rarely uttered. The over-bias towards satisfying the donor’s needs and the desperation for resources means most charities stop taking in the challenging clients because they cannot achieve the outcomes, which will facilitate the funding. Those, like Kids Company, who are outspoken about such matters, either receive the contribution of the very best companies and philanthropists, or get accused of calling the game off.

It is a great risk to society if the intellectual and monetary values of wealthy people mindlessly drive the functioning of the charity world. Historically charitable trusts and the voluntary sector in partnership have been able to provide the very best interventions in care delivery. This is because charitable trusts have taken the risk to allow new ways of working, which, if successful, are always determined by the client’s needs. Sadly, a clever, facile and arrogant attitude – whose central intention is often self-promotion – is emerging from some rich people who are coercing the voluntary sector into unwittingly marginalising the vulnerable.

Against this perversion of philanthropy are shining examples of genuine, thoughtful and sensitive partnerships between companies and charities. Those who do it with a compassionate attitude often delight in the joint achievement; the triangle of excellence where donor, charity worker, and client are equally connected, mutually empowering each other to achieve a quality on behalf of all of them.

What the narcissistic philanthropy agenda misses is the genuine delight; that abstract special moment of personal enhancement, which is embedded in a compassionate act.

Wealth arrogantly distributed is toxic both for the donor and the recipient. This toxicity mustn’t be allowed to masquerade as compassion or corporate social responsibility.

I regret in advance all the contributions we will lose!

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Please write to with your views.

Camila Batmanghelidjh is the founder and director of Kids Company. She was awarded a Women of the Year Award 2006.