Kids Company – Reserves of Discomfort

150807_KCReserves

The Financial Times  provides a good understanding of some of the financial woes that beset Kid Company.

As the article shows, Kids Company had only £400k in reserves at the end of 2013 and its Trustees wrote in their audited accounts that this was a major risk.
The Founder says that she argued with Government that they should do more (i.e. give more) to help this situation but Kids Company received over £12 million in 2013 of voluntary unrestricted income. This means that Kids Company management (and the Board of Trustees) decided themselves how to allocate the money between active use and reserves. The Government (at least in this instance) had no burden upon it to allocate money to reserves – Kids Company had adequate funding to do this and should have made this allocation for the benefit of the future of the organisation, its mission and the kids that it supports.

It decided to fund short-term need (always pressing) against long-term viability and got away with that for a long time. Eventually, like a business that overtrades, it goes bust. That is making your organisation unsustainable and for an organisation of this size with this amount of voluntary unrestricted funding (a level that so many well-run charities would welcome) to commit this offence is maddening – it is anger inducing.
For the auditors to simply then sign off the accounts with no comment is appalling. The Trustees knew the situation and commented on it in the accounts in 2013. They were not (yet) insolvent but could read the runes. The auditors should have commented further.
For Government to keep putting money in without understanding the financial problems and not requiring Kids Company to allocate resources to reserves is unsettling. Surely someone in Government could have spoken to a charity finance person and understood the reserves issue (plainly in front of them) and made it a requirement of their funding to have Kids Company allocate more of their voluntary unrestricted income to reserves. Nothing appears to have happened.

This is not unusual in the sector – urgent needs are there to be met and Trustees not strong enough to argue for longer term needs. Trustees have a legal responsibility not just to write sentences in the accounts but to safeguard the organisation from collapse that they could have averted.

Six months’ breathing space at a lower level of operations could have allowed Kids Company to have resurfaced and kids and families still could be getting support in some of the UK’s hardest hit areas. Management and Trustees should look to themselves and no one else for the answers to problems in such a situation; auditors should be more pro-active; Government more discerning.

For the Charity sector as a whole, understanding the need for reserves and the prevention of “over-trading” is a fundamental need. Many Trustees are not up to understanding this requirement; many management staff are unsure how to balance the urgent needs of their beneficiaries in the short-term with those of organisational sustainability. Unfortunately, that is their job. The Charity Sector is not good at this – and every Charity is different. The mission of most charities are worthy enough for Trustees and senior management (and finance people) to try to learn something from this – reserves are not just for show, they have a place in sustaining charities and mitigating risk. It is not enough just to know you have a risk – a charity must take action.

Finally, it is a sad reflection on our times and our country that Kids Company had to undertake its mission in the first place. Its Founder was right in that she saw Government abstaining from its legitimate role in society – a 21st Century society not a 19th Century one. This abstinence then propelled Government (Labour and Conservative) into its Big Society mission – like a wealthy philanthropist giving money to the starving poor. This is Dickensian in the extreme and Kids Company should not have been needed. Many charities do work which are above what we would consider Government to be properly able to do – I suspect that some of the outcome of this will be that in this Dickensian, 19th Century Age of Austerity, we need to reflect more pro-actively on what we ask Charities to do and what we expect from the State.