Javed Khan: ‘Demand has risen, resources have fallen - that perfect storm worries me’

03 Mar 2021 Interviews

Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, talks about the financial drop his charity is facing, the increase in those needing support, the 'charity halo', and his hopes for the sector.

Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo's

For Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, “the charity sector is the glue that holds communities together” as people turn to charities in the most difficult times.

But his charity, like the majority of the sector, is expecting income losses while demand increases. This is why, he says: “It is quite disappointing that what I'm hearing is that there isn't going to be a new support package for the charity sector. I think that's a mistake.” 

He says the charity is doing its best, but: “We simply don't have the resources to respond to the demand that is already on our doorstep, let alone, what's going to come in the next six to 12 months.” 

The impact of Covid-19 on Barnardo’s 

“Covid-19 has knocked us for six,” Khan says.

When the pandemic struck, more than 700 Barnardo's shops suddenly closed and fundraising completely shut down. This financial impact was an immediate £8m loss per month.

Overall Barnardo’s stands to lose about £65m in expected income by the end of March. 

Khan notes Barnardo’s came into the pandemic stronger than a lot of charities: “We had good reserves, we have a very strong brand and great supporters out there, and yet we've suffered. For the smaller players out there, those who don't have those luxuries, my heart goes out to them and we know many charities have folded during Covid-19.”

Given the variables around the vaccine rollouts and new variants, Khan’s fear is getting “deeper into financial challenges and not able to deliver our services”. Every time the charity tries to forecast their finances, within weeks they have to redo it -  “and that's not a comfortable place to be in”.

Despite this, Khan says “we will recover, we've got great plans in place and our trustees have been very supportive - we've dug into our reserves.” The charity has also utilised government support.

'The demand has gone up, the resources have gone down'

Khan also explains that the scale of some issues have skyrocketed during Covid-19, for example around young people's mental health, abuse within their home, abuse online or in communities, and increasing numbers in foster care.

He explains: “The demand has gone up, the resources have gone down, the perfect storm that is evolving really worries me.”

Delivering services face-to-face became much more complicated. Between 500 and 1,000 staff, at “a great risk to themselves because we didn't have protective equipment at that time”, continued to run some services. 

“Those children would have had nowhere else to go, there was no other source of sustenance and support for them,” he explains.

Elsewhere, staff switched to digital, to maintain contact with highly vulnerable children.

For some young people, those with access to a device with data and who find face-to-face difficult, “the digital opportunity was quite an asset”.

However, it doesn't work for everyone. New referrals, who had not built up trust with the charity already, found the digital approach more difficult.

'Critical budget'

Many of the pandemic support schemes were funded by government borrowing, so Khan is also concerned about how future policies to pay down the debt will affect people. 

Expected increases in tax and new austerity measures, “which will be much worse than anything we've seen in the last decade”, will “make life much more difficult for the most vulnerable - because usually, they suffer the most,” he fears.

Khan asks: “Who are they going to turn to at their most difficult times? Local authorities are going to be stretched like they've never been stretched before, including social work and other support services.”

He is worried that charities are going to be squeezed from all angles over the long term.  

He continues: “We are going to be dependent on donors' support, if donors are losing their jobs if their future sustainable income is not guaranteed, donations to charity may not be their priority any longer. And so our income may not be as strong as we want it to be, and then the vulnerable suffer, and the storm revolves again, and again. That really is my biggest worry. The next few years ahead, how are the most vulnerable going to get the support that they need when they're all going to be in recovery mode?”

While he does not envy politicians and the difficult decisions they have to make, he thinks the government was too slow at the beginning of the pandemic, “it took far too long for them to identify some serious money and then when the money came it wasn't quite as serious as we needed it to be”.

Now, Khan says, “we've got an opportunity” when the chancellor sets “a critical budget” later today (3 March). 

He warns that if significant funding is not invested in intervening early in young lives “we will have to pay for this and it will be much, much, more expensive in years to come”.

We need to articulate our value

Khan says he is reluctant to criticise the charity sector whilst all organisations are struggling, but thinks it could be stronger in their attempts to influence the government.

For Khan, the fact that so many charity CEOs wrote to government as part of the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign was a really welcome gesture - but “it seems like some of it has fallen on deaf ears”.

“I would encourage all charities out there and umbrella bodies to do everything we can to be united in our voice at the moment,” he says.

He adds: “I'm not talking about ambushing ministers,” or “chaining ourselves to the railings outside parliament” but sophisticatedly articulating “the value that charities bring to society at the moment and the loss that would be felt if they didn't exist anymore”. 

Revised strategy for the next couple of years

Last year, in the thick of Covid-19, trustees agreed to revise the strategy for the next two or three years. The overarching plan has not changed but the aim is to stabilise its finances. 

Barnardo's had been on a trajectory to increase its fundraised income, but it “has taken a knock back”. 

The charity will remain focused on delivering frontline services to people “that is our DNA, it is why we exist; we're never going to budge from that”.

Khan also says the charity remains “committed to being highly innovative, investing in our digital capability, developing as a learning organisation, and making diversity part of our DNA, none of that has changed”.

“It's a balance at the moment of trepidation, not knowing when we're going to come out of this fully, not quite knowing when our finances are going to stabilise, but we will do our level best,” he explains.

There are some positives. He is “highly confident and quite excited about some of the new ways of working that we've developed as a result of Covid-19, which will put us in good stead in the next two or three years”.

“I hope that we can stabilise our finances as fast as possible so that children don't get turned away from being supported when they need us more than probably ever, that's my hope but it is also a fear,” he concludes.

Anti-racist work and white privilege

In the midst of Covid-19, Khan and Barnardo’s were subject to a social media pile-on after the charity published a blog on “white privilege” and how parents can explain this to their children.

Abuse was directed at the charity and at Khan personally, around his own faith and ethnicity, “which was particularly galling and unjust in every way possible”.

He says: “When you compare it to other charities last year, the chief executives didn't get any directed towards them - so what does that tell you about me, what I represent, and how people viewed that, so that was particularly painful.”

In terms of the blog itself, Khan says he thinks the phrase “white privilege” is not a particularly helpful one.

He explains: “There are people out there who want to have a discussion about racism and how it manifests itself in modern-day Britain - but they find that phrase a turn-off, the barriers come down because they can't get past the ‘privilege’.

“They think ‘I am really disadvantaged and I am white - there is no privilege in my life’. And I get that. I understand that. So the phrase is not particularly helpful but unless somebody can find a better one that's the phrase that's being used at the moment.”

Khan adds “it was an issue of the day that we were raising on behalf of our children and young people” and “it was taken out of context... we're not saying white disadvantaged communities are privileged.”

He emphasises that it is not unusual for Barnardo's to be tackling difficult subjects. For example, in the early 1990s, the charity was talking publicly about child sexual exploitation when it was a taboo subject.

“We have a long and rich history of being bold and brave talking about the big issues of the day, and that is what we were doing.”

'I think the diversity debate is more difficult to have in this sector'

Last week Barnardo's revealed that it had found racist behaviour in its fundraising department and is investigating some members of staff.

Khan has worked in the charity sector for the last ten years. He was CEO of Victim Support ahead of joining Barnardo's, and before that worked in education and local government.

“When I look back at my 35-year career I am hugely proud to be in the voluntary sector, the passion, the commitment, the difference that we make, how we are value-driven,” he says.

“Having said that though, I think the diversity debate is more difficult to have in this sector than in other sectors,” he argues.

“We are jam-packed with people who have an abundance of passion and commitment to a cause in our sector and that's fantastic and that's why they do so well and they don't come for fame or glory nor riches or anything like that. 

“The challenge with that though is that there is a halo - a charity halo - that we will carry and that can make it doubly difficult for us to have the really difficult conversations with our people sometimes.”

He explains that if you go to a frontline worker “who is slogging their guts out to make a difference to the life of a vulnerable person” and ask to talk about how prejudice might be manifesting itself, “there are some that would embrace that”. But there are many others who question how they could be prejudiced when they come to work because they believe in a cause, do not get paid much, and “there is no fame no glory”.

“That's the halo. To have that courageous conversation is very difficult and I think too many people in the sector shy away from having those really difficult conversations - that is what we need to have before we see a significant change. That is our biggest challenge.”

“I think the charity sector has got to really get its head around how it's going to address this,” he explains.

‘Everything I believe in and stand for blends into Barnardo's'

Khan joined Barnardo's in 2014. “I needed no persuasion,” he says, when asked what drew him to the role. 

“For anybody who's got a passion and a career-long commitment to working with children and young people, and in the most disadvantaged circumstances, there is no better place in this country to do that.”

He continues: “Barnardo’s stands ready to help them [young people] in the most complex circumstances. So that opportunity, that chance, to make my small contribution to them was completely irresistible.”

Nonetheless, he concedes: “I wouldn't say it's everybody's cup of tea” as “probably nothing in your career quite prepares you for it”.

This is partially because of “the scale and the complexity” of the charity, but also because of “the plight of the disadvantaged children”. 

After seven years at the charity, Khan says if he visits a service “it'd be hard for me to come out without a teardrop in my eye - it is that powerful, all-consuming, and emotional.”

At the same time “there's enormous satisfaction in working in Barnardo's,” he says. 

“We make a difference on the largest scale. When Barnardo's speaks, people tend to listen. When we don't speak, colleagues want to know, why not? And that's a huge privilege to carry on behalf of vulnerable children,” he says.

His work-life balance is “brilliantly blended” as “everything I believe in, and stand for, blends into Barnardo's”.

He adds he is lucky to have a very supportive family and does not feel the need to switch off, “because there is not a dividing line”.

Khan says it is the cause that motivates him. “Working in Barnardo's, for me, is not a job, it doesn't feel like a job, this is a cause. It is the cause that brought me in and it is a cause that keeps me here.”

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