It’s been almost 150 years since the days when Thomas John Barnardo first
encountered the “lays” who slept rough on London’s Petticoat Lane. The year was
1866 and, in Victorian London, child destitution was largely perceived as the
result of laziness or vice.
Barnardo, aged 21, arrived from Ireland to study medicine and was so
horrified by the squalid conditions endured by the city’s street urchins he
began using his resources to provide them with shelter and skills a future.
Today, the charity he founded still bears his name, Barnardo’s, and has been
transformed into a £215m organisation, administering around 400 specialised
projects and employing 6,900 staff with 11,000 volunteers. And sitting at the
helm is 36-year-old finance director Kevin Barnes.
When the softly spoken Barnes thinks of Barnardo he likes to think of the
businessman as well as the philanthropist. “I don’t think you’d describe
Barnardo’s as a business back then, but I’d describe Thomas Barnardo as a
businessman,” he says.
“He very quickly realised that there was more demand than he could support on
his own and so he was very savvy in getting public support.”
It’s this element of the Barnardo character Barnes admires. Good intentions
will only take you so far in the politicised and competitive charity sector.
Barnes must compete with 170,000 registered charities for a share of government
grants, and increasingly, social service contracts. “It’s certainly
competitive,” he says.
“Walk down the high street and there will be a different charity there every
weekend with collecting tins trying to convince you to put a pound or two in the
pot that is, on a micro level what is happening across the charity sector.”
Sitting across a simple table at Barnardo’s historic Barkingside
headquarters, Barnes slips easily into his sales pitch, quickly sounding like a
man selling his wares.
These days, 70% of the charity’s revenue comes from delivering social
contracts from public agencies, and, looking forward, Barnes believes “it’s
inevitable that this will grow”.
“We’ve got a great tendering reputation,” he says. “We can deliver services
on behalf of [local authorities] that reach either more children, provide a
better quality of service or do it at a better value.’
Barnardo’s journey from shelter provider to global humanitarian brand has
inevitably resulted in the charity adopting corporate habits and Barnes is
unapologetic about the charity’s sharp business focus. “You can’t get to the
size of a large premiership club without being run in a business like way,” he
“If we know a FTSE 100 company is going to renew its charity of the year, we
will be looking at the criteria behind that and making sure that we’re
supporting the kinds of things they want to support,” he says.
Barnes finance team of 90 officers is spread across the UK, generally located
near regional Barnardo’s branches. This army of financial officers liaise with
Barnes’ close knit central team which works with him in London. The team is
involved in transaction processing and supporting the organisation’s service
delivery as well as its fundraising and the retail arm.
“The strength of our balance sheet is paramount,” he says. “We want to ensure
that cash balances are strong, that we are paid promptly by local authorities in
Together, the team compete for government contracts against “slick” private
sector operators, which Barnes believes are sometimes let down by their “profit
Barnardo’s charity status, Barnes believes, gives him an edge in
“Private companies want to deliver services which meet the specifications at the
lowest cost, because they have a profit motive,” he says.
Behind the corporate façade, Barnes is stuck between two conflicting roles.
With one hand the charity bids for government funds in return for services, and
with the other it hits out, publicly rebuking the government when it feels its
polices are misguided. Barnes, however, feels there is no tension between these
“We will continue to be a critical and unpopular voice if we think that’s the
right thing to do,” he says.
“Financially we’ve got targets, we set a business plan, we know the direction
of the organisation and we measure ourselves on that on a monthly basis as you
would any corporate organisation but we are equally interested on our impact
He measures the charity’s success not only in profit and loss but in the
impact on government policies. The charity has set itself a target of changing
20 different government policies in three years, and, Barnes says, “we will beat
Looming on the horizon however are almost certain public spending cuts, which
Barnes believes will lead to pressure on Barnardo’s to deliver more services
with little or no increase in revenue. “It’s going to have an impact, but it
will be an impact in terms of either thumping cuts or minimal below cost
increases,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m losing sleep, but I would say I am very
conscious of the state of the government’s finances and the need for it to cut
back on public expenditure.”
Before arriving at Barnardo’s, Barnes worked for seven years with a local
charity for the blind. He began as a finance officer within the Barnardo’s team
in 2004 when the charity was pulling in an annual income of £150m.
Today, that figure has risen to £215m, driven by a number of successful
public contract bids. Barnes expects this figure to continue to grow. He
encourages his staff to get out of the office and see for themselves the
services Barnardo’s provides for disadvantaged youth and the disabled.
“It is easy to sit in a finance department in a concrete block in east London
and forget why the organisation is important and what it does and why it’s doing
it,” he said.
But it’s difficult to get around the fact that in choosing the charity
sector, he has foregone a more lucrative position where he could be working
towards conventional profit-driven goals.
But Barnes, a father of four-year-old twin girls, said he is happy where he
is. “This is Barnardo’s, the children’s charity. It’s not a bland corporate
organisation in a finance office processing transactions,” he said. “There is
something extra by being in the charity sector and I certainly don’t see myself
moving out of it.”
It’s impossible to know what Thomas Barnardo would have thought of the driven
FD. For Barnardo, a man who once said he could not “conceive of any excuse save
illness or death” for overdue payments, perhaps he would have approved of the
charity’s now global prominence and healthy bank balance.
For his part, Barnes said he is content simply to be helping to promote the
mission Barnardo began almost 150 years ago.
“The Barnardo’s brand is phenomenal and to be associated with a name such as
Barnardo’s is a great honour,” he says.
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