(July 6, 2020) In what’s become the latest charity controversy, nine days after the federal government announced a plan to partner with charity to put up to 5,000 dollars into the pockets of 20,000 students, the partnership is dead in the water. And we’re left wondering who benefitted from that particular skirmish, and what it says about charity in our time.
At issue was the $900 million agreement, the Canada Student Service Grant, to deliver an honorarium-based volunteer program to students across the country, a program designed to deliver financial help to students during the COVID-19 crisis. The more a student volunteered, the more money they made, up to $5,000.
The WE partnership was only the latest in government attempts to use charities to deliver the COVID relief at a local level. Generally, the federal government is a big charity funder, both directly and through federal transfer payments to the provinces. In normal times, governments provide about 65% of the 260 billion dollars of funding received by charities every year.
In April, it gave 100 million dollars to five national food security organizations in emergency food relief, who then flowed the funds to local areas of greatest need.
Shortly afterward, the 350 million dollar Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF) was established to help vulnerable people at the community level and three charities, Community Foundations of Canada, United Way Centraide and the Canadian Red Cross, were tapped to channel funds directly to the local areas with greatest need. More than 1,000 grants have been made under the program.
The gloves came off
But the announcement was almost immediately met with unprecedented opposition from a core group of professionals associated with the charity sector. And they used social media to voice their concern.
Paul Nazareth, who has been involved with the sector for more than two decades, and maintains an active Twitter presence, commented, “there is so much wrong here, I don’t even know where to start.”
Sharon Avery, CEO of the Toronto Foundation, re-tweeted Nazareth’s message saying, “I don’t even know how to respond to this without swearing. Eyes need opening.”
As a community foundation, the Toronto Foundation is part of the the government’s 350 million Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF) partnership. In 2019, it made a 109 thousand dollar grant to WE. With assets of 397 million with expenditures of 24.5 million in 2019, the Toronto Foundation is the third largest community foundation in Canada. It’s 21-member board had two Black members and two people of colour in 2019.
Malcolm Burrows, who is philanthropic advisor and founder of the Aqueduct Foundation, (a charity that collects from donor advised funds) and a vice president with Scotia Wealth Management, responded with a suggestive, if ambiguous, “Ffffff”.
The Aqueduct Foundation has no staff, assets of 396 million, made 39.5 million in grants in 2018 and has five-member board of directors, none of whom are people of colour.
The gloves appeared to be off as sector concerns about WE added to the cries of conflict of interest by opposition parties creating the charity controversy. Some in the sector also took aim at the prime minister.
Richard Walker, senior partner with Global Philanthropic Canada, used LinkedIn to muse darkly about the decision to award “his wife’s charity” and “the attempt to cover it up.”
Global Philanthropic Canada, an international firm of fundraising consultants with offices across the country, has a team of 34 staff, one of whom is a person of colour.
The WE story
Ironically, in this charity controversy, if the thought leaders at the helm of the charity sector could design a model charity from scratch, it might look very much like WE.
Founded in 1996 by Craig Kielburger, Marc Kielburger, and Roxanne Joyal, they market their mission aggressively, have loyal and committed donors, A-list ambassadors, a blue-chip list of corporate sponsors, are supported by social enterprise and, once a year, fill sports stadiums in 15 cities around the globe with young people who want to change the world. Toronto’s 2019 WE Day, sponsored by RBC and Telus, took place at a packed 20,000-seat Scotiabank arena, with a program of heart-felt revival-style testimonials from young social entrepreneurs and Raptor fans.
Craig Kielburger has received 13 honourary doctorates and degrees for WE’s work, as well as the Order of Canada, the Roosevelt Freedom Medal and the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child. Marc Kielburger is a recipient of the Order of Canada and was selected by the World Economic Forum as one of 250 Young Global Leaders. Roxanne Joyal earned a degree in international relations from Stanford University and a law degree from Oxford University. She is a Rhodes scholar, clerked for the Supreme Court of Canada, received an honorary doctorate from Nipissing University and was awarded the Order of Canada in 2017.
Their work has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, 60 Minutes, CNN, National Geographic, TIME, and The Economist.
In 2018, WE Charity had a budget of about 48 million, held net assets of about 20 million, with 380 full time staff. Board members included senior bank executives from Scotiabank and RBC. WE calls itself “a high-impact, accountable and innovative charity.”
At publication time, all three of the members of WE Charity’s key management team, as indicated on the WE Charity website, are people of colour. Nine of 16 board members (three boards in three countries) are people of colour.
Nazareth says that WE “checks all the boxes on paper” but the charity controversy is partly about “how comfortable charitable organizations are being aggressive with their missions.”
WE has plenty of critics. Whether it’s accusations of bullying by the brothers, financial irregularities within the organization, or the way it conducts its “voluntourism,” it is not hard work to get a conversation going about WE. Yet, to date, very few WE critics are prepared to speak on the record in such a way that the allegations could become a verifiable news story. Many of the stories have been around for a decade.
The crowd-funded podcast canadalandshow.ca, founded by journalist and IT specialist Jesse Brown, has been one of the few media outlets willing to print allegations about WE, adding heat to the charity controversy. In a June 25, 2019 piece it ran after speaking to 20 people who had worked at the charity between 1996 to 2018, it referred to WE as “a cult” led by charismatic, yet bullying and litigious, brothers who answered any criticism with a letter from their lawyers. Canadaland is now featuring a story called Crime And Fraud At WE Charity In Kenya.
At the same time, the Canadaland claims have been routinely challenged by other reporters, including fairpress.ca, founded by Mark Bourrie—a member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery for 24 years, who taught journalism and media studies at Concordia University in Montreal, and the history of media propaganda at Carleton University. He has painstakingly fact-checked the assertions made by Canadaland.
Bourrie ran a piece in 2019 saying with the headline, I will give $10,000 to anyone who can prove that Canadaland isn’t simply false news.
So, there’s that.
Nature of volunteerism
The charity controversy took another twist when a cohort of critics took issue with the idea of paying volunteers.
No consensus exists within the charitable sector about the nature of volunteerism. Some see volunteers as more trouble than they are worth, taking up the role of a paid employee. Others see volunteerism as a sacred trust, rooted in the idea of noblesse oblige, “the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged.”
“What it comes down to for me is that this program fundamentally changes the nature of volunteerism and charity,” Nazareth says. “It alters the alchemy of what doing good means.”
Paula Speevak is president and CEO of Ottawa-based Volunteer Canada, a network of volunteer centres across the country. Speevak’s organization was invited to be part of the coalition but declined. She opposes paying students for volunteer work. Volunteer Canada has a budget of $1 million, a staff of eight with one person of colour. The 11-member board of directors has no people of colour.
In its coverage of the charity controversy, the CBC reported that “while the program stipulates that volunteers shouldn’t be used by an organization to replace paid employees, the fundraising consulting company, The Good Partnership, which specializes in small charities, reviewed some of the posted positions and found job titles like “translator,” “digital designer” and “content creator.”
“It’s a privilege to be able to volunteer,” Aine McGlynn, COO of The Good Partnership, told CBC News, noting that financially vulnerable groups often don’t have the luxury of doing work that doesn’t pay their bills.
She said in the charity sector “it is not standard” for volunteers to be paid, beyond reimbursing expenses like child-care costs, transportation or refreshments.
The Good Partnership reports that it has a staff complement of seven, four of whom are white (one LGBTQ+) and three of whom are women of colour
Migration of WE board members
As the week wore on, new information about the WE charity controversy began to surface, including the fact there had been a large migration of board members in March from the U.S. and Canada boards.
WE’s new Canadian and U.S. board chairs responded with a letter signed by Greg Rogers, Chair (Canada) and Dr. Jacqueline L. Sanderlin, Chair (United States) saying, “a number of Board members had served for durations of more than five and even ten years,” that it had been part of a strategic plan and that, “a majority of Board spots are now filled by persons of colour, including the US Chair.”
Online petition: WE have a problem
At the same time, The Good Partnership said it was providing a platform for a group of Black, Indigenous and people of colour, as well as LGBTQ+ people, who work in the sector but were afraid of losing their jobs if they spoke out. As part of providing that platform, The Good Partnership sponsored a change.org petition, WE have a problem, and posted content the group had provided on their company’s social media accounts.
But “TGP’s most pressing reason for taking up the effort has to do with the burden it places on nonprofit infrastructure – already taxed by increased demands for services and struggling because of years of underfunding for core operations,” said McGlynn.
“Our clients are small nonprofits and we advocate for their wellbeing and long-term resilience of the sector. This program is intended to flow cash out quickly to young people, but the mechanism by which it intends to do so is not appropriate given the context.”
Online petition: accusations of racism
Amanda Maitland posted her experience of racism while working at WE Charity on Instagram, June 15, 2020.
“While working @wemovement as a speaker and leadership facilitator, I was asked to give an anti-racism speech in which I shared my lived experiences,” she wrote. “Without my consent and input, a panel of white men and women within the organization decided to rewrite my speech, stripping it of the truths I chose to share and repackaging the subject of anti-racism in a way they found palatable.” See Maitland’s full statement here.
Amanda Maitland is not alone.
The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) has been working on the issue of systemic racism for many years. In an article last October, they reported several incidents of how Black, Indigenous and people of colour are treated on the job.
And Maitland’s Instagram post came a day before Community Foundations of Canada’s (CFC’s) CEO Andrew Chunilall posted an open letter to community foundations saying he, a person of colour, was “urged as the new CEO, to refrain from embracing ‘activism’ and taking on issues of social justice, human rights, and inequality. These types of topics, I was told, may upset donors or inhibit our ability to attract new endowments.”
CFC is partnering with the federal government on the 350 billion dollar ESCF grant. CFC has annual revenue of 12.3 million and assets of 21.4 million in 2018. Their 17-member board has 3 people of colour. Their 20-member staff is made up of four people of colour, one Black person and 15 people who are white.
By June 25, Maitland’s post became a letter signed by 150 of former WE employees and 50 current employees and turned into a petition directed at WE’s new board. The petition demanded the redeployment of funds to the Canada Summer Jobs Program and the allocation of funds to go to equity-seeking groups. It has received 1033 signatures to date.
WE and the government part ways
After a week of social media campaigns fuelled by revelations from Parliamentary reporters, coupled with the oppositions’ outcry on Parliament Hill, WE issued a statement on July 3 saying that since “the program has ….been enmeshed in controversy from the moment of its announcement” so a decision was made to mutually part ways on summer student grant program.
“Questions have been asked about the program’s origin, about the concept of outsourcing the program’s operations, about the choice of WE Charity as the government’s partner, and the underlying merit of paid service. These are all valid questions and the government has provided explanations for each. However, controversy has not abated,” the statement explained.
Although the metrics cannot be independently corroborated, the charity said, “More than 35,000 student applicants—including every province and all three territories—had been received, 64% of applicants were visible minority and 10% LGBTQ2+, the program had an average of 3,000 new applications per day and a coalition of 83 not-for-profit partners [were] offering over 24,000 service placements to-date.”
“The Government of Canada and WE Charity will work together to ensure that the volunteers who have applied and been placed won’t be adversely affected. WE Charity has also decided to return any funds that had already been received,” Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said in a statement.
But what do the partnership’s critics think should happen now? Should the money continue to go to the student applicants?
The answer seems to be no. As Wagman posted on Twitter, the next step is to “scrap the program itself and invest the money into charities hiring back their workers.
Is charity showing its age?
The coronavirus pandemic and global anti-racism protests have underlined the gaping inequity in our society. Taking WE Charity out of the equation, larger questions remain about the perception of charity, any charity, as being an inherently positive force.
Does charity have a role in mitigating inequity, or is it a structure that contributes to it?
Charities exist, in theory, to “help the less fortunate,” those who are, quite precisely, underprivileged. But does that mean charities reach all people who are underprivileged or without any privilege at all? That everyone who needs help or justice is accounted for under its expansive wings.
In addition to what is becoming an antiquated benevolence, charities writ large are in danger of becoming an array of financial products, such as donor advised funds, offered up to wealthy people who want to avoid taxes.
“The problem is, under current law, all benefits are provided up front and there is no requirement or incentive for funds to ever be distributed out of the donor advised fund and into the working charities,” Professor Ray Madoff testified to the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector.
Brand identity has also become a large concern in the charity sector.
“Many nonprofits continue to use their brands primarily as a fundraising tool, but a growing number of nonprofits are developing a broader and more strategic approach, managing their brands to create greater social impact and tighter organizational cohesion,” reported the Standford Social Innovation Review.
Damage to one of the sector’s biggest brands can rub off on the entire sector, and to distance one’s organization from that is a measure of self-preservation.
Additionally, in the charity sector, has become typical for organizations to brand their issue, as opposed to their organization. And, perhaps because of that, a cohort of the sector wants to own the world’s ills, not so much because they are capable of fixing them, but because they want to be the only game in town when it comes to getting a slice of the philanthropic pie.
And the charity sector is remarkably homogenous.
As we’ve previously reported in these pages, charity leadership is almost exclusively white. A U.S 2018 study, The State of Diversity in Nonprofit and Foundation Leadership, found that “87% of all executive directors or presidents were white.”
Members of the boards of Canada’s largest 20 private foundations (combined assets valued at 32 billion) are almost all white, with 13 of the 20 under the control of family members only.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, charity lobby groups have been working hard for a “$10 billion stabilization fund” for a sector where inequity exists well beyond the WE Charity.
The response to this ill-fated partnership is a personification of those ingrained dynamics.
And who comes off the worse for wear?
WE Charity has a brand new diversified board of directors who can speak to their thousands of supporters and sponsors, some of whom are not happy with what just happened, and view it as an unwarranted assault on their intentions.
While charity thought leaders consider how to define volunteerism, there are vast numbers of young people across this country, usually operating well outside the auspices of any charity, often Indigenous and racialized minorities, who are already highly engaged in their own communities by:
- Helping their family, other students and their community with language translation
- Helping organize their communities by building websites—and providing content—that advance their voices and tell their stories
- Using their talents as musicians, artists and photographers to provide nuance to that voice
- Provide mentorship to younger students
- Being a ‘court buddy’ to someone who’s gotten on the wrong end of the law
- Writing newsletters, essays, doing digital documentaries about their lives
- Volunteering at a community drop in centres, community foodbanks and student services not attached to charity
In the best of circumstances, they might be paid small stipends ($1,000 of summer for part time mentoring or $200 for a photo shoot, for example, depending on the government or other grant money available). To these students, the government program (whoever helps administer it) would have meant significant income for their families, especially if two or three siblings could participate.
Since much of this work is school based—or at least known by the school—and since most of these young people have never knowingly stepped into a charity, or perhaps charities don’t exist where they live, teachers would have been the natural go-to for referrals, but the program was criticized for reaching out to teachers.
Diversity, Inclusion and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger has said, “the volunteers who have applied and been placed won’t be adversely affected.”
It is worth noting that it will be government–not charity–doing what has to be done to ensure that.
The status for those who have not yet been placed is currently unknown.
Note: on June 29, 2020, The Charity Report made the editorial decision that it would report on the demographics of board and senior leadership of the charities , in addition to the usual basic facts about operating budgets and assets.