(September 10, 2010) After months of controversy, yesterday’s news of the Kielburger’s decision that WE operations will close down in Canada came as a surprise; not surprise.
CTV reported that “due to financial pressure and loss of sponsors, it plans to sell off tens of millions of dollars’ worth of assets, including real estate in Toronto, in hopes of keeping its international humanitarian programs afloat.”
The revenue from the asset sale will fund global projects including WE Charity’s hospital, college and agricultural learning centre, and WE Villages projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa that have to be completed. Marc Kielburger told CTV he expects the endowment fund will keep those initiatives going for “generations to come.”
In Canada, all of the charity’s staff will be let go. In 2018, WE reported 380 employees in Canada. It is not clear how many continue to be employed since the pandemic.
They brothers feel that if they hadn’t “answered the phone” when they were approached by the federal government to execute the student grant program, they would still be in business, but given their time back they would have made the same decision.
“… during a pandemic when [you have] the opportunity to help 100,000 young people in this country, an opportunity to put up your hand, I’d do it all again,” said Marc Kielburger.
Instead, less than three months after the fatal phone call WE operations will close down in Canada.
“We were naive on the politics,” says Craig Kielburger.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet had said in August that he will try to trigger a fall election if the prime minister, his chief of staff and his finance minister don’t resign. Finance Minister Bill Morneau resigned on August 17, 2020. Other opposition leaders were and are making similar noises.
Pierre Pollievre, Conservative MP for Carlton, laid down the gauntlet on September 10, 2020.
In many ways The WE Charity embodied the perceived best of the charity sector, doing the kind of thing modern day charities are charged to do, such as “innovate” or “engage young people.” Former governor-general David Johnston was one among many encouraging both when he wrote a Globe and Mail op-ed in 2018. Johnston is currently chair of the Rideau Hall Foundation.
Originally called Free the Children, WE was borne out of the observations of 12-year-old Craig Kielburger, who saw injustice in child labour half a world away and wanted to do something about it. His story—and the story of children around the world—were compelling to donors, sponsors, the media and Canadians of influence, as well as tens of thousands of young people.
The charity worked to engage children and youth with privilege to consider those that did not. They advocated for their cause, worked with communities, raised money from a range of sources, engaged with opinion influencers, innovated with social enterprise, and made demands of people with influence.
At the same time, The WE Charity brought the weaknesses of how charities operate into sharp relief.
“It is hard to understand that the chair of the WE board held a board position for 15 years, despite the best practice of regular board renewal,” Senator Ratna Omidvar wrote in a recent Toronto Star op-ed. “Charities should not be the domain of a few influential people, although many are.”
“Toxic” leadership and systemic racism—accusations levelled against WE—have also been reported as common in the charity sector.
“Up to 30% of respondents are experiencing the attributes of toxic leadership,” wrote Mikhael Bornstein, MA, CFRE in the Canadian Fundraising Leadership Survey conducted by the charity sector’s association of fundraising professions, the AFP, in 2019. “Toxic leadership is defined as ineffective leadership in that it actively harms both the followers of the leader and the group surrounding them.” The report was facilitated by The AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada and Hilborn Charity eNews.
Last year, AFP also reported on racism in the charity sector, saying that of the 2.2 people working in the charity sector, 70% of whom are women, the majority of fundraising leaders are men, with a very small percentage identifying as part of a racialized or marginalized group.
According to the report, many Indigenous, Black or a people of colour say they are “the only one who looks like them” in the room, and that many have “had to seek support for mental health due to their work environment.”
There are also documented governance problems with founder-led organizations, of which WE is only one.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation in the US has studied founder transitions, and found that while nonprofit founders make singular contributions to their communities, their identities and the identities of their organizations are so intertwined that transition from founder-led organizations to arms’ length organizations can be difficult.
Fifty percent of founder-led organizations do not survive.
There is plenty to be learned on all sides of The WE Charity controversy. Now that the WE boogie man has been chased away, It remains to be seen what lessons stick, where they stick, where the calls for more transparency and accountability come from, and how loud they are. .