How Canada's charitable sector can move beyond the WE scandal

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Marc and Craig Kielburger at a WE Day event in the U.K. in 2014. Image: Paul Williams/Flickr

Canada has seen the spectacular and quick implosion of one of the charity sector's biggest brands. The Kielburgers are leaving a gaping hole by pulling out of Canada.

These are ways in which they could make amends. After an incredibly intense level of scrutiny over the past several weeks, the founders of the WE empire have decided to close up shop and pull WE Charity out of their Canadian operations. But what does it truly mean for these founders to exit from Canada's charitable sector?

Much has been shared about the WE group's complicated and unusual organizational and governance structure. And while the board of directors did not have full view of the operations, the questions over WE's unique governance has caused much damage to the reputation of those of us in the charitable and non-profit space.

As someone who has served as both a volunteer board member and as paid staff in dozens of small and large charities, I struggled to make sense of their operations. WE's complex structure only served to create confusion. This is not the norm for most organizations who work hard to deliver meaningful change in our communities.

Radical transparency is at the heart of effective governance, not just in the charitable and public sectors. It should be how all organizations operate regardless of their status.

And now that, in the midst of the pandemic, we've lost countless hours chasing this story, how could the WE founders show us they truly want the most positive impact for Canadians?

What could the Kielburgers do to make amends?

They could ensure WE's extensive Canadian real estate assets are repurposed for public housing either through resale or donation to the City of Toronto.

They could work to adequately support the dozens of staff now without employment. What will the Kielburgers do to help their own employees land and be positioned to pivot?

The assets from their real estate sales could go into a new fund to support youth-led and youth-governed programming.

The substantial programming and resources funded by federal programs could now go to partners with a track record of disruption and innovation that puts people at the centre, like the School for Social Entrepreneurs or Futurpreneur.

And, on their international work? They could turn to programming and governance that centres the leadership of the communities they serve. They should begin by taking a more collaborative, partnership-focused approach to this work and strive to meet international development best-practice.

Most of us agree that supporting and serving children and communities in need of essential infrastructure such as schools, energy and water is noble and important. But, it is time for us in the global north to revisit this work: we are not the saviours with the solutions. In many ways, this is the new colonialism: this is not the way we Canadians should be contributing. We instead should look to strong partnerships and collective capacity building.

The Kielburgers could even ask to be removed from the Order of Canada while they do the work to understand how they have contributed (unintentionally or intentionally) to creating harms in communities they operated.

While many Canadians may not have been enraptured with the details of this strange story -- that also saw the departure of the finance minister -- those of us in the charitable sector watched in incredulity as we learned more about the Kielburgers' playbook. In some ways, Craig and Marc learned from private sector models and simply applied these self-interested approaches to the WE movement. It seemed they focused on scale: going big and not going deep. 

What I hope Canadians take away from these past few weeks after the media and Parliament dove into the WE scandal:

We are truly lucky to have a strong community and civil society sector. It is an essential lifeline for society, and we saw this in full display during the pandemic. Everyone wanted to step up and do what they thought was the right thing.

Our charities need all kinds of diverse leadership and governance as they do critical work alongside our governments -- they need to be open and accountable to be at their best.

We can have new models, like social enterprise, that achieve the aims of doing good and being sustainable, but they too need to be clear and transparent about their operations.

And, as WE Charity leaves Canada, we should continue to ensure their work evolves from feel-good photo opportunities to transforming the systems that uphold inequalities -- here in Canada and abroad.

In this time of reckoning, let us now please re-centre the conversation on the important work of truly serving Canadians. We've got enough to do to transform our healthcare, educational and charitable sectors in this year of total turbulence.

Chi Nguyen has spent the past 20 years in the social change sector, and currently advises charities and non-profits. She has worn many hats in government, public policy, charities, social enterprises and as a funder to build stronger, more resilient and equitable communities. She loves raising her two feminist boys in Toronto. 

Image: Paul Williams/Flickr

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