In the summer of 2020, with COVID numbers rising and an international crisis at hand, WE Charity became embroiled in a life-changing controversy that captured headlines for weeks. While the roots of this took place over a government contract, the story took on a life of its own. Tawfiq Rangwala, WE Board member and author of the book What WE Lost: Inside the attack on Canada's largest children's charity, makes a strong case that the interest in the unbid government contract was a direct result of a combination of government disorganization, agenda-wielding members of the opposition in Parliament eager to gain political points, and media hungry for a juicy news story. Ultimately, the book provides a point-by-point defense of the charity without the author making a similar effort to investigate the complaints against WE.
This book is a full-throttle defense of WE. The author's expertise as a lawyer is much in evidence as he systematically lays out the defense for each and every accusation against WE Charity. Mr Rangwala clearly spent extensive hours reviewing reams of documents and interviewing key figures in this story. However, what the author did not do, was interview any of the critics of WE. Thus, while the book is an interesting and important read, it does not fully address some significant concerns.
The first is the issue of allegations of racism within the WE Charity itself. While the book focuses on the question of whether, or not, there was systemic racism in the organization in the case of staff relations, it does not adequately address the situation of a charity founded by white young men with many white ex-patriots running operations in foreign countries. Early in the book, the author outlines the "mad scramble to safety (p 22-23) and every staff person mentioned that required evacuation is white appearing. This lends credence to the criticism of white saviourism and the racism that underpins that world view.
In addition, the book makes much of perceived unfair treatment of the Kielburger brothers by the media and politicians. While the book ascribes the criticism as "Tall Poppy Syndrome," it's reasonable to assume that if WE had done a better job of understanding the dynamics of government bureaucracy, they would have been better able to stay on side of government affairs including registering as lobbyists. Despite being extremely strong at networking, it is obvious that the Kielburger brothers and WE Charity were woefully ignorant about government relations and surrounding regulations. The books states that only 2.4% of WE's budget came from government in 2019 (p 102) and 3.7% in 2018 (p 102), as if the over $1.5M WE received each of those years [2019 T3010 retrieved March 8, 2023, 2018 T3010 retrieved March 8, 2023] was a relatively small amount of money. To most charities, $1.5M is significant enough to warrant close attention. WE had a very public relationship with many government and opposition party members. To claim that criticism of the Kielburgers was due only to envy, is to disregard the sophistication with which they had built their enterprise and their negligence in not being equally sophisticated in government relations.
In 2020, I was publicly critical of WE and was interviewed by the CBC, Macleans, and the Globe & Mail among other media. While many of my concerns stand, I completely agree that the major force that propelled the WE scandal into the headlines was political opportunism. The book's author makes a powerful case that the contract the Canadian government offered to WE was an excellent opportunity for the opposition to take shots at the popular Liberal government. I also agree with the author that any conflicts of interest of the Trudeau family, or members of the Trudeau government, were the responsibility of those individuals, not the responsibility of WE Charity to manage.
In addition, I also share Mr. Rangwala's view that the government mismanaged the communications about this contract in a way that tried to deflect criticism onto WE Charity. It would be reasonable for WE Charity to feel they had been thrown under the bus during this difficult time. Finally, I agree that the real losers in the whole contract fiasco were the thousands of young people who did not benefit from summer skills building work that the original government contract was meant to address.
While internal racism and government relations are two areas of concern I still hold, I also remain unconvinced that the Byzantine structure, with multiple charitable and business incorporations was necessary or useful. While a 3rd party investigation has cleared WE of any financial wrongdoing, it's reasonable to note that an unnecessarily complex financial structure led thoughtful people to ask probing questions. In addition, despite the arguments put forth in the book, I believe that the Board governance structure of WE was irregular at best.
While I retain doubts about WE Charity and the Kielburgers, this book is an important read because it gives the reader an insider's perspective on the impact of the charity scandal on WE. It also serves as a cautionary tale about crisis communications and risk management. WE Charity will be a case study for many years to come. I hope that one day there will be a book that tells all sides of the story.
What WE Lost is available to purchase here.
Ann Rosenfield, MBA, CFRE is the former editor of Hilborn Charity eNews. She is the principal for Charitably Speaking.