The oversight board of the charity responsible for administering a $900-million student volunteer program experienced a major turnover earlier this year, including the resignation of Canadian board chair Michelle Douglas.
WE Charity told The Globe and Mail the changes were part of a long-planned renewal of its Canadian and U.S. boards.
The shakeup surfaced this week when Ms. Douglas responded to a comment on Twitter that described her as the current board chair.
“I am no longer associated with WE,” she wrote. In a separate tweet, she added that “almost all of the board of directors of WE Charity in Canada and the U.S. resigned or [were] replaced in March, 2020.”
The size of WE Charity’s Canadian board of directors was reduced from seven to five members, although it is not clear how or exactly when the decision was reached. Four of the five are new, while one was on the previous board. The U.S. board was reduced from seven to four.
When contacted by The Globe on Thursday, Ms. Douglas declined to comment further.
She was replaced by Greg Rogers, a York University faculty member who specializes in Catholic education and was a high school teacher of WE co-founder Marc Kielburger. Mr. Rogers has been involved with the WE organization since its inception 25 years ago. WE was formed as Free The Children in 1995 by Mr. Kielburger and his brother Craig to fight child exploitation.
WE Charity is at the centre of a political controversy after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government outsourced the management of a $900-million Canada Student Service Grant program to the organization. Mr. Trudeau said the public service said WE was the only organization that could run the program. The grant was announced in April, but the government revealed only last week that WE would manage it. Mr. Trudeau said WE would not profit from the contract.
The WE organization has two main divisions. WE Charity is a registered charity that focuses on international development projects and youth education programs such as WE Day events that attract thousands of youth and have featured Mr. Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, as keynote speakers. The organization also includes ME to WE, a for-profit corporation that sells products and services including chocolate, coffee, bracelets and travel services.
The WE organization says ME to WE donates 90 per cent of its profits to WE Charity, with the rest reinvested in the business.
Of the four new people added to the Canadian board, three have past connections to the WE organization. Mr. Rogers has been involved in WE programs, and two others are former senior employees of the WE organization who worked for the for-profit division. These include Kate Burnett, who is chief operations officer at Ottawa-based chain Bridgehead Coffee, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, spent 6½ years at ME to WE, including as deputy chief operating officer. Also new to the board is Rann Sharma, who is director of human resources at Ontario Health and was previously global head of people operations and culture for WE, including responsibility for ME to WE, between 2014 and 2018. Neither Ms. Burnett, nor Ms. Sharma could be reached for comment.
Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada, an independent organization that reviews and reports on charities based on criteria such as their degree of transparency, said she has long been concerned that WE blurs the lines between charity work and its for-profit operations. Because ME to WE is a private company, Ms. Bahen said its financial records are not public and can’t be reviewed.
Ms. Bahen said a board of directors should provide independent oversight of a charity and she is concerned that could be weakened given the connections between some of the new board members and the organization.
“My concern is I think that there’s already too much of a blurring between WE Charity and ME to WE, and now we’ve got more of that,” she said in an interview on Thursday.
In a statement to The Globe, the new WE Charity Canadian and U.S. chairs said changes to the board had been in the works since the fall of 2019.
“A number of board members had served for durations of more than five and even 10 years. The goal of that process was to address renewal, sharpen the focus on future priorities and address issues such as diversity, inclusion and range of competencies all while continuing to provide strong oversight and guidance to the organization,” Mr. Rogers, the Canadian chair, and U.S. chair Jacqueline Sanderlin said in the statement to The Globe. “With these objectives in mind, a number of board positions were refreshed. In total, six of nine new [North American] board members were filled with newcomers, including the appointment of a new chair. As well, a majority of board spots are now filled by persons of colour, including the U.S. chair.” They said they believe the renewal process strengthened the two boards.
The Globe is a media partner of WE Charity.
Some in the voluntary sector, including Volunteer Canada CEO Paula Speevak, say the student grant program creates confusion between unpaid volunteering and paid work. Students aged 15 to 30 will receive a grant of $1,000 for every 100 hours of volunteer service, up to $5,000 for 500 hours.
The Globe reported this week that WE Charity is offering 450 online student-volunteer placements at its own organization as part of the program.
In a statement on Thursday in response to Globe questions about the positions, WE Charity said students who volunteer at WE Charity will not be involved with ME to WE. It also said that while it laid off employees this year due to COVID-19, student volunteers will not do work previously done by paid staff.
“Due to the impact of COVID-19, like many others, in March we were forced to lay off employees, especially from our global service travel and live events division. To be clear: no [student grant] service placements were ever allocated to a role previously performed by a staff member or an impacted department,” the organization stated. “Also, to be clear, ME to WE social enterprises was never receiving any [student grant] volunteers.”
The Globe asked Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) on Tuesday to comment on the grant positions offered at WE. The department provided a response Thursday evening that did not directly address the issue.
None of the other board members of the Canadian charity who left their positions replied to a request for comment.
The NDP says it will ask the House of Commons finance committee to demand all contracts involving WE Charity or ME to WE, including briefing notes, memos and e-mail from senior officials, so they can be reviewed by MPs and the public.
The Conservative Party said on Thursday it has asked the federal Procurement Ombudsman to review the contract.
In a video on the National Post website on Tuesday, Marc Kielburger states in a private June 12 conference call with youth organizations that the Prime Minister’s Office contacted WE after announcing the program in April and asked it to help implement the program. The Post says WE Charity later told the newspaper Mr. Kielburger “misspoke,” and that he was contacted by a senior public servant at ESDC.
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