When Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll took the stage at a WE Day event in Seattle a couple of years ago, he fired up the crowd of young people by telling them to “stay strong” and “keep competing to do things right.”
As a Super Bowl-winning coach, Mr. Carroll knows something about motivating young people, which is why WE Charity’s co-founders, Craig and Marc Kielburger, have asked him to speak at the annual celebration of volunteers at least twice.
Mr. Carroll has done more for the charity than address WE Day crowds. He’s also been among WE’s prominent donors. The National Football League coach has donated US$1.4-million to the U.S. arm of WE Charity, according to regulatory filings in the United States. One of his former players on the Seahawks, Cliff Avril, has contributed US$180,000 and the NFL has donated US$200,000 through its charitable foundation.
The Kielburgers have always had a knack for attracting high-powered people to their cause. Dozens of celebrities such as Prince Harry and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have been featured at WE Days along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his family.
But a review of WE’s U.S. regulatory filings over the past decade reveals the remarkable breadth of contacts the brothers have made in entertainment, sports and business. And the filings show how they’ve managed to turn those relationships into tens of millions of dollars in donations and sponsorships including with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Goldman Sachs.
Among the charity’s individual donors is Oscar-winning actor Natalie Portman, who has contributed US$500,000 and served as a WE ambassador. Basketball great Magic Johnson has donated US$1.2-million through his company, Magic Johnson Enterprises. He has also appeared at a WE Day event in Los Angeles.
Many of the charity’s big backers have been rethinking their ties to the organization in the wake of WE’s involvement in the federal government’s Canada Student Service Grant. WE was set to administer the program, which involved up to $543.5-million in funding for students to do volunteer work this summer.
But the contract was pulled amid allegations of conflicts of interest because of WE’s ties to the Trudeau family. The controversy and a dearth of donations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has put the future of WE in question.
It’s a far cry from when WE Charity started out 25 years ago as Free the Children in the Kielburger family home north of Toronto. Back then, Craig Kielburger was just 12 years old and his mission was to stop child labour. Today, the WE movement includes nine charities in Canada, the U.S. and Britain, as well as roughly a dozen private businesses.
The charities run health care and educational programs in dozens of countries, while the for-profit social enterprises offer exotic travel and food products. According to the organization, the umbrella company, Me to We Social Enterprises, turns over at least half of its annual profit to the charities.
WE’s biggest corporate donor has long been U.S. insurance giant Allstate, and the U.S. filings shine light on just how lucrative that relationship has been for the charity. Allstate has donated just over US$92-million to WE’s U.S. arm since 2011, according to the filings. The insurer’s chief executive, Tom Wilson, has also contributed US$400,000. Allstate hasn’t commented on whether it plans to continue its partnership with WE.
Other big donors include consumer-products giant Unilever, at US$40-million, and Walt Disney Co., which has donated US$10-million through various divisions. Microsoft has contributed US$40-million and the company’s former CEO, Steve Ballmer, has donated US$2.7-million. Goldman Sachs has provided US$600,000 through its charitable foundation and New York office. And luxury brand Christian Dior has donated nearly US$1-million.
Before his death, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gave the charity US$300,000 and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, has donated US$1.2-million.
Google has been a major contributor to WE in a variety of ways. The company donated US$750,000 plus another US$1-million from a division called google.org, which supports non-profits “using technology and innovation to tackle complex global challenges.” Jeffrey Dean, who heads Google’s artificial-intelligence division, has also given US$6.5-million.
Comparable records of donations by Canadian individuals and companies aren’t available. But WE has had several major Canadian corporate sponsors. Company executives have also played a role in WE Day and some have sat on various WE charity boards.
During a parliamentary committee hearing last week, Craig Kielburger gave a glimpse into the organization’s fundraising strategy. He said WE relied on big-name speakers, such as Margaret Trudeau, to make the rounds at various events to impress potential donors, in return for a fee.
“We don’t do telemarketing. We don’t do street canvassing. We don’t do mass mailing,” he told the committee. “We don’t do fundraising of that type of nature, but by bringing in these type of educational speakers to events, it allows us to bring partners and sponsors to the table. This is part of our model, and it works really well.”
Some corporate sponsors have begun cutting their ties to WE in light of the controversy – including Royal Bank, Telus, KPMG Canada and Virgin Atlantic – and the Kielburgers have promised sweeping changes. In a statement, the organization also said it recently “reached out to our Canadian corporate partners of WE Schools and WE Day to proactively pause our related partnerships.”
Others companies are standing by WE. In a statement, U.S. drug-store chain Walgreens expressed strong support for WE’s work, saying the organization has “empowered thousands of young people through various initiatives.”
Canadian restaurant chain Keg Restaurants Ltd. also said that, while it will pause its current sponsorships with WE, the company “remains committed to evaluating WE programs going forward.”
The Globe and Mail has a sponsorship agreement with WE Charity. It expires Aug. 31 and will not be renewed.
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