WE Charity's reputation at risk as co-founders appear before House committee, pollsters say

·6 min read

When WE Charity founders Craig and Marc Kielburger appear before a House committee on Tuesday to answer questions about the partnership they'd struck with the Liberal government to administer a $900-million student grant program, they will be risking the very reputation of the charity they started, say pollsters.

"Charities are feeling the pressure of the pandemic impacting their income and people's willingness to give, and corporations being able to give," David Coletto, CEO of the polling firm Abacus Data, told CBC News.

"If their reputation is in any way affected it could have really big effects on the organization overall. This is going to be a test of that reputation in how they handle themselves."

WE Charity was started by the Kielburgers, both human rights advocates, in 1995 and has gone on to form a close relationship with the Trudeau family.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his mother, Margaret, have appeared at a number of WE Day events, while Trudeau's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, hosts a podcast for the group called "WE Well-being."

That relationship came under scrutiny late last month when Trudeau announced that WE Charity would administer the Canada Student Service Grant; providing eligible students with grants of up to $5,000.

The grants were intended to help students cover the cost of post-secondary education in the fall. The amount of each grant depends on how much time students spend doing volunteer work.

How to watch today's hearings

CBC News will have full coverage of today's Commons committee hearings into the WE contract. Watch special coverage with host Vassy Kapelos on an early edition of Power & Politics, 12 noon to 2:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network or CBC Gem. You can also watch the committee hearings live on cbcnews.ca and on the CBC News app, Facebook and Twitter starting at 12 p.m. ET.

Initially, the federal government said WE Charity would get $19.5 million for administering the $900-million program, with $5 million of that going to not-for-profits to help them with administration costs.

Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger told a Commons committee last week that an additional $10.5 million would have been made available to WE to help smaller not-for-profits participate in the program, and another $13.53 million would have been given to WE to create an additional 20,000 volunteer placements, if necessary, raising the value of the contract to $43.53 million.

Trudeau, Telford appearing Thursday

After the partnership was announced the relationship between WE Charity and the Trudeau family came under close scrutiny.

There is a high level of risk for them. — David Coletto, CEO, Abacus Data

Initially, WE Charity said members of the Trudeau family were not paid for appearing at WE events, although Grégoire Trudeau had been reimbursed for travel expenses.

On July 9, Canadaland and CBC News reported that Margaret was paid approximately $250,000 for speaking at 28 events, while Trudeau's brother Alexandre spoke at eight events and received about $32,000.

As a result of those revelations and others Trudeau is now the subject of an investigation by Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion, as is Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Both the House of Commons finance and ethics committees are conducting separate inquiries.

Trudeau and his chief of staff Katie Telford will appear before the finance committee on Thursday where their testimony will be compared to that of the Kielburgers.

Tough questions

"Anytime you have to step in front of a parliamentary committee that the national media is covering … there is a high level of risk for them," said Coletto of WE Charity's founders.

Coletto says there is already a heightened attention to news because of the pandemic, and that as many people are following this story as were the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

"That raises the stakes for any organization that is in the crosshairs of opposition parties looking to inflict damage on a government, particularly one that has shown, whether actual or perceived, favour or [that] plays in the same playgrounds as Liberals, as the Kielburger brothers seem to have done," said Coletto.

"It means that Conservative and New Democrat and Bloc MPs are not going to feel that they need to be soft on them and so I think the scrutiny that this controversy has already brought to the organization will only get worse, potentially, unless the story somehow dies this week and everything sort of closes up; which I do not perceive happening."

You don't want to be the tall poppy making headlines for the wrong reasons. — Shachi Kurl, executive director, Angus Reid Institute

With businesses and charities hurting because of the pandemic, any threat to a charity's reputation can result in a crisis, explains Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute.

"This is a time when donations have gone down, events have had to be cancelled. Those events are often big drivers of income so, just broadly, this isn't a time for any charitable organization, or frankly any public entity that depends on engagement with the public for its revenue, to be suffering a crisis of reputation," said Kurl.

Coletto says, when it comes to corporate sponsorships, brands and organizations are quick to disassociate themselves with anything that seems even remotely controversial.

"If you're a brand trying to manage your own reputation, there's lots of choice out there that you can associate yourself with. And it's just easier to associate with one that is not in the spotlight and has [not] been dragged before parliamentary committees and has the prime minister defending his government's actions on it," said Coletto.

"Based on my experience I would say this is not going to likely be, regardless of how it ends, an event in which [WE Charity] would have wanted or planned for from a reputation management perspective."

Kurl says that research published by the Angus Reid Institute in the fall of 2017 found that, while many Canadians donate to GoFundMe campaigns or drop coins into a collection box, the people that give substantial donations are the most choosy about where they give.

"This is already a tough year for charities in Canada. You don't want to be the tall poppy making headlines for the wrong reasons," she said.

Michelle Douglas, former chair of the WE Charity board of directors, will also appear first before the House finance committee on Tuesday at 12 p.m.

The Kielburgers initially were scheduled to appear with WE Charity's CFO Victor Li, from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. But at the request of the Conservatives, committee members agreed Monday to have Li appear later in the week.