WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors

After Don Jennison died in April 2005, his wife of 50 years, Joyce, wanted to honor him in a special way: Instead of a tombstone, she put C$4,000 toward building a school in Kenya to better honor her husband, a former principal.

Sales of fair-trade coffee at the Jennisons’ church helped raise enough money to fund a schoolhouse, a teacher’s salary for two years, and a latrine. Two years after construction, WE Charity, then known as Free The Children, sent pictures of “Don’s School House” — a tidy cinderblock building with a white plaque embedded in a shield-like concrete mount. “This school has been built in memory of Don Jennison,” it read, “through the generous donation of Morningside-High Park Presbyterian Church Toronto, Canada.”

That same month, an identical-looking building on the site — and the only one with a shield-shaped mount — was dedicated to a deceased father and son from Minnesota. In a YouTube video captioned “Enelerai March 2008,” a blue cover is peeled back, revealing a plaque embedded in what looks to be the same, distinctive shield-shaped concrete base: “In loving memory of Harvey & Scott Hymes.”

It’s the latest example in which WE Charity’s handling of donors’ gifts has sparked questions about an organization already the subject of parliamentary inquiries. What began as a conflict-of-interest controversy involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family continues to widen.

A Bloomberg Businessweek investigation in December included reports by former staff of plaque swapping — so frequent that the running joke was they should be made of Velcro. WE denied the allegations at the time, though it has since acknowledged removing at least two donors’ plaques. Further investigation has uncovered multiple cases where donors mistakenly believed they were the sole financiers of schoolrooms and water wells in Kenya. WE donors include grieving parents, school kids, corporate sponsors, wealthy foundations, and widows such as the 89-year-old Joyce Jennison.

She crystallized the concerns with a simple question: “Why is the plaque not on the school?”

WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors
WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors
WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors

A U.S. donor, Reed Cowan, helped directly raise at least $170,000 for WE Charity in honor of his son, Wesley, who died in a backyard swing-set accident at the age of 4. After reading the original Bloomberg investigation, he discovered that one of Wesley’s plaques had been taken down, according to his testimony last Friday to a Canadian parliamentary ethics committee. Asked if he thought WE Charity had demonstrated “duplicitous behavior” in its dealings with donors, he told lawmakers, “I feel like my son was the victim of fraud.”

The next day, Cowan asked the Internal Revenue Service to open a fraud investigation into the organization and for Canada’s federal police to seize its records. Opposition lawmaker Charlie Angus also called for Canadian police and tax authorities to investigate. In response, WE’s lawyer said founding brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger will cooperate with any investigation but will no longer appear before the ethics committee, even if summoned. They had previously agreed to testify next week.

The U.S. and Canadian tax agencies said they aren’t permitted to confirm if a probe is underway. Canada’s federal police agency said it “continues to examine this matter carefully with all available information.”

The charity has said it’s “confident that we conducted ourselves appropriately at all times.” In December, it denied removing any plaques, noting they were fixed in cement. Last week, it said it had relocated plaques from “a small number” of schools but said “there is no pattern here.” On Monday, WE apologized for removing Cowan’s plaque, saying his “experience was unfortunate but exceedingly rare.”

On Thursday, the organization acknowledged that Jennison’s plaque had also been removed and said it is reviewing records for the rest of its operations in Kenya. “We did not have any meaningful use of plaques in other locations globally, but will review those records as well.”

Even some of those whose plaques are still in place are distraught at the revelations. “It’s just a really awful thought that this could be somehow involved in that,” said Judy Laner, whose father and brother’s names are on the Hymes plaque.

Harvey Hymes and his son Scott died of cancer in the 1980s. In 2007, Laner traveled, with friends, to Kenya to support a “campus” of schools being built in honor of Howie Stillman, a friend from college who had died of leukemia. Working with the charity, the prominent Stillman family had pledged to rebuild existing derelict schools on the site, Laner said, as well as to erect a library, cafeteria for teachers and a cistern to collect rain water.

It was during that trip that Laner decided she too would like to raise funds to build a school. She said she was never told buildings would be shared with multiple donors. “It makes me sad for that family,” she said of the Jennisons. “I know what it feels like to dedicate something to people who died.”

Laner said she committed to pay for one of the newly constructed schools already in place. Each had a unique plaque mount; she chose the one that was heart-shaped, and didn’t realize until this week that her family’s plaque ended up on the school with the shield base. “I feel sick to my stomach,” she said. “I picked the schoolhouse I picked because it was a heart.”

Throughout the recent months of parliamentary investigations, one group of donors has publicly stood by the charity: members of the Stillman family from Minnesota. A branch of the family is represented by David Stillman, who previously worked for the charity as director of its U.S. operations. In memory of his brother, Stillman helped establish the “Howie Stillman Campus,” where Cowan’s and Jennison’s plaques once stood.

WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors

In his testimony before the parliamentary committee, Cowan said Stillman sought to deter him from going public with his allegations, warning he would “ruin” both families’ legacies. Stillman didn’t respond to questions from Bloomberg seeking comment.

The Stillman Family Foundation, led by another branch of the family, paid for reports that WE has repeatedly cited in its defense, including one by a forensic accountant, Al Rosen, in December. The report praised WE’s financial control structure, lauded its “remarkable level of transparency” that allowed donors to visit the projects they backed, and found that WE’s records showed donors were fully informed when contributing alongside other donors to a project.

“It would be inaccurate to say that any donors are inappropriately ‘double matched’ to a project based on this clear process and structure,” Rosen concluded. He stands by those findings. Cowan's testimony “is simply evidence of what I stated,” he said in an email this week. “Multiple donors are required for some projects.”

Bloomberg reviewed dozens of pages of correspondence between the charity staff and donor groups that spanned five years. While there were no formal grant agreements, the documents show that donors believed they were the sole financiers of the schoolhouses for which they were receiving pictures. In a letter to donors this week, WE said that for more than a decade “it sought to communicate” that it pools funds to help villages. Yet donor reports as recent as eight years ago show WE promising to earmark funds, down to the dollar, to specific items: four latrines, five new schoolhouses, one borehole.

Over 25 years, the Kielburger brothers and their WE organization rose to the upper reaches of the philanthropic world, feted internationally by politicians, billionaires and celebrities for their uplifting if sometimes controversial brand of do-goodism. Their main philanthropic entity, WE Charity, developed projects in nine countries. A for-profit arm known as ME to WE ran voluntourism trips that hosted entertainment and corporate celebrities. As one Canadian commentator put it, WE was the “golden child of charities.”

WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors

But in recent months, that gilded image has shattered. The Kielburgers faced an unfamiliar level of scrutiny after Trudeau’s government announced in June that WE had received a no-bid C$544 million contract to distribute pandemic aid. As parliamentary committees, journalists and others took a closer look at WE, questions emerged about a complex corporate structure that mixed philanthropy with for-profit activities, how funds were allocated, and whether the organization was as transparent with donors as it should’ve been.

In Cowan’s case, fury over the removal of his son’s plaque was stoked by his belief that Wesley’s school appeared to have been dedicated to another group 13 days earlier. “The ceremony was re-cued for us, same people, same songs, same everything, different plaques,” he told the ethics committee last week. In response, WE said he was mistaken and that the other group’s was a “welcome” ceremony. “There was only one opening ceremony for the schoolhouse and it was for Mr. Cowan.”

Around 2006, as the Jennison group was fundraising in Toronto, a third-grade teacher named Lucy Rinaldi was rallying her Montreal elementary school to raise money for a school in Kenya. WE would allocate the donations from both groups toward Enelerai, the cluster of one-room schoolhouses in Kenya’s Maasai Mara region where the Cowan and Jennison plaques had been.

The cost of building and furnishing a school was roughly C$10,000. During the fundraising effort, Rinaldi said, she and her student-helpers stayed up late into the evening, writing out thousands of raffle tickets.

Rinaldi recalled a few conversations with the charity’s staff. During one, she said, she asked WE to provide some sort of proof to show the students and parents in Montreal what their money was building. She was sent photos of a little cinderblock schoolhouse, status updates and even a DVD of Marc Kielburger thanking the Montreal school for its generosity.

She also said she inquired if the schoolhouse would acknowledge her school in some way — perhaps even be named after it — but was told the charity avoided overt nods to Western donors because doing so undermined the local community’s sense of ownership of the facility.

“I was never promised a plaque but I also wasn’t told some donors got one,” says Rinaldi, whose school went on to eventually raise more than C$30,000 to fund three schoolrooms in Kenya. “Why would they do that for some and not others?”

This week, WE said that it “largely” discontinued the practice of installing plaques more than a decade ago.

WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors
WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors
WE Charity’s Actions Leave a Trail of Enraged, Grieving Donors

Rinaldi was told in one letter that her school’s contribution was supporting the “construction of a one-room school” at a cost of C$7,850, the same price given to the friends of the Jennisons raising money for Don’s school. Donors said there was never any indication they would be sharing the expense — or credit — for the buildings with others.

As of early January, eight of Enelerai’s 13 schoolhouses carried donor plaques. Two other campuses in the area had six more. None mentioned Don Jennison or Wesley Cowan. In recent weeks, WE put Wesley’s plaque back up, replacing one that had belonged to the family of another deceased honoree, Esther Grodnick. That only proved “that plaques were taken down like Velcro and quick-print plaques could be easily put back up,” Cowan said in an irate YouTube video following his recent parliamentary testimony.

Plaques and photos were just one part of a broader set of actions by WE that is raising questions from donors and the Canadian parliament about how forthright the charity was with its benefactors. The Kielburgers pitched to donors the idea that they controlled how their money would be allocated. In one letter, Craig wrote: “Please contribute. We are excited to offer you the freedom to choose the projects you want to support.”

Bloomberg spoke to nearly two dozen former staffers whose employment spanned two decades across the world. They described a corporate culture they said played fast and loose with facts. “Kiel Math” was how staff referred to the way WE quantified its impact in the charity’s promotional materials. Multiple ex-employees in both Kenya and Canada recalled Marc Kielburger prioritizing projects based on which donors were closely monitoring progress.

This week, WE said it rigorously measured its impact from surveys and other data, and that projects in Kenya were prioritized only in order to benefit the community. This sometimes meant speeding up work for important benefactors who were visiting or likely to make multiple donations. “In some instances, donor projects could be moved up if doing so would result in unlocking greater resources for the community,” it said.

Plaques were apparently not the only example of gifts being pooled without the knowledge of some donors. Canada’s national broadcaster, CBC, reported allegations involving a water well in the Kenyan village of Kipsongol in 2015. In an investigation that aired in February, it reported that donors included Unilever Plc and a University of British Columbia student group. WE Charity denied in a statement that it collected multiple donations exceeding the cost of a borehole, saying the money also funded additional elements such as a pumping station and solar panels.

In an earlier instance, the charity in 2010 announced it would begin working in the Maasai community of Osenetoi. It quickly found a willing donor in SVQF, which had been lauded publicly by former U.S. President Bill Clinton for its work with Craig Kielburger. The foundation made a $250,000 commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative to fund a range of developmental initiatives in Osenetoi. One of the biggest line items was a $50,000 borehole that was part of a broader clean-water donation, according to progress reports.

The well began to spout water in late 2013. Multiple groups said they funded the same borehole and water project in the same village; one said it was aware its donation could be reallocated to another project or community if necessary. SVQF said it was unaware other donors were contributing to the same borehole, though it did assume others would contribute to ongoing costs.

When asked what the other groups funded, WE said clean-water projects also include hand-washing stations, latrines, water storage systems and sanitation education. SVQF's documents show it provided an additional $13,210 for those items.

The charity told SVQF the $50,000 construction cost of a borehole included ground assessments, drilling, materials, piping and placement of one water kiosk. Bloomberg asked WellBoring, a U.K.-founded charity that has drilled dozens of boreholes in rural Kenya, for an estimate based on those parameters at the depth required in Narok, where WE operates. Based on WellBoring’s figures, $50,000 would cover the cost of at least two such wells. Drilling For Life, another charity that drills in Kenya, provided a similar estimate.

WE said ongoing technical, servicing and training costs to ensure the project lasts 10 years or more “need to be added to the WellBoring quote” to make it comparable. But such ongoing costs were not included in SVQF's $50,000 figure, according to documents.

Cowan in his testimony to the parliamentary committee called for WE’s most influential donors and supporters — including Oprah, singer Demi Lovato, Prince Harry, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and the Trudeau family — to open their records to prove that WE is “on the up and up.”

“And if you don’t, your silence says everything,” he said.

Trudeau declined to respond when asked if he would support additional investigations into WE by government authorities. “The PM has commented on the topic over the last number of months,” spokesman Alex Wellstead said in an email Sunday. “Our focus now is on continuing to support Canadians as we get through this pandemic.”

But some Canadians would still like answers.

“The plaque is gone — so with that bit of dishonesty, it calls into question everything else,” said Kirk Dunn, who along with his wife, Claire, helped spearhead the Jennison fundraising drive. “It takes other well-meaning and important initiatives and colors them all.''

Joyce Jennison is left wondering why that little schoolhouse with the green roof in the photo was dedicated to another grieving family. And where is Don’s plaque?

Because it’s more than a plaque to her. It’s his tombstone.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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