I won’t write about the loucheness of Justin Trudeau, his need to feather his mother’s nest, his whac–a-mole conflicts of interest; nor the conflicts of his Minister of Finance and Chief of Staff; nor forcing his officials to be economical with the truth in explaining the preposterous coincidence of an unsolicited proposal arriving on their desks from none other than WE; nor their buying 15 parcels of land in downtown Toronto owned by four different WE organizations; nor dismissing nearly all of their board of directors; nor in appearing to move funds in ever bigger blobs from their non-profit arm to their privately-controlled for-profit arm.
I have nothing to say on any of that.
What I want to talk about are two parts of this scandal that have been largely missed in the waves of revelation: the first is the payment of speakers at charity events; and the second is the validity of thinking young people can change the world by helping build a school in a developing country over March break.
A friend of mine who had helped bring sponsors to WE in its early days put his anger this way: “To find out now that WE is paying its speakers feels like a betrayal.”
I don’t feel quite as betrayed.
Lots of charities pay speakers to headline their gala dinners, meet-and-greets and big-tent events. The charities will try to get a reduced rate, of course, or best of all, no fee at all, and many speakers and their agents will accommodate them. Or if the idea of taking money from a charity that is raising money from the speaker’s drawing power doesn’t pass the sniff test, the speaker can ask for their fee to be donated to the charity of their choice or to the charity in question. Or they can get a corporate sponsor to pay the fee.
This is just how it’s done.
But when a charity shifts from international development to motivational events as its main purpose, as seems to be the case with WE, getting famous people on stage is no longer a side-show, it’s the main event. So I would ask the Kielburgers what WE paid Al Gore, Kofi Annan, Naomi Campbell, and the ever-present Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – all of whom have spoken at WE events. I’d also ask how much more money they raised because they drew such global stars.
As for my friend who felt betrayed that some of the money he raised was going into the Prime Minister’s mother’s pockets, I feel for him. Because this is now a matter of degree and not just kind. If the Kielburgers had said: “By the way, 5% of the money you turned our way goes to pay speakers,” that’s just being ultra-transparent. But if they said: “25% of the money you brought us goes to pay speakers,” my friend would likely say: “Are you nuts?”
He felt betrayed that WE paid Margaret Trudeau anything at all. I felt betrayed that she was paid so obscenely much.
As for WE’s mission to help young people volunteer in developing countries during their holidays, this is a bigger philosophical issue. Can eager, but unskilled volunteers actually do anything of value in the one week they’re practising volun-tourism? If you ask many charities, they’ll privately say no.
Years ago, Jean and I joined a group of 25 friends of a friend whose 60th birthday party was a day of us all volunteering to build new homes at Habitat for Humanity. We all had fun. We all felt great about doing good. We talked to a family who was going to move into the home we were building. But we were terrible carpenters, even when guided by the very patient Habitat staff. We were also incredibly slow. So it may be true that when we left at the end of the day, some real carpenters came in, quickly undid our work and made it safe for that family to live in a home that wouldn’t collapse on them.
I’m not saying Habitat isn’t great and that its volunteers aren’t vital. I just think the goal here – whether you’re a high school senior filling in your resume with some non-profit work, or friends of a friend who’s deeply committed to a vital cause – is not to change the world with what you’re doing, but to change yourself.
Which brings me back to the Prime Minister who can’t seem to change himself, no matter what the peril.