There are endless tentacles to the WE-Trudeau-Morneau inquiry. One that remains curiously unprobed is this:
Should donors to international charities pay their travel expenses or should the charity pay them?
The obvious answer is, the donor pays. Always. Of course!….. which I wrote about last week.
But it seems I was wrong.
Last Wednesday, just hours after Bill Morneau wrote his cheque for $41,366 to pay the remaining expenses (he had already paid $52,000) of his family’s trips to WE-funded projects in Kenya and Ecuador, the Kielburgers issued a press release.
This is how it began:
“From time to time, on a complimentary basis, WE Charity invites potential supporters to see the impact of its global projects: current and potential major funders, celebrity ambassadors, philanthropists, and those doing due diligence on behalf of companies or possible future funders. Many international charities and humanitarian agencies operate in a similar manner.”
Who’s right here? Do many charities pay the travel costs for their donors?
Since I’ve been confidently wrong before, I called a couple of friends who head up international humanitarian agencies and asked them. One of them has worked in the field for 20+ years in Africa, Asia and northern Canada. The other has chaired a major charity which operates where even the most intrepid donor might hesitate to go.
When I asked if their organizations ever invite donors “on a complimentary basis,” their response was basically: “Are you kidding?”
They acknowledge that these tours can ‘work’ because donors see first-hand how much good their generosity creates. But because hosting donors can be so disruptive to their day-to-day operations in some of the most isolated and dangerous places in the world, they ask those donors to pay their travel costs, including room and board, as well as the disruption costs.
They also said their organizations try to make the donor tours always about the beneficiaries, not about the visitors.
So were the Kielburgers confabulating?
It’s complicated. I heard that it’s never okay for donor travel to be paid from restricted funds, that is to say by a project funded by another donor or government agency, which limits how the charity can hold, invest or spend the funds. But it is sometimes okay for international charities to pay for donor travel out of unrestricted funds, meaning funds the charity can use for any purpose.
This is a gray area and is based on your definition of your donor promise to the general public who generally give unrestricted funds, and how much you believe you have to spend money to make money.
So let’s go back to the Kielburgers’ press release and its very odd final paragraph:
“Yesterday, the Morneau-McCain family reached out to us to ask if, in fact, their trip had been complimentary. We confirmed that it was. They then reimbursed WE Charity for what they would have been charged if they had paid at the time: USD $ 4,395 per person.”
This leaves me with two questions:
1. If Bill Morneau knew the trip was complimentary, why did he pay anything for it?
2. If he didn’t know but discovered this on July 22nd when the release was made public, why would he apologize so profusely for having forgotten to pay?
The answer is that Mr. Morneau knew that donors pay, which is why he’d already paid most of the travel expenses.
I also don’t think he was expecting a free junket from WE Charity, an organization that his family had already donated large sums to. But he was forgetful and careless in not enquiring about the total cost before, during and even years after his family’s trips.
WE Charity, on the other hand, has more to answer for.
The Kielburgers testified at length yesterday to a Commons Committee.
The question they should have been asked is:
“Who else, beyond the Finance Minister, did WE offer donor trips to, “from time to time, on a complimentary basis?”