Canada·FIFTH ESTATE

Multiple WE Charity donors raised money for same borehole well in Kenyan village

Three groups donated tens of thousands of dollars each in 2013 to WE Charity, then known as Free the Children, for what turned out to be the same well in a village in Kenya, contributing total amounts that far exceeded the cost of the project and raise questions about what the charity did with the extra money that was collected.

Mystery surrounds $110,000 donation from 2013 Vancouver-area fundraiser to Kielburgers’ Free the Children

An internal Free the Children document shows this borehole, constructed in Osenetoi, Kenya, in 2013, was budgeted at $50,000 US. Three different groups in North America stated they raised funds for the borehole, amounts totalling far in excess of the cost of the deep water well. (Submitted by Donna McFarlane)

A fundraising drive in a tight-knit community about 150 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

California philanthropists promoted by the Clinton Foundation.

Hundreds of school-age children hiking up Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver.

Each group donated tens of thousands of dollars in 2013 to WE Charity, then known as Free the Children, for what turned out to be the same deep water borehole well in the village of Osenetoi, Kenya — total amounts that far exceeded the cost of the well water project and raise questions about what the charity did with the extra money that was collected.

A former WE employee who liaised with outside fundraising groups told The Fifth Estate that they frequently heard complaints about the charity's fundraising tactics.

"We would have people coming to us and saying, like, 'Hey, my donor was led to believe that they were the only donor to this community or the only donor to the school,' " said the source.

The source requested their name not be used because they fear professional repercussions for speaking publicly. 

Roads into Mount Forest, Ont., display the community’s connection to Free the Children and its adopted village of Osenetoi, Kenya. The community raised money to fund a deep water borehole in Osenetoi in 2013. (Harvey Cashore/CBC)

In a statement, WE Charity said that while there were occasions when monies raised exceeded the cost of a project, all of the funds were redirected to humanitarian projects.

"In cases where donations exceed what is needed or local conditions prevent program implementation, Free The Children will redirect funds to similar activities to help people in need." 

Despite recent scrutiny over their finances and ties to the Trudeau family, WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger have declined in the past to provide specific line-by-line accounting of a project in a village they supported in Kenya, stating those figures are confidential.

Internal accounting found on old website

Now, a financial document prepared by Free the Children for Osenetoi has surfaced on a donor's old website, providing a rare glimpse into what the charity said a project would cost — versus the amounts donors were actually contributing.

According to a Free the Children internal accounting document, a borehole in Osenetoi was budgeted to cost $50,000 US. The document shows that most of that amount had already been raised by a single donor, raising questions about why other groups were asked by Free the Children to fundraise for the same project.

The former WE staffer who worked with external partners to raise money said the charity's strategy was to convince donors to part with their money by telling them they were purchasing tangible projects.

"You go to the website and it says if you give 10 thousand dollars, that's a classroom," she said.

The former employee said sometimes that meant that more than one donor believed they had paid for the same classroom.

The Unstoppable Foundation posted these photos online on Jan. 30, 2013, of old classrooms and a newly built classroom in Osenetoi and said Free the Children was provided the money from supporters Nick and Alex Ortner. A Free the Children document appears to state another group from California funded that same school. (Unstoppable Foundation/Facebook)

Osenetoi is a remote community in Kenya's Maasai Mara region where Free the Children established operations in several communities, helping to build new classrooms, water systems and other humanitarian projects. 

In 2013, the population of Osenetoi was estimated at 2,000 residents.

WE Charity was founded in 1995 by brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger after raising the issue of child labour.

The Kielburgers and the charity's chief financial officer, Victor Li, have declined invitations to address the House of Commons ethics committee.  

The Kielburgers were scheduled to appear at the ethics committee today, but in a statement provided to media outlets last week, WE Charity said questions from "partisan" politicians could prejudice a possible RCMP investigation into the charity.  

Where did the money go?

Last week, a former WE Charity donor and Charlie Angus, a New Democrat member of Parliament, called for the RCMP to investigate the organization's fundraising practices. 

"What's happening with all the money that's running through this organization?" said Angus, adding the issue affects all Canadians as charitable contributions are tax deductible.

"We don't really have a sense of how the money is being used. We have to take Craig and Marc [Kielburger]'s word."

According to the April 2013 Free the Children document, a charity group linked to the U.S.-based Clinton Foundation, the Sanam Vaziri Quraishi Foundation or SVQF, donated more than $210,000 US to the Osenetoi community starting in 2010.

"They are going to provide several new schools and essential services including clean water," former U.S. president Bill Clinton said in a video posted by SVQF about their previous partnership in Kenya with Craig Kielburger and Free the Children. 

In a video posted to YouTube in 2013, former U.S. president Bill Clinton speaks about Craig Kielburger and the SVQF Foundation, which funded a Free the Children’s Adopt a Village project in Kenya. (SVQF Foundation/YouTube)

The initial venture went so well that the Clinton Foundation announced in 2010 the California-based charity was taking a "holistic" approach to their newly adopted village of Osenetoi, including stating it would fund a "source of safe water" for the residents.

The Free the Children's financial records on the SVQF website provide a detailed accounting of numerous items, large and small, in Osenetoi. It shows that the California-based charity paid $37,865 towards a borehole budgeted at $50,000 —leaving only slightly more than $12,000 US remaining.

A borehole can be an important addition to a community in rural Kenya, allowing young women in particular to attend school instead of walking kilometres at a time to fetch fresh water.

At the same time that Free the Children stated the U.S.-based charity had paid for the bulk of the costs of the deep water well, two more Canadian communities working with the Kielburgers appeared to be telling their fundraising teams they had also raised substantial funds for the same borehole.

A review of social media posts, online newsletters and blogs also reveals several more individuals and groups stating they, too, were fundraising to bring clean water to Osenetoi. 

Teen celebrated for helping raise money

A Milton, Ont., teenager is honoured on the Governor General's website for having helped raise "enough funds to provide the community of Osenetoi, Kenya, with clean water."  

A University of Toronto website shows a student won an award for her work with Free the Children, having "raised money to provide clean water to Osenetoi, Kenya."  

The university's Free the Children club also stated it had adopted the village, posted on its Facebook page in February 2013 that it had raised a "grand total of $5,000 over the past year and the community of Osenetoi will be receiving a well!"

WATCH | Multiple donors raised money for the same WE Charity project:

Multiple donors raised money for the same WE Charity project

The National

1 month ago
2:36
Three groups each donated tens of thousands of dollars in 2013 to WE Charity, then known as Free the Children, for what turned out to be the same well in a village in Kenya. The multiple contributions far exceeded the project’s cost and raise questions about what the charity did with the extra money. 2:36

At the entrance to Mount Forest, Ont., a town of about 4,757 people150 kilometres northwest of Toronto, there are large signs saying it is "A Free the Children Community, Special Friends to Osenetoi, Kenya."

The local newspaper has run several features on the town's efforts to fund the Osenetoi borehole, raising more than $58,000 for two projects — the water well and a single classroom. (According to Free the Children's accounting, a classroom cost $8,500 US, approximately $8,750 Cdn in 2013 exchange rates.)

Mount Forest schools and church groups rallied together to fundraise for their adopted village, holding bake sales, spaghetti dinners and dances.  

"With our support, Free the Children drilled a deep bore well there in 2013," Donna McFarlane, a retired teacher who spearheaded the community fundraising, wrote in a newsletter, as she prepared for a return visit to Osenetoi in 2016. "I can hardly wait to see it and to talk to the locals to see how it has changed their lives."

Fundraisers hiking up Grouse Mountain in British Columbia in the summer of 2013 also raised money for Osenetoi's water system and borehole, according to a participant who later blogged about the event. 

The blog said that 1,700 school-aged children and community groups who had hiked up the Grouse Grind on June 22, 2013, had raised more than $110,000 for a water system in Osenetoi, supporting efforts to "to drill a borehole 180 metres into the ground that produced 7,000 litres of water per hour."

Did multiple donors repeatedly fund same classrooms?

It appears the water system in Osenetoi was not the only example of multiple donors believing they had funded the same project.

The internal Free the Children accounting document states there were five new classrooms built in Osenetoi between 2010 and 2013, and that SVQF fully funded all of them.

The charity said in financial statements that SVQF had fully paid $8,500 USD for each classroom, for a total of $42,500.   

It further said that four of the classrooms were already built by 2013, while the fifth was "in progress."

At the same time, social media and other internet posts show that other groups were claiming to have funded the same schools through WE Charity in Osenetoi — over the same time period that Free the Children's own accounting shows that SVQF had funded all those schools.

In 2010, an organization called "H.O.P.E. Calgary" posted on Facebook that it held an event attended by more than 170 people.  

The group said it eventually raised more than $13,000 to "fund a fully supplied schoolhouse for the remote village of Osenetoi, Kenya."  

In 2012, the organization posted a photo of its school in Osenetoi on Facebook and said: "It is so exciting to see our efforts put into action!"

H.O.P.E Calgary posted a photo and message on Facebook celebrating a school in Osenetoi for which they said they had raised more than $13,000 'to fund a fully supplied schoolhouse for the remote village of Osenetoi, Kenya.' The school was built in the same time frame that Free the Children had stated the SVFQ had funded all five schools in the village. (H.O.P.E. Calgary/Facebook)

In May 2012, Kingsway College School in Etobicoke, Ont., tweeted that one of its students and his siblings were raising $8,500 to build a "1-room schoolhouse" in Osenetoi, Kenya.

On Jan. 30, 2013, the Unstoppable Foundation, another U.S.-based charity, posted a photo of a new classroom in Osenetoi on its Facebook page, stating the support and generosity for the school had come from two of its members, Nick and Alex Ortner, and their organization The Tapping Solution.

Unstoppable later said in a statement that the reference was "merely representative" of the support of the Ortner brothers in that community and not specifically tied to the classroom.

On February 29, 2012 the University of Toronto's Free the Children club posted a YouTube video stating they had recently funded a classroom in their Kenya village (Osenetoi).

On April 8, 2013, a Toronto mother, Koren Kassirer, posted that her family was raising money for "a clean water" source for Osenetoi, Kenya "where our classroom is being built this year."

Conservative member of Parliament Michael Barrett said allegations that more than one donor paid for the same project erode the public's trust in the charitable sector.

"That in and of itself is a tremendous problem," he said. 

"It also serves to undermine the good will that people have extended to this organization, welcoming them into their schools and their communities."

In its statement, WE Charity said sometimes donations from various groups were pooled with other donor groups.

"The Adopt A Village model is complex and holistic, it has numerous and significant costs which are outside the direct hard costs associated with the building of classrooms. These costs are pulled from general funds but frequently require the allocation of funds from other foundations and businesses. Consequently, there are multiple donors who have been matched to the community of Osenetoi, including SVQF," said WE Charity's head of East Africa, Robin Wiszowaty.

In a statement on Friday, WE Charity also pointed out that the Kassirer family and Unstoppable understood the organization's financial model and have said that there is no confusion on their part. 

"I am more concerned about the families in those WE villages who are now affected by the closure of this organization," Koren Kassirer wrote The Fifth Estate, saying there is no donor confusion on their part. "We have seen real corruption up close in our travels, and did not see evidence of it in any of our dealings with WE."

 

 

Fundraiser denies connection to Osenetoi

According to social media posts, one of the major donations to Osenetoi came from the Whistler Water fundraising event on Grouse Mountain in 2013.

The organizer of the Whistler Water fundraiser — its former owner Stuart McLaughlin — contacted The Fifth Estate recently to say he had never heard of Osenetoi being funded by his organization. 

"I have no insight into who may [have] contributed to the Osenetoi project or what that project involved," wrote McLaughlin, who sold the water bottling company several years ago.

"We were not concerned about which people in need were the recipient of our efforts, as long as it could help people, but I have never heard of Osenetoi."

The website for that fundraiser, Oneclimb.ca, is no longer active, but using an internet archive search engine,The Fifth Estate found several references to Osenetoi that had been placed there by the Whistler Water fundraisers.

The website stated that Whistler Water's fundraiser raised $110,000 in 2013 for the water project in Osenetoi. The website included pictures before and after the borehole was drilled.

"In Osenetoi, there is no river nearby," the website stated. "With the help of funds raised by Whistler Water One Climb (you!), Free the Children drilled a borehole 180 metres into the ground, which produces 7,000 litres of water per hour. Free the Children also built water kiosks for community members to collect the water and built a generator house to pump the water."

WE Charity co-founders Marc Kielburger, screen left, and Craig Kielburger, screen right, appear as witnesses via videoconference during a House of Commons finance committee in Ottawa on July 28, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

McLaughlin did not respond to followup emails after being informed there was information that showed his group had funded the Osenetoi borehole.

In a statement, WE Charity said: "Our records do not show that we received $110,000 fundraised by Whistler Water One Climb towards the community of Osenetoi."  

The charity said that the money was "allocated to general water projects for the communities we serve," but did not provide specific information about what villages and projects the money went to. 

We Charity also stated that "the donor permitted WE Charity to allocate the funds to greatest need for water projects."

In Mount Forest, Donna McFarlane told The Fifth Estate's Mark Kelley that she is not bothered by the possibility that their donation went to other places outside of the Osenetoi borehole.  

"I don't think there is a charity anywhere that hasn't probably made errors along the way. I couldn't say they did or they didn't, but I know that I have ultimate trust that our money was used wisely."

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  • If you have tips on this story, please email Harvey.Cashore@cbc.ca or phone 416-526-4704 or Kate.McKenna@cbc.ca or phone 514-710-5413.

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