Doubt cast over Trudeau's assertion that only WE Charity can run $900M student grant program

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's claim that only the WE Charity could administer a $900 million student grant program for students is being disputed by some experts in the sector who say other organizations would be up to the task or have more experience.

Officials point to need for extensive ties to local non-profits, which they say WE lacks

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was criticized for outsourcing the administration of a $900 million student grant program to WE Charity and on Friday, the government announced the Canada Student Service Grant would no longer be administered by WE. The grant provides eligible students with up to $5,000 each to help cover the cost of post-secondary education in the fall. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
  • UPDATE | A few hours after publication of this story, the government announced that it is ending its student grant program partnership with WE Charity. Read the full story

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's assertion that only the WE Charity could administer a $900 million student grant program is being disputed by some experts in the sector who say other organizations would be up to the task or have more experience.

"There are many strong, reputable charities with offices in multiple locations across Canada who could do this youth volunteer program well," Ann Rosenfield, editor of the Hilborn Charity eNews, which covers fundraising and non-profit management, said in an email to CBC News.

Volunteer Canada, the United Way and Community Foundations of Canada are all logical partners, she said.

Broad and deep expertise

Each of those organizations have existing infrastructure, including local offices across the country, Rosenfield said. As well, they have broad and deep expertise, with extensive direct ties to local communities and organizations that ensure volunteers are properly matched to local needs, she said. 

"Each also have deep expertise in partnering with local charities, including a strong infrastructure in partnering, monitoring for collaborative programs."

WE Charity, which was started by human rights advocates Marc and Craig Kielburger in 1995, will administer the Canada Student Service Grant. The federal grant, announced by Trudeau on June 25, will provide eligible students with up to $5,000 each to help cover the cost of post-secondary education in the fall.

The amount of each grant will depend on how much time the recipient devotes to volunteer work.

WATCH | Prime minister defends awarding contract to WE Charity:

Trudeau says only WE Charity can administer $900 million student grant program

3 years ago
Duration 2:51
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters outside Rideau Cottage on Monday.

But the Liberal government has been criticized for allocating such a large sum of money to a third party that has ties to Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.

Trudeau has defended the decision to give the contract to WE, saying its networks across the country made it the right choice, and the organization itself won't make any profit from the contract.

"Quite frankly, when our public servants looked at the potential partners, only the WE organization had the capacity to deliver the ambitious program that young people need for this summer that is so deeply impacted by COVID," he told reporters on Monday.

"WE organization is the largest national youth service organization in the country. They have networks in every corner of the country and organizations that they work with."

Largest youth organization on paper

Gail Picco, editor-in-chief of The Charity Report, said she can certainly understand why the federal government would look at WE Charity, because on paper at least — with its involvement in 18,000 schools in Canada, the U.S. and the UK— it is the largest youth organization in the country.

However, success in executing the government program requires connections with other non-profit organizations, she said.

"It's one thing to recruit young people," Picco said. "But WE has to figure out where those volunteer placements are going to be."

That, she said, requires extensive networking within the not-for-profit sector.

Trudeau arrives on stage at WE Day on Parliament Hill in 2017. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"They have to know a lot of not-for-profits and have relationships with a lot of not-for-profits," Picco said. "And for many reasons, WE does not have those kinds of relationships with other non-profit organizations and charities."

Instead, WE is focused on promoting social action among students and parents and bringing a broader understanding of equity in the world to an external audience, she said. 

"They're not talking to other charities or not-for-profits. They don't work in coalition with other organizations," Picco said. "They are really, really quite externalized in their focus."

Kate Bahen,  managing director of the charity watchdog Charity Intelligence Canada, said she hasn't seen the government's due diligence on its decision and questioned what specific expertise WE Charity has in implementing a grant program.

"I'm not sure how you would assess the charity's track record or capability to do this if it had not previously done such work in the past," she said.

"To the best of my knowledge, having analyzed WE Charity, I have seen no program activity in this area." 

'Incredible' domestic network needed

For any organization to deliver a $900 million program in four months, it will also need to have an "incredible" domestic network of individuals and organizations that can work together, Maryann Kerr, CEO of the Medalist Group, a boutique firm that provides philanthropic and organizational health services to the social-profit sector, said in an email to CBC News.

"A multi-level national organization that has people on the ground across the country, in both official languages, makes far more sense," she said.

"It is absolutely incorrect to believe that WE is the only organization in Canada that can implement this program, and there is no doubt that in order to deliver what they've committed to, they will have to collaborate with other organizations."

WE Charity co-founders Craig, far left, and Marc Kielburger, far right, introduce Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, as they appear at the WE Day celebrations in Ottawa in November 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Deborah Morrison, president and CEO of Experiences Canada, which offers youth exchanges for participants who are 12 to 17 years old, said many organizations are equally equipped and have a proven track record for mentoring and overseeing community service programs for youth, including the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, 4-H Canada, Volunteer Canada and Community Foundations of Canada. 

Morrison, as well as others, questioned why the government didn't rely on Canada Service Corps, launched by Trudeau in 2018. The national youth service initiative already offers young Canadians micro-grants to participate in volunteer service projects.

"Canada Service Corps, which has already established multiple non-profit partnerships, might also have been a fairly quick ramp-up delivery vehicle for this program in much the same way [the Canada Revenue Agency] became for CERB," Morrison said, referring to the government's COVID-19 financial aid program for Canadians.

She also said the mandate to mobilize and deliver on almost $1 billion in grants is a huge undertaking for any one organization.

Morrison said while she has high regard for the reputation and networks that WE Charity has developed, there are many strong youth service organizations with their own networks and volunteer management expertise that can help ensure greater success.

"Hopefully, WE Charity will reach out and engage them in this important and worthwhile project."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from J.P. Tasker