Charities question whether WE-run student program would have been worth the money

Potential partners and participants in the Canada Student Service Grant program are questioning how money from the $912 million student summer grant program was being spent by WE Charity, and whether the programming would have provided meaningful experiences for student volunteers.

Documents reveal details of how program was to reward charities and find things for students to do

Co-founders of WE Craig (left) and Marc Kielburger (right) are seen on stage during WE Day California in Inglewood, California, U.S. April 25, 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Potential partners and participants in the Canada Student Service Grant program are questioning how money from the $912 million student summer grant program was being spent by WE Charity — and whether the programming would have provided meaningful experiences for student volunteers.

CBC News has been shown documents that WE Charity created as part of its role as program administrator and funds distributor. Before it withdrew from its $19.5 million contract to administer the program, WE was partnering with charities and non-profit organizations to put the student volunteers to work. Teachers were also sub-contracted to both recruit and supervise groups of students from their communities.

The program set aside money for training and supervising the students, based on the number of students who signed on — a financial incentive for the charities and teachers to get as many students involved as possible.

Teachers picking up this extra contract work to supplement their regular public salaries this summer were to receive $12,000 for recruiting 75 to 100 students. In rural areas, they'd only need to supervise 55 students for the same amount of money.

In a statement issued to CBC News Monday, WE said the primary role of these teachers was to support students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or to recruit students in parts of the country with fewer volunteer opportunities.

Many charities have seen their regular programming and fundraising significantly disrupted by the pandemic and have been forced to lay off staff, making it difficult for them to welcome new student volunteers. That's why up to $5 million of the program's budget was earmarked to give organizations the capacity to train and supervise volunteers.

But charities appear to have been offered different amounts of money to supervise similar numbers of students.

WE said the funds were being allocated among the 83 organizations that had signed up to take volunteers, based on each organization's reach (local versus national) and its ability to engage "target populations," which were defined in terms of regional diversity and whether the participants were visible minority individuals or Indigenous.

Different sums for different charities

WE was collecting information about the ethnicities of students applying for the grant.

CBC News has been shown an email to a smaller charity. In it, a WE representative tells the charitable organization it could receive "up to $10,000" for supervising at least 100 students for a minimum of 100 hours.

Meanwhile, another larger charity that was talking to WE about participating was told that it could receive $25,000 to host 100 students, or up to $100,000 in program funding if it could scale up to take 400 volunteers.

CBC News is not identifying the charities or the individuals who provided this information because they remain interested in hosting student volunteers this summer. Operational responsibility for the grant has transferred to the government, but the program has not been cancelled — even if it has stalled for now.

Youth Minister Bardish Chagger's office says it is working away on a transition plan as the federal government takes over the youth volunteer grant program from the WE Charity. (The Canadian Press)

Danielle Keenan is a spokesperson for Bardish Chagger, the youth minister who is responsible for this program. Keenan told CBC News Monday that the government is still working diligently on a transition plan which, among other things, will determine what happens with partners and subcontractors who've already signed on to the program. Chagger said earlier this month her department wanted to proceed in a way that has as few adverse impacts on students as possible.

WE told CBC that it has strongly recommended that the work begun by the partners it contracted continue.

'Only positive mentions' allowed

The text of a potential partnership agreement between WE Charity and a charity that was a prospective participant in the program was shared with CBC News. It includes language requiring the partner to keep all information confidential.

The program is defined in the agreement as part of the broader Canada Service Corps youth initiative that began prior to the pandemic.

The agreement, which needed to be signed before an organization could receive any financial support for hosting volunteers, requires all personnel to "make only positive mentions of the project, including in public disclosures and social media."

Organizations that participated were required to submit a positive quote that WE could use to promote the program, to allow their logos to be used by WE, to participate in WE-hosted launch events and to promote the program on their social media channels "at least twice" using templates WE would provide.

The agreement shown to CBC News includes a specific target for the number of volunteers the charity or non-profit would oversee.

Even if 100,000 students were recruited and logged enough hours to earn the maximum $5,000 grant, that would only account for $500 million of the more than $900 million allocated to the program.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves to the audience as he appears on stage during WE Day UN in New York City, Sept. 20, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the size of the government's budget relative to the number of volunteers anticipated.

The prime minister insisted again that WE Charity had a network capable of making these youth placements quickly, adding that was the reason why the public service recommended contracting the project out.

"We'll work with other organizations and perhaps with Service Canada as a way of delivering those grants," he said, adding that the public service is working on a new delivery model to replace WE.

'I've heard absolutely nothing'

In their statement published in full-page newspaper ads on Monday, WE founders Craig and Marc Kielburger said their coalition of 83 not-for-profit partners was supporting 24,000 placements, "with more opportunities being added."

The prime minister said Monday in French that the placements WE arranged are still available to the government "free," even though WE has pulled out of its contract.

Some students who have applied online have yet to be matched with a volunteer opportunity so they can start accumulating hours. They only have until the end of October to accumulate the 500 service hours required for the maximum $5,000 grant.

University of British Columbia student Amanda Dickson-Otty told CBC News that she applied for the volunteer grant program before WE decided to withdraw from the contract, and was told that the first 40,000 applicants would be assigned to a "volunteer placement manager" to match them with a specific volunteer opportunity.

She said she was never told if she was to be among this first cohort, but the most recent count of applications from both WE and the federal government is 35,000 — so it appears she could be.

"I've heard absolutely nothing," she said, adding that she hasn't seen many new listings lately. "It doesn't exactly inspire confidence."

Dickson-Otty said she prefers to work with a placement manager rather than apply directly to one posting.

"Honestly, since there are hundreds of placement options, it's a bit overwhelming to pick just one," she said. "What if I pick one that has hundreds of applications for two positions, instead of another suitable position that desperately needs people? What if I pick a position that, once I learn more about it, I realize I'm not actually suited for?"

Whether they were to be supervised by a subcontracted teacher or a non-profit organization, WE was allowing students to earn up to one quarter of the 100 hours required to receive the minimum grant ($1,000) by completing online training modules through LinkedIn Learning.

WE told CBC News that it established a mandatory five-hour "on-boarding" course, followed by optional training materials that could be used toward a further 20 hours.

This training could be specific to their volunteer job this summer, but could also include skills useful later in life. The cost of developing this training was part of WE's administration contract.

No work available? Make some

WE representatives encouraged charities and non-profits to participate even if didn't have any work that needed doing this summer, and offered to help those organizations invent new work.

WE told CBC News on Monday that "many long-standing service opportunities did not fit the safety criteria which was established as part of the program considerations."

Instead, it said, it created volunteer roles that were "repositioning these organizations' needs into safe service opportunities."

Teachers supervising students could match students with volunteer jobs that individual organizations were offering, or — if there weren't any suitable ones available — create new jobs from WE's suggestions of activities, which included:


  • Tutoring children whose classroom learning was disrupted this spring, including the kids of front line workers.

  • Creating exercise information and videos for children or seniors to help them keep active while staying inside.

  • Making protective masks, which could then be given to children for the next school year.

  • Creating ways to celebrate front-line workers. 


The materials WE sent to charities offer suggestions like putting "digitally savvy student volunteers" to work designing social media campaigns, creating photo and video content or doing other online research.

Another role suggested making students "COVID-19 Safe Ambassadors" who could be trained on "critical social issues" like bullying, literacy or mental health and then share their knowledge as mentors in the community.

Students with creative skills could "interview and write stories on behalf of seniors who have been isolated by COVID-19, to celebrate their lives and achievements, and share their wisdom and knowledge through the creation of an intergenerational capsule of community stories," WE suggested.

Wilfrid Laurier students take part in a pre-pandemic convocation ceremony. One expert in management and organization studies questions whether the program WE planned to run would have left young volunteers with useful skills. (WLUConvocation/Twitter)

Colleen Sharen, a Brescia University College professor in management and organization studies, said she doubts that many students — particularly those just graduating from high school — have the expertise to work as trainers.

"You're setting students up to have an expertise that they don't really have," she said. Social media campaigns can be great, she said, but "if you're talking about mental health and tactics to manage mental health ... there are many students who might, with all the right intentions, communicate bad information because they don't have the expertise they need to do it."

Other suggested activities — like telling seniors' stories or making masks — aren't necessarily experiences that set students up for future careers, she added.

"I'm not sure if employers care if you sewed 100 masks during COVID," she said. "Do we really need videos on seniors stories? It's nice, but if we weren't in a pandemic we would not be paying students to do this. Is it enough value we added, or are we just creating a justification for giving students money?"

Rather than pay teachers and other groups to execute this program, Sharen said it would be cheaper and more efficient to just give students in need $900 million to fund their education next year through existing programs, as the current system for government grants does now.

A straight cash transfer to needy students also would have avoided claims that the federal government has designed a program that violates employment standards by paying less than minimum wage.

While it's important to make sure students don't drop out of school because of financial need during the pandemic, "let's not make this more complicated than it needs to be," Sharen said.


Janyce McGregor

Senior reporter

Janyce McGregor joined the CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2001, after starting her career with TVOntario's Studio 2. Her public broadcaster "hat trick" includes casual stints as a news and current affairs producer with the BBC's World Service in London. After two decades of producing roles, she's now a senior reporter filing for CBC Online, Radio and Television. News tips: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca

with files from Catherine Cullen

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