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Statement from Imagine Canada on the Canada Student Service Grant/WE Charity controversy

Statement from Imagine Canada on the Canada Student Service Grant/WE Charity controversy

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The recent controversy surrounding the awarding of an agreement to deliver the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) to WE Charity has led to many legitimate questions about the structure of the program and the conduct and operation of WE Charity.

The decision-making process relating to the agreement is now being investigated by at least two Parliamentary committees as well as the Ethics Commissioner. WE Charity recently announced that it will be conducting a thorough review of its operations.

It has been difficult for many to watch this controversy unfold. People are understandably upset and frustrated. At Imagine Canada, what worries us most is that a story about one charity, its conduct, organizational structure, and relationship with politicians threatens to overshadow the incredibly hard work being done in communities under increasingly difficult circumstances. 

Since the first weeks of the pandemic, we have been reaching out to organizations of all sizes and types to understand their experiences. What we have seen is staff and volunteers doing everything they can to continue to fulfill their missions despite often soaring demand and dwindling resources. We have been deeply humbled by displays of tenacity despite obvious suffering and of sacrifice and persistence in the face of mental and sometimes physical strain. If you would like to learn more, please read our Sector Stories blog series.

Neither WE Charity nor the CSSG is typical

Although the charitable and nonprofit sector as a whole employs 2.4 million people, the majority of organizations are small, community-based, and run entirely by volunteers.

The amount of money that would have flowed from the federal government to WE Charity for the CSSG was exceptionally large. Governments at all levels frequently contract with charities and nonprofits, as they do with the private sector, to deliver programs and services of value to communities. Most of these contracts are, however, for very small amounts, sometimes just a few thousand dollars. Under the current system, contracts are difficult to obtain; often cover very short terms (one year is typical); and have extensive reporting requirements. We frequently hear about contracts that do not even cover the full cost of operating and/or evaluating the programs they fund. 
 
Another risk presented by this controversy is that the public will be left with the impression that charities and nonprofits, through social enterprise activity, are acting in ways that subvert their missions. In reality, most social enterprises are very small, have roots in their community, and are a means of exercising independence in addressing local concerns. Thrift stores, community gardens, and food kitchens that employ people with employment barriers are all examples of typical social enterprise activities that have existed for a very long time and meet important community needs. 

Public policy changes are desperately needed

Long before this crisis hit, the country stood to benefit from a better relationship between the federal government and the charitable and nonprofit sector. Federal grant and contributions programs need to be reformed so that precious organizational and public resources are maximized. The remaining recommendations of the Social Finance and Social Innovation Co-Creation Steering Group must be adopted so that organizations can more freely benefit from the advantages of earning social enterprise income. The country needs better data on our sector so that policymakers are informed when making decisions affecting our sector. 
 
Most of all, however, our sector needs a “home in government” so that the development of federal policy and programs involving charities and nonprofits can be better informed. A home in government could have facilitated the development of the CSSG by tapping into existing program infrastructure at the local level and the sector's experience and integrity in delivering community services. The current controversy demonstrates once again how important it is for the federal government and the sector to work on the health and efficacy of its partnership.

Systemic racism, colonial mindsets and inequitable labour practices

This controversy is one of several this year that has revealed problematic aspects of our sector. The above truths about our sector should be held in tension with this reality: charity, philanthropy, and what it means to ‘do good’ in our society carry many of the same legacies as other historical institutions. Systemic racism, colonial mindsets and unfair labour practices are entrenched to varying degrees in the charitable and nonprofit sector. We have much to do, both individually and collectively, to make our organizations and our work truly inclusive and equitable. Some within our sector are charting the path forward; others need to follow and think critically about what needs to change and how this change should occur.

Moving forward

Charities and government are critical partners in a just recovery. If Canada is to recover from the current crisis, we need quality childcare and eldercare. We also need to support youth, people experiencing poverty, those with physical and mental health challenges, and other marginalized groups. If we are to build back better, we need to address systemic oppressions, persistent socio-economic inequality, and environmental degradation. To a large extent, it is charities and nonprofits that provide these services, support these populations, and address these challenges.
 
While Parliamentarians continue to wrestle with the important questions raised by this unfolding issue, Imagine Canada and our partners will continue to support organizations through this trying time. We would particularly like to acknowledge Volunteer Canada’s leadership throughout this controversy. 

Together with sector leaders from small, medium and large organizations, we will continue to call for a sector stabilization grant program to ensure that important services can continue to be delivered to communities. We hope that you will reach out to your MP and invite them to support this investment in our sector.

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Relationship Disclosure: Imagine Canada is a membership organization, and WE Charity is one of our members. Membership is distinct from our Standards accreditation program and WE Charity is not an accredited organization. Imagine Canada was approached by WE Charity in May to make introductions to organizations within the sector. Imagine Canada was offered a contract to carry out evaluation work on the CSSG, an offer we ultimately declined. Our CEO, Bruce MacDonald, initially agreed to participate on an Advisory Committee for the project. He withdrew from the Advisory Committee before it ever met. We have released a blog post on this subject.

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