Watching the Rock Star of Canada’s Charity World Crash and Burn
By Kim Fuller
This is one of the hard lessons learned from the recent demise of WE Charity.
As one of Canada’s largest charities, with a reported annual revenue of $66 million for 2019, its brand recognition went well beyond our borders, attracting big named celebrities and multinational corporate sponsors. Its raison d’etre morphed from an international aid organization back in 1995, when it was known as Free the Children, to its most recent iteration as a complex conglomeration dedicated to hyping the philanthropic youth movement world wide.
Big charities often have a hard time coming up with a concise description of what they do. The elevator pitch is not just used as a preamble to exchanging business cards — it should answer an existential question; why do you exist as an organization?
Having an unclear identity sows distrust, no matter the size of the organization. Instead of spending the needed time on some soul searching and to really question your purpose in the philanthropic ecosystem, an automated response kicks in leading to heavy investment in brand awareness as a solution to an obvious identity crisis.
WE marketed its brand so well that most people don’t know what they did. Were they an international development charity, rally organizers for young people, volunteer program facilitators for teens, education curriculum suppliers, jewellery and t-shirt wholesalers? It doesn’t really matter because you know the brand — “WE” — it seems that awareness was more important than their social impact.
An easily recognizable brand does not make your organization more effective and more aligned with the primary purpose of our sector — advancing social and economic justice does.
Measure what matters
Having reach is one thing but you need to ask if the people who have become dedicated to your organization are there to make a sincere impact. Most would say yes, but with WE the answer is not so clear. Although their marketing claims that 1 million young people have attended a WE Day event, the “positive change” the organization was hoping to achieve is a little harder to quantify.
By simply being part of the event, and performing all of the needed fundraising/volunteering necessary to participate, has the youth market really embraced philanthropy for good or has it been manipulated into a movement where they become the target audience for corporate and political interests? They bang the drum, buy the merchandise, but are they dedicated to international development and the real social change that implies? I would argue no — they are dedicated to the brand, for now.
We often hear how transparency is the answer to weed out dubious charitable organizations, and it is an essential element in clearly showing the public how organizations operate and how funds get used. But there is another other key factor that is often neglected; measuring impact overtime on the wider issues underpinning the very existence of charities.
There is no need to grapple over the issues, the United Nations has made it easy for the whole sector to get their pencils out and start tallying up how much of an impact they are collectively making. The Sustainable Development Goals are not a bunch of lofty ideals that should be addressed by nation states, they should be used as a benchmark for each and every charity in Canada as a way to measure how they are contributing, or not, to moving the dial towards a more just and equitable world.
If we have anything to learn from the WE Charity denouement it is that bigger is not always better. Having a name that everyone recognizes doesn’t mean that the impact is going to be effective in making a dent in the inequities that we are currently facing around the world.
Let’s look towards smaller organizations that are doing things right. 57 percent of Canadian charities have an operating budget under $250 000. They are the lifeblood of the sector and should be the ones championed and showcased for their important work. It is not by watching a million dollar car crash that we will learn anything of substance about how egos get in the way of making good decisions. Everyone loves a scandal — and what we are collectively doing is watching the rock star of Canada’s charity world crash and burn. Time to shift our gaze and focus on what really matters — taking action in a measurable way, to have a tangible impact in our communities, and to inspire Canadians, young and old, to believe in charitable giving and altruism once again.
Kim Fuller is Founder & CEO of Phil.ca and is an incurable optimist, serial social entrepreneur, and non-profit specialist.