In 2020, the Kielburger brothers made headlines across Canada. Their organization, the WE Charity, had been awarded a large contract by the Trudeau government to administer the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG). As the general public soon learned, neither the Prime Minister nor then Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, disclosed their personal connections to the WE Charity, creating a conflict of interest that ultimately made WE Charity responsible for administering more than $900 million.
While coverage of the fallout centered on individual actors and their lack of transparency, bigger questions about charity—their utility, purpose, and whether they should continue to exist--remained unaddressed. In Canada, as in so many places in the world, charities are part of the fabric of society. Every day, Canadians donate to organizations pushing for improvements both locally and globally, in a wide range of areas such as education, health, environment, and human rights. Some are longstanding, well-established charities. Others are relative newcomers. All should be asking themselves some big questions.
Are we doing more harm than good? Should we even be doing this?
While it is easy to scrutinize WE Charity, all charities should be engaged in a process of self-reflection and recognize that the nonprofit industrial complex is, at its core, problematic. In a world of gross inequality, charity, in theory, typically seeks to mitigate the impacts of oppressive organizing principles like capitalism, colonialism, racism, classism, patriarchy and ableism, but they’re not capable of meaningfully redistributing wealth and narrowing the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.
One of the other issues with the nonprofit industrial complex is that it relies on the ebbs and flows of individual donations, goodwill, corporate priorities and the preoccupations of the very rich (the people that benefit the most from inequality) to address inequality. The reality is that while donating to charity has become our collective default response to inequality, the erosion of our fundamental human rights continues aggressively.
Charities and those that work at them get upset with me when I say this, but I think it’s critical to acknowledge that charity is, by definition, a stop gap measure (whether we work at one or not). Which means that to truly address the issues that many of us care about, we must prioritize and work to advance meaningful solutions rooted in public policy, not good intentions, piggy bank collections or other handouts. It’s important for us all to recognize that in many ways, the existence of charity has allowed our governments to abdicate their legal and moral responsibilities to respect, fulfill and protect our fundamental human rights.
The harm that can be caused by nonprofits to individuals and communities is also real. I still remember sitting with my hands firmly crossed as I sang, “Oh the Lord is good to me. And so I thank the Lord for giving me…” right before snack time at the faith-based daycare that I went to as a kid. I knew that I wasn’t religious at a very young age, but some of my friends at daycare were. Many weren’t christians, but we sang on the carpet together because it was the only daycare that our families could afford. We shouldn’t be forced to pray to eat just because we’re poor.
While charities fill gaps left by government and try their best to do critical work with limited resources, we’re also increasingly recognizing that charities themselves can mimic the unequal systems that they purport to tackle. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few while, on the ground, people continue to suffer, be it as a result of low wages, job precarity, housing insecurity or simply an asshole boss.
In Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, charity—and, by extension, inequality—is now taken for granted as a part of everyday life. Last year, Canadians made more than
$10 billion dollars in charitable donations. At the checkout in the grocery store or while walking on the street, we are frequently asked to donate to charity. Charity simply is. And why wouldn’t this be the case? We live in a society where those that win in the economy not only reign supreme, but they decide who our politicians are, who then decide who wins in the economy. It’s a cycle that goes on and on and on, all while the protecting, respecting and fulfilling our fundamental human rights is relegated to charity.
Co-founder and Principal Consultant, Evenings & Weekends Consulting