Central to WE Charity’s mission of inspiring youth to make positive change is the claim that millions of kids participate in its programs in schools across Canada, the U.S. and U.K. every year.
The charity has used that word — “participate” — when soliciting corporate sponsorship and donations, according to internal presentations prepared for potential donors and school participants.
Two former senior employees say the number of youth is dramatically inflated and does not reflect reality.
On its website, the charity has said its WE Schools program “impacts” and “engages” millions of students. What WE Charity does not say is that the number is an aggregate of actual participants and other students those participants interact with.
“If a WE club with four or five students held a school-wide campaign, we would count the entire school’s population as participants,” said a former senior employee on the WE Schools team who said they helped inflate the program’s numbers.
Students were counted if the charity deemed they heard an announcement, saw a poster or attended an assembly about a WE initiative, the former senior staffer said, adding that WE also estimated the number of social media followers each participating student had, and added those followers to the total.
The other former employee, an ex-associate director of business development who prepared presentations for donors, said the number of participants in those reports was inflated by a factor of 10. The Star agreed to not name the former employees because they signed non-disclosure agreements and fear retribution from WE Charity for speaking out publicly.
WE Charity said the former employees are “not correct,” and denies inflating, manipulating or fabricating data, all of which the charity said comes from surveys of teachers.
“While people can have an intellectual disagreement as to the meaning of words such as ‘impact,’ ‘engage’ or ‘participate’ in the context of what We Charity does, the numbers we cite are not made up and are, in fact, correct,” the charity said in a statement.
“It is based on two factors, (i) the number of young people directly using WE School resources in their classrooms and/or involved in the core leadership group at their respective schools and (ii) the number of young people who are directly engaged by the core leadership students during the academic year,” WE stated.
The second group of students “may have collected food as part of a drive, given funds for a charitable cause, volunteered, participated in an educational assembly, etc,” the charity stated. WE Charity said it does not count students engaged on social media.
The WE Schools program has long been the backbone of WE Charity, which started out more than 25 years ago as Free The Children, an organization that recruited youth in the developed world to help improve the lives of youth in developing countries.
WE’s website describes WE Schools as “a yearlong educational program that nurtures compassion in students and gives them the tools to create transformative social change.” This is accomplished through WE clubs in more than 7,000 participating schools across Canada, and another 11,000 schools in the U.S. and U.K, that hold food and coin drives, volunteer with local organizations and fundraise to build schools in developing countries.
Starting in 2007, the growth of WE Schools was bolstered by the launch of WE Days — celebrity-studded motivational events held in hockey stadiums and attended by students who had “earned” their ticket through volunteering or fundraising through the WE Schools program. The number of students in WE Schools programs is used by WE to demonstrate to corporate donors its influence and reach among youth.
The former employees said founders Craig and Marc Kielburger asked staff to make that number bigger by including as many students as possible, even those whom the former employees say were not directly involved.
“It’s a low bar. As far as WE is concerned, seeing a poster counts as ‘awareness’ when engaging youth. That’s fine, but when you roll those numbers together without being clear on the level of engagement, it’s misleading,” the former senior staffer said. “I wonder if the public would consider that meaningful impact.”
The former associate director of business development said the additional students were not engaged through curriculum, but through fundraising and social media.
“If a student in a WE Schools program starts a fundraising campaign to tackle food insecurity, the eight students who donate to that program, or even hear about it, count,” said the former associate director. “The assumptions behind what qualifies as ‘being engaged’ is in fact broad and extremely difficult to quantify. What was absolutely clear to me is that those extra students are not at all participating within the educational content of a WE Schools campaign.”
The former associate director was surprised that the number going into reports was so much higher than the number of actual WE Schools participants.
“When we consulted with the WE Schools teams, the actual number was a tenth of that … We found it unethical,” the former associate director said.
WE Charity refuted the former employees’ claims.
“The Associate Director you reference would not have any direct knowledge of our impact measurement, nor would they have been involved in the management of our data in any way. It is false to suggest that the numbers we report are not based on specific, measurable, impact calculations,” the charity said.
The number of students in the WE Schools program comes from annual surveys of educators, it said.
“There is a rigorous data collection process involving thousands of educators and a measurement and evaluation team,” the charity said.
An average of 5,000 responses are received each year from the more than 59,000 educators “engaged” by the program, which is “more than statistically significant,” it said. The charity takes the number of “core leadership students” and the youth “impacted by the activities” from the surveys and “appl(ies) the average from this sample to the remaining schools and groups,” it said.
The charity says an average of 230 students are engaged in each school in the WE Schools program.
Earlier this month, the TDSB announced it was reviewing its partnership with the Charity. The TDCSB is scheduled to vote on a similar review next month. WE subsequently announced that it is proactively pausing all its partnerships with school boards.
Ted Jackson, a former associate professor at Carleton University with decades of experience in monitoring and evaluation of charity projects, reviewed the WE material compiled by the Star.
“WE’s rhetoric certainly seems ratcheted up. The claims defy common sense,” he said.
Jackson criticized the combining of WE school participants and other students they engaged.
“It isn’t methodologically sound to co-mingle these categories. Among professional evaluators, we would report on them separately,” he said. “Be transparent. Unpack that number and people can see for themselves.”
WE Charity stated: “WE takes very strong issue with Prof. Jackson’s statements, as they are based on the ill-informed comments of former staffers, as well as slide decks as opposed to real data.”
As the controversy around the awarding of a $900 million student volunteering program to WE gained steam over the last few weeks, it emerged that most of WE’s Canadian and U.S. board of directors reportedly resigned or were replaced in March.
Less than a month later, former Canadian board chair Michelle Douglas questioned the number behind one overseas WE project.
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Responding to a tweet by WE stating the charity had helped to distribute COVID-19 prevention information to more than 84,274 people in Kenya, Douglas tweeted: “Great work @WEMovement. But what are the details? How is it possible to have managed to reach so many? Such a specific number. Wow! How did you do it? Share info on your efforts so they can be replicated by others! @marckielburger @craigkielburger.”
Asked about the tweet, Douglas declined to comment further.
WE used the word “participate” when soliciting donations from a corporation and two foundations and a partnership with a school board, according to internal presentations obtained by the Star.
A presentation which appears to have been prepared to recruit California private schools to participate in WE Schools states that “3.4M+ youth have participated in the WE Schools program.”
Another presentation, made for consumer products company Kimberly-Clark, states: “3.4M+ youth participate in the WE Schools program.”
The survey sent out by WE Charity to teachers uses both terms, asking for the number of students who “participated in or were impacted by the activities led by your WE Schools group,” the Charity said.
This led to internal debate on what words could be used to accompany the combined number of participants and others, according to both former employees.
“Our team tried to use vague terms like ‘inspired’ or ‘engaged’ to reflect the inflated number,” said the former associate director. “Then the decks we prepared would get edited by the Kielburgers and come back as “participated.”
The former senior staffer described how the WE Schools team would start with numbers reported by participating schools and add multipliers to satisfy the Kielburgers and the executive team.
“Smaller numbers would get bigger and bigger by expanding definitions. Sometimes the number was pulled from thin air,” the former senior staffer said. “If our numbers weren’t considered high enough, especially if they weren’t showing growth from the previous year, they would still get bumped up after they were submitted to (WE executives).”
“It was a running joke that if you questioned where a number came from, someone would say ‘Don’t worry, it’s Kiel-math.’ The number is going to be whatever they want it to be,” the former senior staffer said.
WE Charity responded: “the assertion that Craig Kielburger or Marc Kielburger requested the inflation of official reported numbers is absolutely incorrect and not consistent with the values or expectations by which WE Charity governs data.”
“The important fact is that WE Charity is not deceiving the public or manipulating numbers.”
WE provided the Star with a statement from the current Head of WE Schools, Kerri Stewart, who has worked on the WE Schools team for nine years.
“I have not personally experienced pressure from either Craig Kielburger or Marc Kielburger to inflate the reported number of students who are impacted by WE Schools,” Stewart said in the statement.
Angela Wang, a senior impact analyst at Charity Intelligence, an organization that performs financial and impact analysis of Canadian charities, reviewed the WE materials compiled by the Star.
“When you ask what the results are, the numbers get smaller very quickly,” said Wang, who prepared an evaluation of WE Charity’s impact earlier this year.
WE provided a breakdown of their WE Schools number by country, which states 1.9 million youth were impacted in Canada. WE told the Star that “the total number of students engaged in a school-wide campaign was, in fact, often 5x, 10x or even greater than the number of students in a WE club.”
Charity Intelligence has given WE Charity a “fair” impact rating (the second lowest of five possible ratings), “based on demonstrated impact per dollar spent.” The impact rating includes an assessment of WE’s data quality, which is below the average of the 80 Canadian charities with international projects analyzed, Wang said. This is because it was difficult to determine specific outcomes tied to a set time frame, Wang said.
WE also received an A rating from Charity Intelligence for results reporting, “based on the charity’s public reporting of the work it does and the results it achieves.”
WE Charity said Charity Intelligence “are not experts in impact measurement per se and, most importantly, they have not reviewed our data or data set.”
Charity Intelligence responded that over the course of more than a year, it engaged in email and telephone correspondence with staff at WE Charity, who pledged to provide additional data when they learned that WE would not be included in the top 10 Canadian charities list. The promised numbers were never sent.
WE provided the Star with a copy of a report it commissioned from retired Ontario Court of Appeal Judge Stephen Goudge, which stated: “WE also produces a number of reports on … WE’s engagement with schools, its WE days, and its speaking tours. WE has protocols in place to produce and verify the accuracy of these reports.”
Jackson, the Carleton University monitoring and evaluation expert said: “It is essential for them to be specific and consistent year to year with their reporting. There’s no need to hype results.”