Charity Intelligence and the Tories

a screenshot of a tweet from Kate Bahen
Kate Bahen of Charity Intelligence.
Kate Bahen of Charity Intelligence.

I still see the Trudeau government reeling from the so-called We Charity Scandal and it bugs the hell out of me. I feel personally invested in this because I believed, from Jesse Brown’s first smear piece on WE in 2019, that the story was an empty vessel. It troubles me that every media outlet came down against WE and that not one reporter ever decided to take a run at this story from a different, contrary point of view.

I’ve paid a price for sticking my neck out on this, but I knew time would show Brown, Jaren Kerr, and the other journalists who jumped on WE and decided to destroy it were flat-out wrong. The media does a lot of good in society, but when the press pack gets something wrong, they can cause real damage.

They killed the Canadian operations a charity that inspired tens of thousands of young people across Canada to volunteer and do good things. The WE organizations brought schools and fresh water to poor people in the developing world.

The media pack that covered the federal Opposition attack on WE Charity in the summer of 2020 gave credence to an obscure charity rating organization called Charity Intelligence. The organization, which is itself a registered charity, has deep ties to the Conservative Party, the right-wing Fraser Institute and a one of Canada’s wealthiest families, the less-than-popular Westons.

The government tried to create the Canadian Student Service Grant (CSSG) to help support kids who couldn’t get a summer job during the Covid pandemic. The Opposition – with Pierre Poilievre and Charlie Angus working together as lead attack dogs – pounced on the fact that Trudeau did not recuse himself from the decision to select WE Charity to administer the program.

Trudeau’s mother and wife both had worked with WE Charity prior to the pandemic. Trudeau had no legal need to recuse himself from the Cabinet discussions, but the Opposition and media said it looked bad. I’m not a believer in governing to “optics,” but I do see how the situation made for a great Opposition elevator pitch.

Charity Intelligence was a strange party to this whole thing.

Charity Intelligence claims to rate hundreds of Canadian charities every year, despite having just three full-time staff. Prior to 2020, Charity Intelligence consistently gave WE Charity an overall grade of “A”, but once the controversy erupted, it conveniently quickly downgraded its rating. Managing Director and public face of the organization, Kate Bahen, leapt at every opportunity to publicly criticize WE Charity, along with Marc and Craig Kielburger.

The fact that no one at Charity Intelligence is trained as an accountant or auditor might see rather germane to the story, but this fact was usually conveniently left out of media coverage.

An example of personalized attacks against WE Charity.
An example of personalized attacks against WE Charity.

From June to December 2020, Bahen appeared in 700 print and online articles, as well as more than 600 television and radio reports. She became the defacto expert in criticizing WE Charity and the Kielburgers, often issuing statements which were later proven to be false.

But no one in the media told you Charity Intelligence was trying to take down WE Charity while it was coming off a scandal of its own.

In May, 2019, it issued this apology to True North Foundation, the charity arm of the Winnipeg Jets NHL team.

The following is an apology issued by Charity Intelligence Canada on May 1st, 2019:

To: True North Youth Foundation Inc.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention as to the manner in which I commented in the media in connection with the release of Charity Intelligence Canada’s report entitled “Canadian Pro Sport Teams and their Charities” dated August 3, 2018 and updated on October 23, 2018.

I want to unreservedly and unequivocally apologize for my unfortunate mischaracterization of True North Youth Foundation Inc. (TNYF) that was aired in the media.

In particular, I want to correct and clarify the record as follows:

  • TNYF does not flow-through most of its revenues to other charities and, instead, operates its own charity programs to help the youth of Manitoba.
  • Charity Intelligence’s report did not state nor suggest that TNYF overspends on fundraising and administrative costs. Indeed, based on TNYF’s 2017 audited financial statements, Charity Intelligence calculated that TNYF’s fundraising and administrative spending falls within what Charity Intelligence deems to be a reasonable range.
  • I regret and unequivocally want to apologize for calling TNYF a “puck hog” in my CityNews interview on October 31, 2018. TNYF spends money it receives on its own charity programs and is not holding back donations.
  • I understand that my unfortunate mischaracterization of TNYF may have left people with the impression that they should not consider supporting TNYF, and for that I want to unequivocally apologize.In closing, I wish to retract and apologize for any statement I made that may have been construed or characterized to suggest otherwise.

Yours truly,
Kate Bahen
Managing Director
Charity Intelligence Canada

True North Foundation runs Camp Manitou, a sports and arts camp for children, just outside Winnipeg. It also pays for the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy, which gives 900 kids – many from financially-strapped families – the opportunity to hone their hockey skills. Project 11, also funded by the foundation, is a preventative cross-curricular and bilingual mental wellness program available free to all Manitoba’s K-8 educators and their classrooms. Weekly lessons and daily activities have been designed to easily incorporate into teachers’ existing lesson plans and help support students and teachers with mental wellness practices. P11’s lessons and videos provide mindful strategies for students to learn positive coping skills and build a greater sense of self-awareness.

This is not the kind of charity that any responsible organization would slander. This apology should have set off warning bells.

Charity Intelligence’s personal connections to the federal and Ontario Conservatives and the Fraser Institute suggest some motivation for attacking WE.

Charity Intelligence’s Board of Directors is composed only of Bahen, Greg Thomson (the Director of Research), and Graeme C. Hepburn, a wealthy donor to the Conservative party.

Ironically, Charity Intelligence is itself a charity. This is relevant because in its assessments of other charities, Charity Intelligences examines the governance structure of an organization. It will often critique charities with weak governance or oversight.

Bahen often publicly criticized WE Charity’s governance after the CSSG controversy began (despite not ever raising it as in issue before 2020), but her own organization’s governance earns a failing grade by any objective standard. Having two of three employees (Bahen and Thomson) serve on the three-person board is highly irregular and arguably inappropriate.

A Board of Directors is meant to provide guidance, oversight, pushback and second thought about an organization’s policies and administration. How did this work when two thirds of the Board were also two thirds of the organization’s paid employees?

And no one at the 2020 Parliamentary hearings knew, or at least raised the issue, of Bahen’s donation of almost $1,000 to the Conservative Party before the CSSG became an issue, according to Elections Canada data.

No one described how board chair Hepburn’s lengthy ties to the Conservatives – both financially and personally – make Charity Intelligence’s involvement in attacking WE Charity highly suspect.

A detailed look at Graeme Hepburn’s donations to the Conservative Party.
A detailed look at Graeme Hepburn’s donations to the Conservative Party.

Elections Canada data shows that Hepburn has donated to the Conservatives 56 times, contributing over $43,000. His largest annual contribution – just under $10,000 – was made in 2020, the year WE Charity was under attack from the Conservatives and Charity Intelligence.

Hepburn is married to Claudia Hepburn, niece of Galen Weston – the billionaire patriarch of the Weston family, which owns the Loblaws/Shoppers Drug Mart empire.

The wealthy heiress is currently the CEO of another charity called Windmill Microlending, which is conveniently one of the few Canadian charities not assessed by Charity Intelligence.

Claudia Hepburn’s Conservative bona fides run deep. She was a past director at the Fraser Institute, the ultra right-wing think tank that has been associated with the Conservative party for decades. She also once served as a Senior Fellow at the institute, but her current bios have scrubbed any mention of the past links. This may be due to the fact that she now serves on the boards of both the LCBO and Sick-Kids Foundation, organizations that logically strive for political impartiality.

But even her appointment to the LCBO board has a Conservative connection. She was appointed through an Order in Council by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government in Ontario in 2021.

In 2022, she donated $1,200 back to the party that appointed her, according to Elections Ontario data. This was in addition to almost $24,000 to the federal Conservatives over the years, according to Elections Canada’s database.

Prior to his wife’s appointment to the LCBO board in 2021, Graeme Hepburn donated almost $3,000 to the provincial Progressive Conservatives from 2019-2020. He also contributed around $3,200 to the provincial party from 2014-2016.

The power couple also hosted a fundraiser for provincial PC party leadership candidate Tim Hudak at their home in 2009.

None of these direct associations between Charity Intelligence and the Conservatives were raised by any member of the Parliamentary Finance Committee when Bahen and Thomson appeared before the Committee’s CSSG hearings in August 2020.

I think the Liberals really, really need Kevin Bosch back.

Charity Intelligence’s new profile led to a jump in its revenues in 2020. According to data from the Canada Revenue Agency, in 2019, the charity’s revenues totaled $435,524. But filings for 2020 show revenues almost doubled, rising to $860,503.

Charity Intelligence’s revenues have since normalized somewhat ($620,860 in 2021 and $594,697 in 2022) but it seems attacking WE Charity was certainly good for business.

Just as Justin Trudeau should have recused himself to avoid appearances of a conflict of interest, the principals at Charity Intelligence should have equally disclosed their deep conservative connections.