Since its controversial launch more than a decade ago, Charity Intelligence has displayed an astonishing talent for dishonesty and unprofessionalism, particularly during the CSSG controversy. In 2020, WE Charity and its beneficiaries was the victim of sustained attacks by media, politicians and pundits, based almost entirely on misrepresentation and misinformation. Charity Intelligence was one of the key sources of that misrepresentation and misinformation.
Its affiliations with the Conservative Party of Canada and bewildering alterations in WE Charity’s rankings are a testament to its inherent bias.
A more fulsome accounting of CI’s biased, dishonest and unwarranted evaluation of WE Charity can be found below. However, Charity Intelligence's dubious affiliations, past indiscretions and questionable methodologies demand rigorous scrutiny. The organization's assault on WE Charity, based on half-truths and outright fabrications, warrants a thorough investigation. In the ever-evolving philanthropic landscape, watchdogs must remain accountable, objective, and transparent. Anything less is a disservice to the charitable sector and the public.
- Between June and December 2020, Charity Intelligence's executive director, Kate Bahen, appeared in 698 articles, 356 TV reports, and 659 radio reports.
- Donations to CI increased by 56% (or $206,195) from July 2020 to June 2021.
- CI’s financial records show a 134% increase in “fee for service” during the same period.
Rhetoric and Vitriol
Poor governance on their own board while criticizing WE Charity’s board
At the time of their relentless attacks on WE Charity, Charity Intelligence had only three board members, including Kate Bahen herself, and one of her paid employees, Greg Thomson. Kate Bahen endlessly criticized WE Charity's Board of Directors throughout the CSSG matter, meanwhile her own Board did not represent good governance. Her attacks represented the classic example of "do as I say, not as I do", coming from an organization that was meant to help set a standard in the charitable sector.See original media
Employees as board members approving their own salaries
Charity Intelligence actively criticized WE Charity’s Board of Directors structure, however, its own governance is extremely poor at best, failing to meet the most basic expectations for a charity. Contrary to the best practices they claim to uphold, the board of Charity Intelligence had only 3 board members in 2020, including Kate Bahen and Greg Thomson, who approve the annual budget which would include the total spent on their own compensation. The three board members have remained the same since 2006.
Took advantage of media attention to quadruple their cash flow
Charity Intelligence leveraged its attack on WE Charity Canada to raise its profile and make more money for its own operations. The increase in fundraising was considerable – by the end of the WE Charity saga in 2022, Charity Intelligence had more than four times the cash in their bank account than prior to 2020 when the attacks began. Although their funds increased significantly, Charity Intelligence did not put this money towards an increase on program spending, but instead chose to hold the money in its bank accounts.
Profit and profile drove Charity Intelligence to downgrade its ranking of WE Charity
Over 25 years, WE Charity made a significant impact. Over 100,000 educators were engaged in classrooms across Canada, the US and the UK, providing free resources to help students with service learning—integrating global issues, action and volunteerism into core curriculum. Over 1.5 million students earned their free ticket to WE Days celebrating service. In nine countries in Africa, South America and Asia, more than 1 million people gained access to clean water and sanitation, 200,000 students received an education in schools established by WE Charity, and over 30,000 women were provided with the tools and resources to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
It should be noted that, over the years, WE Charity has received funding from the Skoll Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as global businesses such as KPMG, Microsoft, and Unilever, as well as the family foundations of some of the most prominent philanthropists in North America and the UK. All performed due diligence on WE Charity and, based on their findings, chose to partner with and financially support WE Charity. It should also be noted that Charity Navigator (the largest reviewer of charities in North America) in Fall 2020 provided WE Charity [WE Charity US, a different and distinct charity] a perfect four-star rating.
However, Charity Intelligence's latest narrative paints a radically different and distorted picture. Their retroactive downgrade of WE Charity in 2020 was a tactical maneuver to justify their venomous public onslaught. Their inability to provide substantial justification for this move under parliamentary scrutiny only exposes the cracks in their facade.
Charity Intelligence head researcher Greg Thomson told a Parliamentary Committee: “Starting in 2014, Charity Intelligence rated WE Charity with our highest four-star rating based on transparency, reporting and overhead spending. WE Charity ticked all of the boxes and performed well relative to other Canadian charities.”
Despite this, in 2020 Charity Intelligence retroactively downgraded WE Charity’s ratings for financial accounting, transparency and governance in order to justify its vitriolic public attacks on WE. When confronted about this by MPs in a Parliamentary committee, Charity Intelligence representatives were unable to explain the sudden reversal and significant downgrade.
As Tawiq Rangwala notes in his book, What WE Lost: Inside the Attack on Canada’s Largest Children’s Charity: “Throughout her many media appearances, Bahen maintained that Charity Intelligence had long-standing concerns about the organization, and that she was not simply jumping on the anti-WE bandwagon. But this was belied by years of consistently good ratings for the charity from Charity Intelligence. In testimony to the FINA committee, Greg Thomson, the director of research, said, ‘Starting in 2014, Ci rated WE Charity with our highest four-star rating based on transparency, reporting and overhead spending. WE Charity ticked all of the boxes and performed well relative to other Canadian charities.’ And in 2019, WE was given an A grade for transparency and reporting—the very things Bahen was now calling into question."
For more on Rangwala’s analysis Charity Intelligence’s commentary on WE Charity, listen for free to Chapter 6 of What WE Lost.
Charity Intelligence leveraged the CSSG controversy for its own self-promotional benefit, boosting its own profile by advancing false information to harm another charity. In his book, Rangwala describes how from June to December 2020, Charity Intelligence and its executive director, Kate Bahen, had appeared in 698 print and online articles, 356 television reports, and 659 radio reports—all to talk about WE Charity, ME to WE, the Kielburgers, and the CSSG. “Kate Bahen of Charity Intelligence rode the WE Charity Scandal to bigger and better things. Her organization is now actively working with media outlets like the Globe and Mail to assist in investigative reports.” In that time period, from July 2020 to June 2021, Charity Intelligence saw a 56 percent (or $206,195) increase in donations within Canada from the previous year. CI’s own financial records show a 134 percent increase in “fee for service” in the same time periods.
WE Charity has always respected the need for independent oversight of the charitable sector, and therefore had always supported and sought to cooperate with Charity Intelligence to the greatest degree possible. Nevertheless, the actions of Charity Intelligence, and particularly the behaviour of its key staff since 2020 were wholly lacking in respect, responsibility, accountability, professionalism, and fairness. In particular, the rhetoric of Ms. Bahen on social media was puerile, unprofessional, and wholly unbecoming of someone who claims to provide neutral and unbiased assessment. For example, as Craig and Marc Kielburger were about to testify before the Ethics Committee, Bahen childishly tweeted a photo of a hamburger with the caption “Burger time!”
More on the inaccuracy of public statements to follow below.
As described by Rangwala, “It’s very simple and uncontroversial stuff, but you would never know it if you listened to Bahen. Although she presented herself as an unbiased observer, her public comments were often one-sided and carried charged language.”
Charity Intelligence had no concern for the innocent victims it left in its wake
Throughout the controversy, Bahen showed little to no regard for who got caught in the crossfire of her vitriol. In December 2020, she once again jumped on the bandwagon, this time attacking WE Charity’s CFO Victor Li, who was on medical leave after being diagnosed with a cerebral aneurysm—a bulging artery in the brain that, if it ruptured, could cause paralysis or death. Through his lawyer, he mase it clear that the stress of live testimony could literally kill him, and he offered the committee two options – a written response and delay his testimony until his condition stabilized.
Bahen was among those who falsely claimed that Li was avoiding the committee, implying wrongdoing. In one tweet, she stated: “WE CFO declines invitation to answer Ethics Committee questions. This is outrageous unaccountability and shames Canada’s charity sector. Enough. Parliament should revoke all charities that Victor Li oversees.”
For more on how pundits and politicians tried to keep the CSSG controversy in the news, listen for free to Chapter 7 of What WE Lost.
Charity Intelligence showed its true political stripes
It is unfortunate that there appears to be few checks and balances on such misconduct. While Charity Intelligence presents itself as an expert on non-profit governance, its board consisting of just three individuals, two of whom are also paid staff of the organization (including Ms. Bahen) – absolutely not in keeping with governance best practices for non-profits. Despite that, Charity Intelligence continues to assess itself, generously awarding itself the highest grades in its own evaluation.
There’s have also been questions raised about Charity Intelligence’s claim to partisan neutrality. According to lawyer and media critic Mark Bourrie, both founder Kate Bahen and CI board chair Graeme Hepburn are significant donors to federal and/or provincial Conservative parties.
“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,” Bourrie wrote on his Fair Press website. “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.”
According to Bourrie, Elections Canada data shows shows Hepburn donated to the Conservatives 56 times. “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,” Bourrie wrote, noting Hepburn’s total contributions were just over $43,000.
Bourrie also highlights that Hepburn’s wife, Cluadia, 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 was also appointed to the LCBO 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.”