I got a surprising amount of attention from a tweet I sent out following the news that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was responding to the scrutiny he’s been under for accepting fees from charitable organizations for speaking engagements. I was contacted by two major media outlets to see if I was interested in expanding on my comments. I’m not shy and would have love to contribute, but this presented two problems: 1) My career in the sector is almost exclusively with LiveWorkPlay, where we’ve never had occasion to hire a speaker in a fundraising role; and 2) I did not want to be confused with partisan politics.
My politics are totally partisan when it comes to advocating for affordable housing, employment, and an included life in the community for people with intellectual disabilities. I compliment or criticize government policy with those purposes in mind, but I don’t lobby or campaign for any candidate or party. In the past you’ll have seen me standing with Minister Meilleur of the Ontario Liberal government celebrating the closure of mass institutions, and the next day championing the news by Minister Flaherty of the federal Conservative government about the establishment of the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP). And yesterday I thanked Bob Rae for his years of service (with Canada/Ontario NDP and Liberal Party of Canada). Politics is a tough business and we can’t expect to attract good people if we turn it into a truly thankless job.
All that being said, I think most people understood what I was trying to say about the Trudeau speaking fees issue in 140 characters, but I was planning to expand my comments at some point, and then I stalled. But then I saw that businessman and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson (of Dragon’s Den fame) had already communicated most of my thoughts in a National Post column and suddenly I was banging away at the keyboard. It’s late, so forgive the typos (I’m not collecting any fees for this).
I skip to his concluding remarks: I would suggest we use this lesson as a rather important opportunity to rethink the way we coddle inefficiencies and ineptitude in the philanthropic sector. Then, we might be debating something useful.
You nailed it Brett (Mr. Wilson, I hope it’s OK if I call you Brett).
This whole story is offensive and embarrassing. And I’m not talking about Justin Trudeau, his critics, or the media. I’m talking about my profession! I’m embarrassed that leaders of charitable organizations seem to have been automatically accepted as incapable decision-makers, perhaps lacking the competence to enter into contracts.
The non-profit world I am proud to live in is full of risk-takers and innovators, often attempting to solve problems that others wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. They deal with regulatory barriers that could bring an HMO policy wonk to their knees. They squeeze out financial efficiencies that are much more difficult than getting blood from a stone. They have professional degrees and are always keeping fresh with formal and informal training and networking.
And yet here we are in the national media as an entire sector of VICTIMS incapable of making the decision to contract for a paid keynote speaker, incapable of understanding that ticket sale revenues would need to exceed costs, and last but not least, incapable or accepting responsibility for our own mistakes.
I’ve put myself in the shoes of one of those non-profit representatives and considered the offer to have the fees returned. I hope the leaders of those organizations rally in solidarity as competent managers, and politely decline the offer, because although it would not be my decision alone to make, I really believe that is what LiveWorkPlay would decide.
If we willingly entered into a contract, and the services we requested were delivered, by what moral or legal principle should the money come back to us? I think we’d have some genuine warm fuzzy feelings about the offer. Maybe we’d take the opportunity to negotiate a future engagement. But I know we wouldn’t take advantage of third-party pressures to simply “cash in.”
As W. Brett Wilson points out (but doesn’t dwell on) in his article, fundraising events have all sorts of costs. From my perspective, I suggest you check out the costs on one of those charity lotteries you are supporting. I’m not telling you to stop buying the tickets, I’m telling you that any big fundraiser involves big costs – and big risks. It’s a highly competitive marketplace and there aren’t always thousands of people standing by to fill an arena and support the cause.
I’ll leave it to others to debate in detail the issue of whether or not politicians should have second incomes, but I will say this: it’s going to get complicated to change the existing rules. Are MPs that come from a family farm going to have to move off the land? A small business owner who gets elected will need to liquidate his restaurant holdings? I don’t know. Good luck with figuring out which types of second incomes are acceptable and which are not. For the record, Trudeau voluntarily disclosed all of his activities years ago, even though he could not possibly have anticipated this manufactured issue. By “manufactured issue” I don’t mean that the issue of whether or not politicians should have second incomes isn’t worthy of debate – what I mean is, Trudeau wasn’t hiding anything, and this issue came to the fore in a disingenuous and partisan manner.
In the meantime, while greater minds hash out the finer ethical details and possibly codify them into new parliamentary rules, I’m with W. Brett Wilson on this one. The way the charitable sector has been represented (and to this point, represented itself) in this controversy is HURTING us all. With many charities experiencing declines in funding and relying increasingly on donations, this portrayal as passive parties to a contract does nothing to inspire donor confidence. It’s time we take a stand on principle – free of the politics – and simply say this:
“When we sign a contract and we receive the good or service we paid for, we consider that the contract has been honoured – in full!”
I’d love to hear from other non-profit leaders on this issue, or if they’ve already been speaking out and I’ve missed it, please send me links!