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Outside Baraka Hospital in Kenya.

Outside Baraka Hospital in Kenya.

Photographer: Sarah Waiswa for Bloomberg Businessweek

How a Charity Superstar Innovated Its Way to Political Scandal

The Kielburger brothers courted celebrities, became voluntourism pioneers, and built a Davos-friendly model of philanthrocapitalism. Then a Canadian Covid-relief deal got people asking questions.

One morning in early March, 12,000 schoolchildren and their teachers gathered in London for the world’s loudest field trip. Screams filled cavernous SSE Arena, the party a reward for good deeds done. Through a four-hour extravaganza of strobe lights and celebrity cameos, tween-age “change makers” bopped their way through dance and musical performances interspersed with motivational speeches. Singer Leona Lewis and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, talked self-empowerment. Formula One legend Lewis Hamilton spoke out, despite his day job, against climate change. There was a shoutout to Virgin Group Ltd., the main corporate sponsor. Obligingly, the kids waved their light sticks and roared.

The spectacle, known as a WE Day, was the brainchild of two Canadian brothers, Craig and Marc Kielburger. In the 25 years since a 12-year-old Craig started a charity devoted to ending child slavery, they’d added a for-profit wing and won over the young, the rich, and the powerful to an uplifting if sometimes controversial brand of do-goodism. Their philanthropic behemoth, WE Charity, had development projects in nine countries and was bringing in some C$66 million ($52 million) a year; its U.S. fundraising alone placed it in the top 5.5% of American public charities by revenue. Mentored by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson, the Kielburgers had galvanized Fortune 500 boardrooms, regulars at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and thousands of schools. And their charity/business empire was unlike anything the philanthropic world had ever seen, featuring a for-profit voluntourism operation that hosted billionaires and politicians, as well as events that drew luminaries on the order of Prince Harry and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.