TORONTO – Asking tough questions about grants to environmental groups is a bit like questioning motherhood and the sweet taste of apple pie. Who doesn’t want a big hug from mother nature? Well, me actually – especially when it comes with a hefty price tag.
Take a look at the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation (FOGF). It’s an organization that’s received a large amount of funding from the government – about $25 million – which it doles out in grants to various environmental groups.
The problem I see is that some of the groups that have received cash sit on both sides of the table.
People who’ve sat on the FOGF board have connections to groups receiving their grants.
Environmental Defence has received around $1.6 million since June 2006.
They got $600,000 in June 5, 2006; $750,000 in June 25, 2008 and another $300,000 in June 29, 2010.
Fair enough, Environmental Defence is a respected group that advocates for a variety of environmental causes – but why are they getting so much government cash to do that?
Is the government paying groups to criticize their policies – or to praise them?
Environmental Defence’s Executive Director, Rick Smith, was also at one time on the board of FOGF.
Similarly, the Royal Winter Fair received a $600,000 grant from FOGF at a time when one of its executives was on the FOGF board.
“It is a completely fair question to ask,” says FOGF CEO Burkhard Mausberg, when I asked him if this was a conflict of interest.
He said FOGF adheres to strict guidelines when handing out grants, to ensure the procedure is above board.
“No board member has received any money from our grants,” he said. “We made sure that not a single penny went to anyone’s salary.”
“Each board member excused themselves from the process of decision-making and each grant was fully endorsed by an outside, fully independent advisory committee,” he said.
The Royal Winter Fair declined to comment, but Mausberg told me their grant was made, “because of their ability to reach out to the farming community.”
Smith said he hasn’t been on the board for six years and when they first started handing out grants, FOGF needed expertise deciding how they should be allocated.
“When you have these specialty foundations that start up, that exist to grant to stakeholders, they need some expertise,” he told me.
“There was a very rigourous conflict policy that had me completely absent from anything to do with my current organization and since that time, there hasn’t been any granting to organizations represented on the board.
“When it did happen six years ago, it was a very small number of grants.”
FOGF is the same group that gave the David Suzuki Foundation $120,000 in 2007 and $100,000 in 2009. That’s in addition to the between $100,000 and $250,000 from the government’s Ontario Trillium Foundation in 2010.
Suzuki then endorsed the Dalton McGuinty Liberals in a controversial video that was posted on the Liberal website during the election – and then hastily taken down.
It showed Suzuki and the premier strolling through Stanley Park in Vancouver as Suzuki lauded McGuinty’s plan to shut coal-fired electricity plants.
Still, we need transparency. As the government wrestles with its bloated budget, every hand-out has to pass the sniff test – especially for a government that claims to be cleaning up air quality.