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Heather Spidell, the president and CEO of the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development, no longer works at the organization, but no one will say why.

CEED was founded by the provincial government in 1993, with the mission of “building a vibrant community that promotes the financial and social benefits of entrepreneurship, creating a better way of life for all Nova Scotians,” explains its website. Last year, the province gave CEED $1,346,334, while ACOA contributed $422,096 to the organization. Much of that money has gone to support young people starting businesses.

I called CEED Friday. A young man named Kyle answered the phone, and I identified myself as a reporter and asked to speak to a board member. A minute later a woman picked up the line, and I again identified myself by name and as a reporter, but she refused to give me her name. I again asked to speak to a board member. She said there was no board member present and asked what I was calling about. I told her I wanted to speak to someone about the departure of Heather Spidell.

“There is no one here who can speak to you about that, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call back,” she said. She raised her voice: “Do you understand me?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t understand why you can’t give me your name or why you can’t speak to the departure of the president of CEED.”

She hung up on me.

Government spokespeople have been only slightly more forthcoming.

“The province has provided operational funding for CEED since its inception,” wrote Sarah Levy MacLeod, a spokesperson for the provincial department of Economic, Rural Development and Tourism in an email. “In 2014, ERDT approved $260,000 in financing to support the organization. As part of this investment, we have an ex-officio representative on the board. We play no role in decision-making related to staffing. You will have to speak with CEED or its board of directors about any changes in management.”

“The Agency is aware of personnel changes,” wrote ACOA spokesperson Lori Selig, also in an email. “However, these personnel changes are an internal decision made by CEED’s Board. For any further details, please contact the Chair of the CEED Board.”

Reached Sunday at home, Paul Joudrey, the chair of CEED’s board of directors who recently retired from ACOA, acknowledged that Spidell is no longer employed at CEED, but said he could not speak further to personnel issues.

The provincial departments of Community Services and Labour and Advanced Education, which also fund CEED, have not yet responded to requests for comment.

According to her LinkedIn page, Spidell worked at CEED from April of 2012 through August of this year. On September 4, Spidell tweeted what appears to be a reference to her change in employment status:

Spidell has not responded to a request for comment.

Until a replacement for Spidell is found, the Board of Directors is now managing the day-to-day operations at CEED.

Asked if there were other management changes at the organization, chair of the board Paul Joudrey said there were not.

But Sabrina Poirier, who was manager of CEED’s Second Chance Program from December of 2012 through August of this year, also no longer works at CEED. The Examiner has been told that after a significant investment in computer equipment for clients, the Second Chance Program has been discontinued. Poirier has not responded to a request for comment.

Asked about the status of the Second Chance program, Joudrey said the organization is still in negotiations with its funders about the future of the program.

On September 9, another CEED manager, D’Arcy Morris-Poultney, who had been the Education and Small Business Advisor in CEED’s Self-Employment Benefits program, posted a notice on his Facebook page that said he was looking for work:

Contacted Sunday, Morris-Poultney said he would call the Examiner today to discuss management changes at CEED, but as of this writing he has not called.

CEED appears in recent years to have strayed from its stated mission of promoting the “financial and social benefits of entrepreneurship, creating a better way of life for all Nova Scotians.”

For example, in February CEED was part of the Creating Opportunities for Rural Youth (CORY) Consortium that received a $(US)1.95 million grant from the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). But CORY’s work is not in Nova Scotia. Rather, the program targets “rural youth and youth-led organizations in Benin, Cameroon, Gambia and Nigeria in West and Central Africa.”

Spidell travelled to IFAD’s headquarters in Rome, Italy along with Amanda Mombourquette, CEED’s Business Development Consultant, and met with other other members of the consortium. Spidell maintained a blog on the CEED website and discussed issues related CORY. That blog has been removed from the site, but on a Google cached copy of the blog, Spidell explained that in the past “CEED established offices and taught its innovative paths to learning entrepreneurship in Sweden, South Africa, the Caribbean and in other provinces in Canada,” and that for the CORY program “CEED  travelled to the DR Congo where we met with IFAD staff from the four countries.”

Joudrey, the board chair, defended CEED’s international programming. “It’s within our mandate,” he told the Examiner.

Over the past year or so CEED managers have been making what they labeled “Road Trips to Awesomeness,” to Chetticamp, Antigonish, Parrsboro, and Digby, but also out of province to Moncton and Toronto.

Besides the potentially off-mission international and out-of-province travel, CEED seems to have an inordinately large staff turnover. A Google cache of CEED’s “our team” page from December 13, 2013 shows 27 employees at the organization. Eleven of those employees are no longer listed on today’s live “our team” page, a 40 percent staff turnover in just nine months.

One of the people who left CEED employment since December was Alison O’Handley, who in January created a Storehouse webpage entitled “Rethinking Political Correctness within CEED’s Culture.” [Update, September 16: The Storehouse page was removed after this piece was published. Here’s a PDF version of it:  Rethinking Political Correctness within CEED’s Culture.] The page explains that “people need to feel safe to express their opinions, feelings and views to their managers.” At CEED, O’Handley was the Strategic Initiatives Lead; she’s now a part-time Entrepreneurship Assistant at NSCC. She was not in her NSCC office Friday.

Does it matter why Spidell no longer works at CEED? And is this attention to her and the agency really necessary? In a word, yes.

CEED receives over $1.7 million in taxpayer money annually, and yet there appears to be no clear government assessment of the effectiveness or value of that expenditure. Other taxpayer-funded economic development agencies like Nova Scotia Business, Inc. and Innovacorp are crown corporations, and so are subject to government freedom of information rules, accounting and auditing procedures, and “sunshine list” disclosures of high staff salaries. CEED, however, is registered as a non-profit corporation and so none of those rules apply.

The kind of public oversight provided by provincial regulations of crown corporations leads to at least a nod to openness: Staff at NSBI and Innovacorp may not like prying questions from reporters, but they answer those questions politely and as fully as they can. The staff at CEED evidently feel they don’t need to do either.

Moreover, CEED is registered as a “Limited by Guarantee” company, which is a specific kind of non-profit corporation guaranteed by its funders, in this case the government agencies. But unlike most non-profit corporations in Nova Scotia, which are registered as societies, CEED is not obligated to file its annual financial statement with the Registry of Joint Stock Companies. Anyone can go to the Joint Stocks office in downtown Halifax and pull up the financial statement of their local tots’ baseball league that deals with a few thousand dollars, but the $1.7 million budget for CEED is completely off limits to the public.

The CEED budget is not public. Audits are not made available. Unlike every provincial agency, CEED does not publicly report compensation for employees or their travel allowances.

While there is no doubt that CEED has helped people start businesses, CEED does not publish any analysis as to what the success rate of those start-ups is, and how that rate compares to the start-up support industry generally, or to the success rate of businesses started with no agency help. What percentage of CEED clients fail? Are they stuck with an increased debt load as a result? We don’t know.

And that’s the recurring theme: We don’t know. We don’t know why top managers are no longer working at CEED. We don’t know what CEED does with our money. We don’t know if the money is used wisely or foolishly, or if inappropriate expenditures have been made with it.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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18 Comments

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  1. Glad to see the right things come around. I enjoyed many people at CEED, when working with youth in YEP program, and it can only get better now. But saw this coming. Surprised no-one tried to look into it before.

  2. Good work on exploring this story Tim. While I am sure there are people with CEED who were motivated by good intentions, accountability and oversight of publicly funded organizations such as this is critical. It’s puzzling why it was not set up with those checks and balances already in place.

  3. Her hashtag ‘integrity’ is interesting………….I would ask about that,were I a reporter/journalist….just sayin…..

    1. Had she agreed to talk to me, I would’ve asked that question. Since she wouldn’t talk to me…

  4. In defense of an organization that has done a lot of good, I am compelled to note that at least some of the employees have been motivated by a genuine desire to find a new way to do business, to help youth at risk and youth with dreams, and to build up less-advantaged parts of the province. What I’ve heard from people in Parrsboro, for instance, is that CEED has helped.

    Mission drift happens when a board doesn’t reinforce mission. I think focussing on staff who have left may not tell the full story. Who is on the board? Where were they when international projects were undertaken?

  5. Looks like another private-sector boondoggle. This is what happens when business experts get their hands on government money with few strings attached. That’s why clear rules strictly enforced are needed. The accountability that you and many commenters are calling for is what the business class disparagingly call “red tape”.

    1. And yet, when citizen-taxpayers have a GOOD, productive and sustainable idea to employ Nova Scotian youth in a well-paying and productive career, the politicians’ boilerplate response is: «why, sorry, but there’s no «program» for that…»
      Of course having the right trougher-connection opens the pursestrings like magic!

    1. $1.7 million in taxpayer money this year, at least. (I haven’t heard back from the Investment Bank of Canada yet, a federal institution.)

  6. We need to bring these organizations under the government umbrella and stop scattering funding to the 4 winds hoping something comes of it.

  7. It appears our courts are the last and only possible avenue through which to pry information and accountability from stonewalling quasi-government entities. Not sure it would be productive in this instance, given their unique registration, but it’s obvious we’re in need of pro bono, public-interest lawyers to access the courts on our behalf. Had an uncomfortable conversation with my lawyer son on this very subject, asking why we have so few in Canada versus the U.S. Sadly, I didn’t receive an explanation or good answer.

  8. I want a job at CEED! I like to travel, and I prefer not to be burdened by structures like mandates, objectives, accountability, and performance indicators. Sounds perfect!

    1. Yea, and imagine the BONUS of being unaccountably rude and uncooperative whenever anyone asks, quite legitimately, what you’re up to!

  9. Rather disturbing that absolutely NOBODY wants to talk about this. It definitely casts a shadow over CEED. Either they have something to hide or they have the worst PR people ever.

    1. Well, for starters, let’s ask what that HUGE cadre of troughers actually DOES to promote and support entrepreneurship IN NOVA SCOTIA — surely what its originators had in mind when contemplating a budget of over 1.5 million per year!