Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

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Emmett Carson, formerly of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (Photo credit:The Chronicle of Philanthropy)

Emmett Carson’s reign atop the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the US’s biggest community foundation, came to an end today. The foundation’s board, which hired a law firm to investigate allegations of workplace bullying and misconduct, said that the “SVCF clearly failed to provide a safe and inclusive workplace environment for its employees.”

“The unacceptable workplace behavior that took place at SVCF…should never have happened and there is no excuse for it,” the board said. “We are deeply sorry to our entire community, especially our past and present employees.”

The board said Carson would “end his employment with SVCF after more than a decade of service.” It’s all but certain that he was forced out.

For his part, Carson issued a statement touting his accomplishments and taking no responsibility for the troubled workplace culture that led to his stunning downfall.

“After 34 years of philanthropic leadership and scholarship,” Carson wrote, “I look forward to taking a much needed respite before resuming a career that has been dedicated to championing social justice issues and creating an equitable society for all.”

This is, at best, tone-deaf.

With $13.5bn in assets, most of it in donor-advised funds, the SVCF has become a favorite place for Silicon Valley’s wealthy to park their charitable donations before disbursing them. Its donors include Facebook billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, as well as founders of WhatsApp, GoPro and Netflix. It was Loijens’ ability to bring in the big donors that endeared her to Carson.

The back story to today’s events, in brief: Carson was placed on a paid leave of absence in April after The Chronicle of Philanthropy published a long story, reported by this blogger with help from Megan O’Neil of The Chronicle, which accused the  SVCF’s top fundraiser, Mari Ellen Loijens, of “engaging in emotionally abusive and sexually inappropriate behavior.” Former SVCF employees used words like  “toxic” and “terrible” to describe her conduct, and told us that she “demeaned and bullied her staff, made lewd comments in the workplace, and on at least one occasion sought to kiss a woman working for her.” Loijens resigned the next day.

Carson knew about her conduct, and tolerated it, ex-staffers said. But he ducked responsibility. He declined to be interviewed, and instead took to Twitter to defend himself. In a letter to donors, Carson wrote: “We investigate all claims of misconduct and take appropriate action to remedy the situation….the claims of sexual harassment were new to us.” This simply wasn’t true, former employees said.

Their allegations were confirmed today by the board, which released a 13-page summary of an investigation that the board had commissioned from the Boies Schiller Flexner law firm. Carson previously had commissioned a report from another law firm, Thompson Hine, but it focused on Loijens and, in retrospect, it appears to have been designed to let him off the hook. Boies Shiller Flexner conducted 82 interviews, primarily of current and former employees, and it reviewed 45 memoranda describing interviews by Thompson Hine.

Some excerpts from the Boies Shiller Flexner report:

BSF’s investigation was prompted in part by specific allegations of workplace misconduct at SVCF, including racial and sexual comments, some of which were published in the media. BSF’s investigation substantiated multiple allegations made in the public news reports. In the course of our investigation, BSF was also alerted to other specific allegations of misconduct engaged in by certain former SVCF executives, including racial and sexual comments, and other inappropriate comments and workplace behavior (such as berating and bullying), which have not been reported publicly but which are credible and have been substantiated through interviews and/or documents.

Translation: the workplace culture was even worse than has been reported.

Also:

BSF’s investigation found that there were certain widespread workplace culture issues at SVCF, including a fear of speaking out or reporting workplace issues out of concern for retaliation, as well as a distrust of HR leadership. The top-down, “command-and-control” management style of SVCF’s former CEO and former senior development executive contributed to this environment.

This confirms what we heard: That Carson had no interest in listening to complaints about Loijens.

Wait. It gets worse:

There were other workplace culture issues at SVCF that were not as widespread, but that were serious and affected many employees. These included sexual, racial, crude, and otherwise inappropriate remarks and conduct that became “normalized” within certain divisions, as well as public shaming and bullying behavior exhibited at times by certain former SVCF executives. Unacceptable behavior by certain former SVCF executives was often inadequately addressed or overlooked…Employees were left with the impression that if they did not like the workplace culture, they were free to “get off the bus.”

Nice.

Without citing Carson by name, the report says that his push for growth made matters worse. It says that employees

described a “results at all costs” attitude that impaired the work environment. In the case of at least one former SVCF executive, this meant that unacceptable workplace behavior was overlooked when that employee was achieving good results. Other times, it meant that the growth of the organization took precedence over the well-being of staff members who often worked long hours to maintain SVCF’s commitment to excellence and keep up with the organization’s growth. Regardless of how it manifested itself, this attitude—without proper checks—harmed workplace morale and helped contribute to an unhealthy work environment.

And where was the board? The report says:

Our investigation also revealed that the full nature, gravity, and extent of workplace concerns were concealed from the Board. With respect to the specific allegations of misconduct engaged in by certain former SVCF executives, our investigation concludes that the Board did not have knowledge about such behavior. With respect to the broader topic of an unhealthy workplace culture, our investigation reveals that the information presented to the Board by former SVCF executives in response to the Board’s requests for information was often incomplete and in some cases was presented in a manner that was misleading.

This is a further indictment of Carson, but it is not an exoneration of the board. Insiders tell me that Carson ran board meetings in an imperious manner, brushing off questions and criticisms. This should have been a tipoff  to the board that something was awry at the SVCF, and they should have pressed for more information. A good deal of the story was public, via these devastating comments on Glassdoor. The board is now doing all the right and predictable things–hiring consultants, putting clear reporting practices in place, and enforcing a “zero tolerance policy on retaliation,” exit interviews, etc.–but it could and should have been more vigilant.

In his statement, Carson accentuated the positive, describing his philanthropy as “visionary and disruptive,” before offering the very mildest of apologies:

We embraced change, took risks, believed that disruption could be a force for good, tackled seemingly impossible and intractable problems, and harnessed the creativity of Silicon Valley to go after audacious goals.

Recent events have brought to light that in the pursuit of these ambitious goals, some staff felt they were not sufficiently heard. Others felt that they could not trust that they could rely on the multiple systems in place, including an anonymous hotline, to report complaints or concerns and have them fully and fairly addressed.  I am sorry that this occurred and regret any role that I may have played in contributing to these feelings.

There’s something unsatisfying about this conclusion, several former staffers told me today. The board would not say that it fired Carson. It paid him for nearly two months — his annual salary is close to $1m — rather than put him on unpaid leave. The board did not say whether he had been given a severance payment as part of a settlement.

I’ll give the last word to Helen Dannelly, who worked at the SVCF more than a decade ago. By email, she told me:

This story made headlines because of the enormity of money under management at this organization, but the story to those of us affected by it was always about workplace bullying and harassment. Bullying occurs because people look the other way. It happens in grade school, it happens in the workplace, it’s happening at the highest levels of our government right now.

I’m very glad this chapter at Silicon Valley Community Foundation is so far behind me. I’m just so sorry that employees who followed me over the past ten years suffered the same abhorrent treatment.

 

 

 

 

Fact: Nuclear power plants generate about 20 percent of all the electric power in the US, more than hydropower (7.5%), wind (6.3%) and solar (1.3%) combined, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Put another way, they account more than half of the low-carbon electricity in the US.

Fact: The IPCC, the International Energy Agency, former energy secretary Steven Chu, climate scientist James Hansen, futurist Stewart Brand, economist Jeffrey Sachs and many other experts say that nuclear power is a vital climate change solution.

Fact: Of 2,509 grants distributed by 19 big US foundations between 2011 and 2015, not a single grant supported work on promoting or reducing the cost of nuclear energy. Not one!

Something’s wrong with this picture, no?

The first two facts are known, or should be, to anyone paying attention to climate change. The third is troubling. It comes from an analysis by Matthew Nisbet, a Northeastern University professor who studies the role of communication, journalism, and advocacy in policy debates. His report, titled Strategic philanthropy in the post-Cap-and-Trade years: Reviewing U.S. climate and energy foundation funding, was released today.

The report illustrates what Nisbet calls a “very strong, long-standing technology bias towards renewables and efficiency” among climate funders. Between 2011 and 2015, nearly a quarter of all funding from the biggest foundations was “dedicated to promoting renewable energy and efficiency-related actions with comparatively little funding devoted to other low-carbon energy technologies,” he writes. This reflects a bias not just against nuclear power but also against carbon-capture and storage technology that might–might–enable countries to burn cleaner coal.

This isn’t, however, a blogpost about nuclear power or carbon capture technology. It’s about climate philanthropy. Specifically, it’s about the way in which the groupthink of big climate funders has helped to give us a US climate movement that is neither driven by evidence nor politically powerful.

It’s also a classic example of how the lack of accountability of foundations can lead to insular thinking and ineffective grant-making.

I’ve been paying attention to the climate movement since the mid-2000s, when I covered business and sustainability for FORTUNE. Progress has been lamentably slow. Last year, I wrote a long, reported essay on climate philanthropy that The Chronicle of Philanthropy published in February under the headline, Opinion: Foundations Are Losing the Fight Against Climate Change. The essay noted that the US climate policy is today moving in the wrong direction, even as global GHG emissions continue to rise, despite the so-called pledges made in the Paris climate accord. “If philanthropy is to be judged by its outcomes — and how else should it be judged? — climate philanthropy has failed,” I wrote.

Learning from failure?

And yet. No foundation, to the best of my knowledge, has published an evaluation of its own climate grant-making, or made public a critique of any of the environmental groups or strategies that it funded. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, funders.) The only exceptions I’m aware of are a pair of reports that were commissioned, commendably, by the Rockefeller Family Fund and an evaluation of the ClimateWorks Foundation that surfaced only after WikiLeaks published emails from the hacked account of John Podesta, who is on the foundation’s board.

Without public accountability and open debate, how can foundations and environmental nonprofits learn from their mistakes?

You’d think that we were winning the fight against climate change. Continue reading

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Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna

The Open Philanthropy Project funds an array of causes that would seem, at first glance, to have little or nothing in common.

OpenPhil, as it’s known, gave away about $240m last year, making major grants to nonprofits that seek to alleviate global poverty, reform the US criminal justice system, perform basic scientific research, improve the welfare of farm animals and reduce the dangers posed by existential threats to humanity.

Smaller grants went to organizations that want to shift the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy to promote employment, provide guidelines for solar geoengineering research, study the history of philanthropy and improve the quality of human decision-making.

Does that make any sense?

In a word, yes.

If nothing else, OpenPhil is relentlessly logical in its approach to philanthropy. Shaped by a philosophy known as effective altruism, the organization simply aims to do as much as good as possible with its giving. With that in mind, it seeks out causes that meet three key criteria: They are important, neglected and tractable.

I took a close look at OpenPhil in a story headlined Giving in the Light of Reason that was published yesterday by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Here’s how it begins:

There’s an old saw in philanthropy: If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation. Each is distinctive, which makes sense: Extremely wealthy people do not get to be that way by following the crowd, so they want their foundations to stand out as well.

Still, of the 86,000 or so grantmaking foundations in the United States, few stand quite so far outside of the mainstream as the Open Philanthropy Project, which guides the charitable giving of Dustin Moskovitz, the cofounder of Facebook, and his wife, Cari Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

Open Phil, as it’s known, has a vast fortune to give away. Moskovitz’s net worth was estimated to be about $14.3 billion at the end of 2017, and Moskovitz and Tuna say they intend to disburse nearly all of it before they die. In terms of assets, that puts them ahead of the Ford Foundation and behind only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations in a ranking of America’s philanthropic giants.

Their giving is shaping up to be a grand experiment in rationalism—the idea that it’s possible to think through nearly all of the messy questions at the heart of philanthropy. Should grants go to education, science, or the arts? To a nearby community or to poor people overseas? To cure disease or influence public policy? As Open Phil grapples with such questions, it is guided by the principles of effective altruism, a philosophy and a movement that seeks to use reason and evidence to determine the best ways to do good. “They are unabashed technocratic engineers of good outcomes,” says one insider.

The story, which runs for more than 6,000 words, explains the genesis of OpenPhil and its approach to grantmaking. I’m generally an admirer of its work, which, in my view, deserves more attention from others in philanthropy. People at OpenPhil bring more rigor and transparency to their work than most other big foundations do. They are also, to their credit, unafraid of risk, willing to embrace causes that are out of the mainstream (like the well-being of chickens) and long-term thinkers, as the story explains.

I do have a couple of reservations about OpenPhil. First, the operation is run by a small group of people, fewer than two dozen, who are charged with giving away very large sums of money. Most are young, white and educated at elite schools. They run some risk of getting caught in groupthink, and would do well to find ways to open themselves up to critical, dissenting ideas.

Second–and I’m not as sure about this–is my concern about a coming shift in their grantmaking away from people (or animals) who suffer today and towards efforts to prevent so-called existential risks to future generations. Part of me wants to applaud this idea. After all, neither governments nor companies nor other philanthropists tend to think very long term, as a rule, and we are at a peculiar moment in human history where, for the first time, a number of technologies have become so powerful that they could wipe out the human race. In response, OpenPhil is making grants designed to reduce the catastrophic risks posed by general artificial intelligence and pandemics. If you haven’t paid attention, here’s a long but readable blogpost from Wait But Why explaining the dangers of AI.

In a blogpost on cause prioritization published in January, Holden Karnofsky, the brainy executive director of OpenPhil, wrote: “It is reasonably likely that we will recommend allocating >50% of all available capital to giving directly aimed at improving the odds of favorable long-term outcomes for civilization.” This reflects the worldview, popular among effective altruists, that ascribes very high value to the long-term future. Some effective altruists reason that improving the prospects for preserving the human race by even a fraction of a percent could have enormous impact because trillions of future lives are at stake.

That said, I’m just back from a reporting trip to Rwanda where I took a close look at rural poverty for the first time. Seeing a mother living with a 15-day old baby in a hut without running water or electricity is a sobering experience. To its credit, again, OpenPhil has in its relatively short life given more money than any other donor to groups recommended by GiveWell that try to alleviate the suffering of the global poor. (Why other foundations have not done so is a mystery.) But as a greater share of OpenPhil’s grant-making goes towards preventing long-term catastrophic risks, a smaller share will be left to reduce the suffering of poor people today.

Visiting Rwanda reinforced my belief that the vast majority of our charitable giving should flow to the global south, where the needs are greatest and charitable dollars can go a long way towards meeting those needs. As Charlie Bresler, the founder and executive director of The Life You Can Save, told me the other day: “We focus on extreme poverty because it’s tractable. It’s something we can do something about.” It’s harder to see what, if anything, can be done to prevent superintelligent general AI from wiping out humanity.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that OpenPhil is doing important work. If more foundations approached their giving with as much seriousness and rigor, we’d all be better off.

You can read the rest of my story here.

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Some people who start out poor and then make a lot of money forget their roots. Not Mario Morino. In a speech to the august City Club of Cleveland in 2012, Morino talked about growing up in one of the city’s working class neighborhoods.

He said:

My dad sold vacuum sweepers door to door and drove a cab. My mom cleaned offices. I’m sure they are looking down from the heavens today, not quite believing what they see. In fact, I can see my mom up there waving the wooden spoon she used for making sauce for Sunday pasta, whispering, “Do good, Maduch. Please don’t screw up in front of all these important people!”

Looking back on it, there’s no question I grew up poor. I just didn’t know it.

My mom was the rock. In addition to cleaning offices, she cleaned other people’s homes and ironed shirts to keep the family afloat. She made sure my brother, sister, and I—and oftentimes our friends and cousins—were well fed, clothed, and loved.

Morino went on to describe the community institutions–the churches, schools, local Y and public library–where he was supported by committed teachers and coaches.

Then he said:

When I drive through my old neighborhood today, it’s a completely different story…So many elements of the connected and supportive community I knew were broken by lost manufacturing jobs and have given way to vacant buildings and empty lots.

A kid today growing up on my old street—a kid born with intelligence and drive and a caring parent—doesn’t have nearly the same opportunities I had.

For more than two decades, Morino has been working in one way or another to create better opportunities for those kids who have the misfortune to grow up without the family or community support that enabled him to do so well. Most recently, he has built a network of nonprofit leaders known as the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community that aims to improve the performance of nonprofits.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has my story about Morino and the Leap Ambassadors in its May issue. Here’s how it begins:

Mario Morino would soon turn 70. For a blue-collar kid from Cleveland, he had done very well for himself. He had made a fortune in the software industry and given a lot of it away — about $40 million, he estimates. He had helped pioneer venture philanthropy, an approach to charitable giving modeled on venture capital. He had written a book called Leap of Reason, urging nonprofits “to create more meaningful, measurable good.”

Morino was unsatisfied. He took time off after publishing his book, and he was restless.

“I felt guilty,” he recalls. “I’d been out of the action for two years.” He could have joined another board or two, but he wanted more. So he set out to build a movement to improve the performance of America’s charities.

“There are too many nonprofits,” Morino says, “that are just not doing enough to ensure they’re making a positive difference.”

You can get access to the story here to find out just how Morino and his colleagues are trying to help nonprofits perform better. They are doing important work, in my view. I should add that while my story in the Chronicle focuses on Morino, what originally drew me to the story was seeing the caliber of people who have chosen to be part of the Leap community. It has attracted some of the most impressive nonprofit leaders in America, and it is very much a collaborative effort. But it would have never happened without Morino.

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A guest room at the Heaven Boutique Hotel

Josh Ruxin had big plans when he moved to Rwanda in 2005. He was running an NGO that built and improved health clinics, and he launched a Millenium Village project, with support from Stephen Lewis, the Canadian politician and philanthropist. An Ivy-educated PhD, Ruxin had worked almost all his life in nonprofits and academia.

Today, Ruxin and his wife, Alissa, are all business. They own and operate Heaven, a restaurant and boutique hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. He’s still involved in health care, but as co-founder of an East African chain of pharmacies called Goodlife. Meantime, he’s raising money for a startup retail chain called SupaPharm that aims to deliver basic health services to the poor.

“I didn’t see any of this coming,” Ruxin told me, when we met last week at Heaven. “I was a development nerd.”

Heaven is, well, aptly named. It’s an oasis of calm and beauty in the bustling, albeit orderly, city of Kigali. It’s become a cliche to say that Kigali is the cleanest, safest city in Africa, but like most cliches, this one is true.

Heaven was my home away from home during a recent 10-day reporting trip to Rwanda. It’s perched on a hill, just down the street from the presidential home of Rwanda’s leader, Paul Kagame. The views of the city below are lovely, the rooms are charming, the restaurant is first-class and the people who work there are exceptionally friendly and helpful.

During my trip, which was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, I reported on a USAID-funded project to provide chickens to Rwandan farmers, on the cookstove company Inyenyeri, on a social enterprise called EarthEnable and on the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village for vulnerable children. The theme of my stories, which will be rolled out on this blog and elsewhere, is: Alleviating poverty in Rwanda: What works? Continue reading

Too many nonprofit boards are weak. The board of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation was reputed to be one of them. That changed, dramatically, today when the board put Emmett Carson, the foundation’s CEO, on paid leave while it conducts what certainly appears to be a serious investigation into the workplace culture of the foundation, and Carson’s role in tolerating harassment and abuse.

Immodestly, it’s safe to say that this would not have happened without my reporting on the weird and outrageous behavior of Mari Ann Loijens, the foundations’ chief fundraiser, which went on for more than a decade. The Chronicle of Philanthropy published the story, headlined A Star Performer Created A ‘Toxic’ Culture at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Insiders Say, last week. (It’s now outside the paywall.) Megan O’Neil, the Chronicle’s News Editor, contributed crucial reporting and has kept on top of developments since then.

This is the latest. It’s an example of a board living up to its responsibilities:

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Days after a workplace scandal with #metoo overtones led to the departure of Mari Ellen Loijens, the chief fundraiser at the fast-growing Silicon Valley Community Foundation, questions are swirling about Emmett Carson, the founding CEO of the SVCF.

Carson has been trying hard to distance himself from the noxious behavior of Loijens, which was exposed last week in a long, investigative story in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

It isn’t going well.

The background: Loijens has been accused by more than 20 former staff members of bullying and belittling people, making tawdry and sexually inappropriate comments at work and, in one instance, back in 2008, telling a woman who worked for her that she wanted to kiss her. The unprofessional behavior stretched over more than a decade, those former employees of the SVCF told me and Megan O’Neil, news editor at The Chronicle. The foundation hired a law firm to investigate and, less than 24 hours after our story was published, said that Loijens had resigned. With $13.5bn in assets under management, the community foundation is a philanthropic powerhouse–bigger than Ford or Rockefeller.

Before and after our story was published by the Chronicle, Carson made a series of statements indicating that he was unaware of the depth and extent of Loijens’ conduct.

Some former employees say that’s not true. Others say he did not want to know. Still others say that it was his obligation to find out why so many people were unhappy with Loijens and left the foundation.

Let’s compare some of Carson’s statements with what others say.

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