Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

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.

On how the SVCF responded to claims of workplace misconduct

What Carson said, in a tweet:

What Carson said, by email to David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy: “We can also affirmatively state that there have been no formal reports of inappropriate conduct involving any employee at SVCF.”

What Carson said, in an April 20 letter to donors and nonprofits: “We do not tolerate inappropriate conduct of any kind at SVCF…We investigate all claims of misconduct and take appropriate action to remedy the situation….the claims of sexual harassment were new to us.”

What others say: In the 2008 case of sexual harassment, the victim, who doesn’t want to be identified, told me that she continued to report to Loijens, after discussing the situation with Carson. This made her so uncomfortable that she quit, without having another job. Carson has since acknowledged the case, but he has not explained why he told Callahan that there had been “no formal reports of inappropriate conduct involving any employee at SVCF.”

Two women who used to work for Loijens challenged Carson when he said on Twitter that the SVCF investigates all claims of misconduct.

Maria Moreno, a former assistant to Loijens, tweeted:

Helen Dannelly, a former development director, tweeted: I requested to speak with you about Mari Ellen, Emmett, and you refused, exclaiming: “Helen, I am the CEO!” as if you were too high up to be bothered by with such matters. The buck always stops with the CEO. You allowed this to happen. For years.” She subsequently deleted the tweet.

Michele McGurk, a former director of media and communications at the SVCF, said on Sunday on Facebook: “I witnessed and experienced a small portion what has been written about in the news articles. I spoke up at the time, even filed a complaint once. In hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Rebecca Dupras, a former vice president of development, said Carson and the SVCF’s human relations department made clear that they did not want to hear about Loijens. “Even if you just started to talk to him about it, he did not want to hear it,” Dupras told John Woolfolk of the San Jose Mercury News. “I heard her [Loijens] make lots of sexual and racist comments, sexually inappropriate remarks to me personally, alone and also in front of other people.”

On transparency and accountability

What Carson said, in a tweet:

What Carson has done: He has declined requests for interviews from reporters at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle and Palo Alto Online.

Here are some questions for Carson: To what extent were you aware of Loijens behavior? What, if anything, did you do about it? Did her resignation include a severance payment? If so, how much? (Any severance would be paid out of tax-advantaged donor funds.) What is the scope of the law-firm investigation? Who do the lawyers report to, you or the board? Do they have the leeway to look into your role?

Carson is, of course, under no legal obligation to answer any of those questions publicly but his reluctance to do so undercuts the rhetoric about accountability and transparency.

On the SVCF’s accounting of its grant-making

What Carson said, in a 2016 press release: The SVCF awarded grants totaling $1.3 billion in 2016, benefiting thousands of people and causes in the Bay Area, across the United States, and around the world. ”We are thrilled and humbled that 2016 marks the first time we have made more than $1 billion in grants in a single year.”

Where some of those grants went: To commercial providers of donor-advised funds like Goldman Sachs or Fidelity. In other words, account holders of funds at the SVCF decided, for whatever reason, to move their money to donor-advised funds elsewhere. As I noted last year in a story about the SVCF published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

One of the largest grants reported by the SVCF in 2016 was a $25 million “contribution” to a donor-advised fund at Goldman Sachs. In 2015 and 2016, another $21 million left the SVCF for donor-advised funds at Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard, Bank of America, and elsewhere. These grants are transfers to financial institutions that do not do charities any good, but they are logged as “grantmaking” by the SVCF.

This may seem like a small point. But if the SVCF is willing to describe transfers to Goldman or Fidelity as contributions, merely to inflate its importance, any claims that the SVCF makes about a more important question–like whether Carson tolerated a toxic workplace–need careful scrutiny.

What’s next? That depends on the SVCF’s board, and on the wealthy people in Silicon Valley who maintain donor-advised funds at the community foundation. One wealth advisor in the valley told me: “The donor community is activating now.” It’s possible, too, that staff members feel empowered to speak publicly, or to the board.

Regarding the role of the board, in an editor’s note, PaloAltoOnline said that Bill Johnson, CEO and President of Embarcadero Media, which operates PaloAltoOnline.com, served on the Silicon Valley Community Foundation Board of Directors from 2004 to 2011. The board was not informed of any allegations of misconduct during that time, according to Johnson. The board, it seems, was not told of the 2008 allegation of harassment against Loijens now acknowledged by Carson.

In Hebrew, by the way, “emet” means truth.

15 thoughts on “Emmett Carson’s credibility problem

  1. Abedia Fuller says:

    Mt holyoke college, married, bisexual?

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  2. anon says:

    Knowing something of SVCF from colleagues, I have been following this story closely. A video from last fall w/ Emmett Carson and Stacy Palmer from the Chronicle of Philanthropy stuck with me and looms large in my mind now. In the video, he talks about the future of philanthropy, but what really struck me was his attitude toward employee time and dedication. Beginning around the 6min mark he talks about how his employees need to be 24/7, like many SV companies, and that especially w/r/t the younger employees, that they might like the ‘status’ of being in a dinner and having to step out and say ‘I have to take this,’ That it might give them a sense of ‘being a player.’ I was completely put off by this. So many of us struggle to be fully present for our children and families, or for our own selves, as we work to serve our donors and institutions. I thought this sent a disappointing message about how the foundation views productivity and employee engagement. Research shows the always-on mentality is actually detrimental to productivity and health. It increased my worry that SVCF’s astronomical growth was more about ambition than about mission. My thoughts are with the foundation’s current employees who were subjected to this culture. The full video is here: https://www.philanthropy.com/resources/video/video-the-future-of-philanthr/6443/

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  3. hcdannelly says:

    The other thing that I tweeted in response to Emmett was “The truth has finally come out. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ “

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  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m a former employee of the foundation who is very glad to see SVCF’s dark underbelly finally exposed to the light. I still have serious concerns regarding the ability of the board to do what needs to be done in this case, they have long seemed to be little more than bobble-heads primarily concerned with the size of SVCF’s coffers. Also, I would recommend someone looking into Emmett Carson’s financial/compensation dealings with the foundation, specifically his absurdly generous compensation packages over the years (check SVCF’s 990s). This is a man who has consistently made an annual salary of around $1m or more while lower level employees are paid a pittance and encouraged to “live the mission”. The hypocrisy of the man is phenomenal; I used to wonder what the people living in their cars right outside the rear entrance to the foundation thought as he roared in-and-out of the parking garage in his $75,000 BMW.

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  5. So very unfortunate, but not unique. I wonder if the laser focus on results/impacts and growth are contributing to situations like this.

    Thanks Marc for spreading the word. It is time (beyond time) for Boards to get to know what is going on in their organizations better. Cultural issues like this one are detectible if an effort is made. There are a lot of forums for employees to discuss issues at an organization, but those are only helpful if someone is looking.

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  6. Anon says:

    It’s time for the SVCF Board of Directors to step in, relieve Carson of his duties, and start a new healthy chapter of taking care of Foundation employees and doing more good in our local communities!

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  7. Anonymous says:

    I worked at SVCF for two years. During my time there and since leaving, multiple people from other nonprofits made comments about Mari Ellen, Emmett, and the SVCF culture. Someone from Seattle told me she once turned down a job there because she didn’t want to work for Mari Ellen. Someone from a New York nonprofit told me she heard Emmett had a reputation for being difficult to work with. If people from the Bay Area, to Seattle, to New York are aware of the issues… I find it hard to believe that Emmett had no clue.

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    1. Yet Another Anonymous Former SVCF Employee says:

      It was openly acknowledged inside the Foundation that there was a real problem filling VP and above vacancies because no one within the region wanted to work with MEL or Emmett. They had to continually reach further and further afield to bring in people who weren’t part of the Bay Area/Northern California philanthropic network because everyone knew SVCF had toxic leadership.

      So many people fought to stay at SVCF because of the potential to do real good in the community, and because the vast majority of the staff were good people who deeply cared about philanthropy. But it was fighting an uphill battle every day just to survive, let alone do anything relating to the work.

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  8. Yet Another Former SVCF Employee says:

    Hi Marc,

    Thanks. It was unnecessary, but until last night when a friend forwarded me your Chronicle of Philanthropy article, I believed that I was one of the only ones who was subjected to severe bullying from MEL. It was common knowledge that she was “difficult” to work for, and I saw how my fellow coworkers would cower and cringe when she passed by on her morning walk around the department, but I really felt like I was in a separate category when it came to her abuse.

    I was thrilled to be hired as the Foundation’s social media strategist in early-2014. I worked under Sidney Griffin, the former VP of Marketing who I just found out resigned earlier this year. Sidney was an amazing mentor — I loved working for him and being a part of his team (which included Sue McAllister, who you’ve been corresponding with and who is a lovely human being, but it’s her job to toe the PR line for the Foundation). But MEL made it impossible for me to do my job, and eventually Sid had no choice but to turn me over to HR and begin the process of divesting himself from me because MEL was starting ratchet up the abuse leveled at the Marketing department as a whole, the longer he and Ian Kawata, my direct manager, tried to vouch for me. Once I was brought into HR’s “program”, all support for me disappeared entirely. I was asked to resign my position a mere 9 months after I started. I went directly from the Foundation and into therapy where my psychologist informed me I had elements of PTSD resulting from the insane level of bullying and gaslighting I was subjected to. It took me 2 years before I was able to work again. I am grateful I could rely on my family to support me during that period of recovery, because I was unfit to work anywhere after leaving SVCF.

    There’s so much to my experience, I don’t even know where to begin. But I am seeing now that I was definitely not alone. The culture at SVCF relied on isolating “problem children” (i.e., anyone MEL didn’t like) and making sure that we weren’t able to compare notes or share experiences. It breaks my heart to learn that there were so many more people in my situation, suffering as much as I was, and we never knew about one another. I will say for a fact that Emmett Carson knew everything that MEL was up to, however. No question in my mind, what so ever. He is every bit as complicit for protecting her as she was for her abuse. He got to be the charming face of the Foundation while MEL ran the show behind the scenes. Emmett would go from one cross-country speaking engagement to another without being seen in the office for a month at a time; meanwhile, MEL was totally in control of everything, from personally overseeing the Zuckerberg accounts to running board meetings to micro-managing low-level employees… Everything had to be approved through her.

    Anyway, I don’t know if anything I have evidence-wise is important enough to detail beyond what I’ve written above… I was just a mid-level employee without much clout or insider knowledge beyond what was murmured about between coworkers over lunch. It’s just a relief to know that MEL’s reign of terror is over. I never thought I would see the day she was held accountable for her abuse.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry for what you went through. Let’s hope some good comes of all this.

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    2. Anonymous says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for what you went through and hope you are doing well now. The SVCF culture was very effective at keeping everyone (at least low to mid level employees) isolated and off balance. When people were fired (or forced to quit) there would be a one line email saying that they were no longer employed and then they were literally never spoken of again. You never knew who would be next. I learned not to trust anyone. Even supportive and well intended managers could be forced to do MEL’s bidding at the expense of their own teams and programs. I vividly remember an all-staff meeting where MEL seemed particularly out of control – dropping multiple f-bombs and even cruelly mocking one of her employees from the front of the room for something she was wearing. Before this particular meeting we were sent an all-hands email telling us that a journalist would be present (I wish I could remember were they were from – I think it was an industry publication) which I took to mean we were to be on our best behavior. I was a nobody but I took pride in the work we did and I was so embarrassed by what happened. That experience drove home for me that SVCF was really the Mari Ellen Show and that the organization didn’t just tolerate, but celebrated and encouraged her tactics so I started planning my departure. I really feel for the good people who are still there (and I’ll second that Sue McAllister is lovely – she’s been in my thoughts over the last week!) and hope that they are ok .

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      1. Yet Another Former SVCF Employee says:

        Hello, Fellow SVCF Anon:

        “I was a nobody but I took pride in the work we did and I was so embarrassed by what happened. That experience drove home for me that SVCF was really the Mari Ellen Show and that the organization didn’t just tolerate, but celebrated and encouraged her tactics so I started planning my departure.”

        OMG, “The Mari Ellen Show” was exactly what we referred to her all-hands meetings. I remember one particular instance a few months before I was forced out, when one of the other division chiefs had passed away suddenly. This particular chief was really beloved in the org and everyone was just beside themselves with grief. There was an all-hands first thing that morning headed by Emmett and MEL that went fairly smoothly. Later, however, MEL insisted on holding a departmental all-hands to talk more in-depth about our colleague’s passing, because she was concerned that we might have more we needed to talk about during this difficult time in the foundation. Or, at least, that was the idea. Instead, it was a good half-hour of MEL monopolizing everything, making it All About Her. At one point, she broke down in tears and confessed that she was jealous of all the attention that our colleague’s passing was getting because she knew no one would mourn her the same way if she died.

        Everyone was speechless. One of MEL’s underlings raced to her side to console her while the rest of us just sat there in awkward silence, while MEL continued to go on, tearfully, about how much everyone loved said colleague more than her.

        She was painfully transparent in that moment. It had and always would be a popularity contest with her. I lost what little respect I had left for her right then and there. She was nothing more than the school yard Mean Girl that I had dealt with in elementary school, all grown up with a half-a-million-dollar-a-year salary and designer clothes. She was dead right, though. No one would miss her when she was gone.

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  9. Yet Another Former SVCF Employee says:

    I’m another former SVCF employee who was driven from the Foundation by Mari Ellen’s sociopathic bullying. Emmet 100% was aware of what she was doing; he tacitly acknowledged it to me in my exit interview. In fact, all of upper management tacitly acknowledged their awareness of MEL’s abusive behavior while continuing to rake me across the coals for minor infractions that fell afoul of MEL.

    After almost daily meetings with my manager and HR that pulled me even further away from the job I was hired to do, I was told, point blank, by Senior HR rep Phillip Wiggett that I would either have to figure out a way to “work with” MEL or quit, because either way, she wasn’t going anywhere. I understood his meaning loud and clear — MEL seas untouchable because Emmet protected her. And being that I was so low on the food chain below her, I was effectively powerless to defend myself. My VP and manager tried to protect me for a time, but after MEL saw this she began putting pressure on them and they both washed their hands of me to preserve their own necks. I left SVCF after 9 months, broken and without a job lined up. It took months of therapy to return to a functional state, and even then, I still believed MEL’s withering assessment that I was unfit for a career in nonprofit because I was “pathetic” and incompetent.

    I still have no idea what I did to warrant her disdain. I showed up on my first day and it was clear that she had already made up her mind to torture me for her own amusement.

    Anyway, thank you for digging into this. I never believed this day would come.

    Like

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thank you for telling your story. I’m sorry for what (and so many others) had to put up with. It was so unnecessary.

      Like

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