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:
— Emmett Carson (@emmettcarson) April 19, 2018
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:
@emmettcarson Please stop acting like you did not know! I reported both you & Mari Ellen to HR July 2017. At the end of the day, I was the one who had to leave the foundation bc it was a toxic work environment. #sorrynotsorryhttps://t.co/1NwCNe3YMD
— Maria A. Moreno (@maria_amoreno) April 19, 2018
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:
We are committed to a strong and healthy workplace for our staff and will not tolerate any inappropriate behavior. @siliconvalleycf believes in accountability and transparency and will share the learnings and actions from the independent investigation. https://t.co/siAHetxl02
— Emmett Carson (@emmettcarson) April 18, 2018
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.