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:
The SVCF Board issued an important update to our staff earlier today, and we wanted to ensure that our entire community also received this critical information.
The Board of Directors voted to place Emmett D. Carson on paid administrative leave from his role as CEO, President and Board member until further notice while the investigation being led by independent counsel continues. That investigation will be thorough, and the Board remains committed to taking all necessary actions once it has concluded to ensure that the Silicon Valley Community Foundation thrives today and for many years into the future.
As a result of this action, the SVCF Board of Directors is pleased to announce the appointment of Greg Avis to the position of Interim CEO of SVCF. A Founding Board member and prior Chair of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Greg is managing partner of Bangtail Partners, a private invest firm, and a cofounder and former managing director of Summit Partners, one of the nation’s leading private equity and venture capital firms. Greg has also served on the boards of more than 40 public and private companies, including nonprofits Williams College (chair), Cleveland Clinic, ITHAKA, the James Irvine Foundation (chair), MASS MoCA, the National Outdoor Leadership School, New Profit, Opportunity Fund (chair), the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Schwab Charitable Foundation. The board is confident in his ability to steward SVCF through this challenging time and to help keep a keen eye on our forward progression and mission to serve our donors and community.
Additionally, SVCF Board members, Wade W. Loo, David P. Lopez, and Rebecca Guerra, will serve as Special Advisors to Mr. Avis during his interim leadership, providing day-to-day leadership support and counsel. Mr. Loo will focus his work and advice to the Interim CEO on the day-to-day management of the ongoing investigation, and he will oversee communications to address concerns and input from our key stakeholders and from the community at large. Mr. Lopez will focus his work and advice to the Interim CEO on the continued work of the many philanthropic investments and community impact projects to which SVCF’s donors have committed. Ms. Guerra will bring her HR expertise to the organization. The Special Committee of the Board will also work closely with Mr. Avis during this time, along with support from the Chair of our Board, Sam Johnson, and our incoming Chair Dan’l Lewin.
Mr. Avis will be joining the SVCF team on Monday and will host an in-person town hall for all employees that afternoon, along with Mr. Loo, Mr. Lopez, and representatives from the investigation team to share the latest information the status of the investigation.
For individuals who wish to participate in the ongoing investigation, the Boies Schiller Flexner attorneys will set up protocols to share with you on Monday. Individuals not currently associated with SVCF will also have access to our internal anonymous reporting tool, Lighthouse, shortly. We will share an update once that system is live.
My reporting–and what I’ve heard from SVCF people since then–leaves me with little doubt about how things will unfold. Carson knew what was going on, according to numerous insiders. Staff members told him about Loijens’ unprofessional behavior, or they tried to tell him and got the brushoff. The lawyers looking into the foundation will learn that, if they don’t know it already. No one need call upon Sherlock Holmes to solve this mystery.
As Carson himself said in a tweet, perhaps unintentionally, as the story broke:
The SVCF workplace scandal has gotten a lot of attention, as it should. With $13.5bn in assets, it’s by far the largest community foundation in the US. It would be unfortunate, though, if the scandal cast a shadow over the good work done by many at the SVCF, and the good people who work there. Staff members who left because of Loijens and Carson told me that they had wonderful colleagues. I was reminded of that when an anonymous email from a current employee landed in my inbox. Among other things, “Jane Doe” wrote:
Though I’ve only been here for only two years, I have witnessed the toxic culture, the harassment, the culture of blame and fear; but I’ve also witnessed the camaraderie and passion that drives this organization.
Despite the hostile work environment, people stay. And that’s what I really want to focus on—why people stay. I work among 160 smart, empathetic and passionate people. Everyone here is dedicated to making our community a better place, whether it’s by working with companies to build effective corporate responsibility programs, by grant-making and community initiatives that aim to solve problems faced by Bay Area residents, or by providing administrative support to the organization. Everyone is here because they want to make a difference. We love the work we are doing and put our heart and soul into it. All of that is characteristic of the amazing things we accomplish here. In just the two years I’ve been here, we’ve partnered with the 49ers Foundation to address issues of policing in the San Jose community. We’ve brought together philanthropists, thought leaders and policy makers to understand how we can best serve our communities in the rapidly changing tech space and ensure everyone has equal access to new technological advances. We’ve replaced 9,000 children’s books that were lost at the San Jose Public Library and advocated to change policy around the way fines were collected so small lost and late book fines would not prohibit children from using the library and would not negatively affect their parents’ credit scores. Those are just a few of the many things and don’t even touch on what we’ve helped our donors accomplish with their own funds. Even with the toxic culture that prohibited a lot of things from getting done, we’ve managed to do a lot of great work for the community.
People also stay for one another. If there’s one thing I will take away from my experience at SVCF when I move on, it’s lifelong friends. I’ve spoken a lot about the quality of colleagues I work with, but I want to also emphasize the quality of people I work with. People are supportive of one another, and friendly. We respect one another both during and outside of work. We are dear friends and look out for each other; so much so that we do everything we can to support those who strive to get out of these hostile work conditions. I think this is demonstrated by the support we’ve given one another to come forward and speak up about their experiences.
What I would like you to take away from this letter is that SVCF is more than just Emmett Carson and Mari Ellen Loijens. This foundation is made up of individuals who care deeply about the community and have persevered through terrible leadership, navigated the system, and done everything they could to continue to serve the community.
As I’ve written before, foundations are the least accountable institutions of American society. I hope the events at the SVCF will encourage others to take a close look at what foundations do and how they do it. They are too important to be left alone.