Nonprofit Chronicles

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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.

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Emmett Carson: The end has come

  1. Local Yokel says:

    Thank you for bringing needed light to an organization many whispered about. How about shining the same light on the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, another well-publicized nonprofit with a larger than life and well paid CEO?

    Like

  2. Katarina Köster says:

    Thank you, Marc and Megan!!

    Like

  3. Anonymous says:

    Having left a longtime job due to bullying at another nonprofit in the valley, I’ve been watching this story carefully. When will nonprofit boards recognize that organizational “results” include the well-being of those who work for the organization? It is too easy for a CEO to cover up poor or toxic behavior, running board meetings and interactions with a smile. I hope that SVCF will recover well and thoroughly from this setback, and go on to accomplish great things.

    Like

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