Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

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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Last night, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published a long story about the Silicon Valley Community Foundation that I wrote with help from Megan O’Neil, the news editor at the Chronicle.

The headline:

A Star Performer Created a ‘Toxic Culture’ at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Say Insiders

An investigation is looking into reports of bullying, sexual comments, and an oppressive office culture….

This afternoon, Loijens resigned, the foundation has confirmed. That was fast. It is not and should not be the end of this sad story.

The Chronicle story is based on interviews with 19 former employees of the community foundation, which, with $13.5bn assets under management, is bigger than the Ford Foundation. Those ex-staffers “accuse Mari Ellen Loijens, the foundation’s top fundraiser, of engaging in emotionally abusive and sexually inappropriate behavior, and they use words like ‘toxic’ and ‘terrible’ to describe the workplace over which she presides,” the story says.

This blogpost is about the story behind this story. It explains the challenges of reporting on a big foundation like the SVCF, and points to problems in the way Emmett Carson, the foundation’s CEO, has responded to the allegations.

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Jeanne Manford, a founder of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays), carries a sign at a 1972 Gay Liberation Day parade. She is interviewed on Making Gay History. Credit: Les Carr. Courtesy: PFLAG

Not all that long ago–during my lifetime, in any event–every institution of US society was arrayed against gay and lesbian Americans. Local police. Federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. Private employers. Educators. Hollywood, and the newspapers. Churches, of course, and synagogues who told gay people that they were sinners. Worst of all, perhaps, the psychologists and psychiatrists who told them they were perverts and deviants, and set out to cure them with shock treatment, drugs, castrations and lobotomies. So much for the idea of liberty and justice for all.

Most of that is history, thank goodness, and the stories of people who made it so are told in a wonderful podcast called Making Gay History, which recently wrapped up its third season. Eric Marcus, an author and journalist, began work on the podcast in 2015, during the waning Obama years, but Making Gay History turns out to be perfectly suited for this dismal Trumpian moment: It is illuminating and inspiring, a welcome reminder that change happens, sometimes quickly, when people push hard enough for it.

The podcast features interviews with pioneers of the gay rights movement, some little-known or forgotten, including Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the US; Frank Kameny, who fought an 18-year battle with the US government after being fired from his job at the US Army Map Service in 1957 for being a homosexual; and trans rights activist and Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera.

“These people fought for their rights at a time that was far more difficult than our own,” Marcus, 59, told me, when we spoke by phone last week. “They provided a roadmap. They set examples for us. Their stories are inspiring.” Continue reading

downloadUntil recently, Al Cantor and I had never met. We connected on Twitter,  traded emails, talked by phone and enjoyed our interchanges. Al has spent more than three decades in the nonprofit world, as executive director of an agency helping at-risk New Hampshire boys, as an executive at a community foundation, and as vice president of a community loan fund that provided financing for people with low incomes. He started his own consulting firm in 2012. I spent four decades as a reporter covering politics, media and business before starting to write about philanthropy and nonprofits in 2015. Al and I share common values, but recently Al wrote that he had come to believe that “we’re the Yin and Yang of charitable cynicism: everything that I distrust, you embrace; and everything that I embrace, you distrust.” Really? Let’s see:

Marc: What got us going, Al, was a blogpost where you wrote: “I give from my heart–and my observation is that most other donors do the same thing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.” You’re right that most donors give from the heart. But there’s a lot wrong with that. It’s one reason why we have so many ineffective and inefficient charities. Nonprofits don’t have a financial incentive to measure and report on their impact because donors don’t take the time to try to figure out which nonprofits are really making a difference. It’s odd: Many of us set aside time to research our investments and plan our vacations. We look for reviews and ratings before going to a movie or restaurant. Shouldn’t we be as thoughtful and intentional when giving to charity?

Al: Well, Marc, first, let’s not belittle the role of emotion in making important decisions. The most important decision of my life was getting married to Pat, and I didn’t sit back and do research and analysis before falling in love. (By the way, 35 years later, and we’re doing great.) People connect emotionally with charitable organizations, too — and they develop bonds with their leaders. There’s truly is nothing wrong with that — and it drives vastly more charitable giving (generally, a good thing) than intellectual dissection of financial statements and impact measures.

But second, I’m highly skeptical of nonprofit reviews and ratings. The best-known evaluation outfits, Charity Navigator and Charity Watch, work from offices half a continent away from the organizations they’re judging. They pull information from the charities’ Form 990s, draw conclusions about their efficiency and effectiveness, and slap on a rating — three stars, B-, whatever. (I wrote about this a while back in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.) You have to realize, Marc, that it’s frighteningly easy to game the 990s and make your organization look more efficient than it is. These evaluators presume, too, that spending on “overhead” — administration, fundraising, finance — is by definition bad, and spending on “program” — the direct costs of service delivery — is good. That’s a wildly over-simplistic and dated model for judging nonprofit effectiveness. And finally, whenever evaluators get into measuring actual program impact, they find that it’s nearly impossible, so they fall back on painful jargon about “theories of change” and “logic models” that frankly make my teeth hurt, and that mean virtually nothing in the real world. Continue reading

Rules, they say, are made to be broken.

This is not necessary when it comes to the rules designed to promote transparency in foundations. They’re so ineffectual that there’s no need to break them.

Wealthy donors can and do hide charitable giving for which they claim tax deductions, the investments they hold in tax-advantaged accounts and information about what they pay their professional staff, which is also tax-deductible.

The result is that despite such well-meaning initiatives as Glasspockets and the Fund for Shared Insight, transparency and accountability in the philanthropic sector are on the wane.

Billions of dollars of philanthropic dark money are flowing into so-called donor-advised funds, the black boxes of philanthropy. Private foundations and charities, meantime, have devised their own ways to avoid public scrutiny.

This is a problem for a couple of reasons. First, the money flowing into foundations and nonprofits is tax-subsidized. Donations are tax deductible, as are most earnings from investments. In order to judge whether the tax subsidies are beneficial, people and their elected representatives should know where the money comes from, how it’s managed and where it goes. Second, big-time philanthropy is an exercise of power. The charter school movement, environmental activism, Washington think tanks of every stripe–these are all fueled by charitable dollars. By deploying dark money, the wealthy escape accountability.

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sp001pxHelping the world’s poorest people escape poverty is, in principle, a simple matter: Give them cash! The trouble is, there are too many of them: About 700 million people  more than twice as many people as live in the US — are thought to live on less than $1.90 a day, according to best estimates from the World Bank. Probably the only practical way to end poverty on that scale is with robust economic growth. That will take time.

In the meantime, though, unless we choose to ignore their suffering,  it would be helpful to figure out how governments, foundations, donors and profits should use their wealth to lift the incomes of the poor. Should the wealthy give cash grants, gifts of livestock, low-interest loans, job training or something else to the extreme poor?

It’s an important question. While longer term investments in public goods — roads, ports, education, health care systems, good governance — can help spur economic growth, so can helping poor people be less poor. As Jeremy Shapiro, a founder of nonprofit GiveDirectly, has said: “Poverty alleviation through redistribution–if it acts as a stimulus or engine for human capital–can further economic development.”

Two recent studies — both about nonprofits that I’ve praised on this blog — have got me thinking about short-term poverty alleviation. One is a randomized evaluation from Innovations for Poverty Action, a research and policy nonprofit that often works with development economists, that looked at a “graduation” program run by Village Enterprise in Uganda. The study found that the graduation program–a multi-faceted attempt to improve livelihoods–lifted the consumption, assets, nutrition and self-reported well-being of the poor, and that it did so better than cash alone. The Village Enterprise program included a cash grant of about $100, classes in business practices, two years of mentoring and a savings group that enabled small-scale entrepreneurs to pool their resources. Graduation programs have been well-studied, notably in a landmark 2015 study of six programs that produced encouraging results. Even Nick Kristof wrote about itContinue reading