Since its inception in 2001, the Marguerite Casey Foundation has dedicated its resources to battling inequality and racial injustice in the United States. The Seattle-based institution broke away from many of the tired grant-making practices that keep nonprofits stagnant by offering no-strings-attached funding to organizations led by women and people of color. This forward-thinking approach helps foster sustainable grassroots organizations, with multi-year grants enabling organizations to make impactful capital investments, cultivate passionate and well-compensated workforces, and experiment with bold programming ideas.

Despite the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s longstanding commitment to social justice issues and its progressive grant-making practices, the organization has its share of critics.

Former employees have accused the organization’s CEO Luz Vega-Marquis of creating a hostile, toxic work environment. Anonymous accounts posted on the workplace review site Glassdoor describe Vega-Marquis as “a tyrant, pitting her employees against each other, [and] lacking in personal emotional control.” She allegedly treats grantees in a “patronizing” manner and oversees a “capricious, punitive management and culture.”

When a former employee anonymously shared these experiences with the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s board, they circled the wagons around their high-performing CEO. One board member called former employees “disloyal” for speaking out about their time working at the foundation.

Seemingly unrelated to the accusations, Vega-Marquis has announced that she will step down as CEO in 2020.

As nonprofit strategist and consultant Pratichi Shah told The Chronicle of Philanthropy, some philanthropic institutions have “a tendency to substitute mission for culture.” In other words, so long as an institution succeeds at its mission, other considerations—such as the just treatment of workers—become secondary.

This scenario was on full display last year at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Despite allegations that the foundation’s chief fundraiser verbally abused staff by using sexually and racially charged language, its leadership looked the other way due to excellent fundraising results. By the time the foundation parted ways with the abusive fundraiser and the CEO who enabled her, it had received torrents of bad press and its reputation had suffered considerably.

There is little to suggest that Vega-Marquis’ management style amounts to the sort of abuse committed by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s former leadership. Her harsh approach to management, however, may have a lasting impact on the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s ability to attract fresh talent. Important positions have remained empty for over a year, which may be the result of the institution’s high turnover rate and reputation.

Treating staff compassionately is ethical in itself. It also promotes organizational growth and stability.

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