The Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Toxic Workplace Culture
(Image: Creative Commons, Brian Solis, www.briansolis.com and bub.blicio.us)
The Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) has ascended to the highest ranks of the nation’s philanthropy sector. Its success stems largely from Silicon Valley’s immense wealth; SVCF is the primary recipient of charitable giving from the biggest players in the tech industry. Supported by tech moguls including Mark Zuckerberg, Reed Hastings, Paul Allen, and Jack Dorsey, SVCF has become the third largest foundation in the United States, larger than the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.
But the foundation—which commands $13.5 billion in assets—is in hot water. A damning report by the Chronicle of Philanthropy details the abusive behavior of SVCF’s former chief fundraiser Mari Ellen Loijens.
According to a number of current and former SVCF staff members, Loijens oversaw a toxic workplace rife with verbal abuse, threats, and racism. She has since stepped down, and the foundation’s CEO Emmett Devon Carson is currently on paid leave.
The revelations are shocking. Loijens referred to a black employee as a “slave.” She threatened to kill an employee for meeting with a donor by herself. She subjected staff to sexual innuendos and insults.
One employee claims to have approached Carson about Loijens’ erratic and inappropriate behavior, only to be rebuffed by the CEO. “He was definitely not open to a conversation about her at all,” the employee told The New York Times.
This lack of accountability is too common in the nonprofit sector. SVCF leadership did not reprimand or remove Loijens because of her fundraising prowess. If she continued to satisfy the board while breaking fundraising records to support the foundation’s constituents, why change anything?
There are, of course, long-term ramifications to these malpractices and SVCF leadership’s failure to take action. By sacrificing its commitment to ensuring a safe and healthy workplace for all of its employees, SVCF has dealt itself a terrible blow. The foundation’s ranking on Glassdoor (a website tracking worker reviews of employers) is abysmal. Up-and-coming fundraising talent will set their sights on large foundations without a track record of employee abuse before settling for a job at SVCF.
The scandal has also tarnished the foundation’s ability to pursue its mission to “strengthen the common good locally and throughout the world.” On its website, SVCF lists “diversity,” “respect,” and “public accountability” among its values. These qualities, however, were completely absent from Loijens and Carson’s leadership. Their insular bubble at the top of the organization allowed a culture antithetical to the organization’s very principles to fester.
Foundations and nonprofits cannot simultaneously advocate for the public good while treating their staffs poorly. Similar fundraising cultures exist across the country, showcasing what happens when an organization loses the proper balance between revenue generation, serving its constituents, and nurturing a positive work culture.