The Human Society’s Cautionary #MeToo Tale

(Photo: The Human Society Headquarters in Washington, DC. Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

As we have previously discussed on Nonprofit Pro Media, the #MeToo movement has pushed sexual harassment at the workplace squarely into the spotlight. Across a number of industries, perpetrators whose behavior went unchecked for decades are now facing accountability for abusing their power. The nonprofit sector, however, has yet to fully reckon with its own culture of sexual harassment.

This was painfully on display last month when the Humane Society bungled its response to credible allegations that the organization’s now former CEO Wayne Pacelle had sexually harassed female employees.

Pacelle — who had helmed the widely respected animal welfare organization for over a decade — purportedly force-kissed a former intern and requested that a female employee watch him masterbate. The accusations against him, which include other alarming behaviors, extend back to 2005.

In a shocking move, the Human Society’s board decided to abruptly scuttle the investigation into the allegations out of deference for Pacelle. Rick Bernthal, the chairman of the board, explained the reasoning behind the decision in a statement:

Many of the allegations were explosive in nature, and reading or hearing about them is a shock to anyone. It was to us, too. But when we sifted through the evidence presented, we did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence.

Despite defending the board’s vote, Bernthal acknowledged that three of Pacelle’s accusers received severance packages upon leaving the organization, qualifying that “there was no motivation . . . to silence women.”

The backlash was swift; volunteers and staff spoke out, and high-level associates announced that they would not renew contracts. Not long after the upheaval, Pacelle stepped down.

The end result — the departure of a controversial CEO — occurred despite the board’s efforts to thwart change. The effort to safeguard Pacelle only made matters worse. Seven board members quit in protest over the initial decision to end the investigation, and the organization’s name has been dragged through the mud. Now, the Human Society’s top levels are in disarray and it has a massive public relations disaster on its hands. This mess underscores that nonprofits suffer from leaders who abuse power not unlike their for-profit counterparts.

Nonprofit leaders: do what is right. Donors: demand that those whose actions are ill-reputed be held accountable. Heed the cultural moment and value your workers rather than digging in your heels for the sake of familiarity. Your organization’s success depends on it.

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