A Star Performer Created a ‘Toxic Culture’ at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Say Insiders - The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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Emmett Carson, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation CEO, says an independent investigation is underway into charges its top fundraiser was an abusive manager. “We are committed to a strong and healthy workplace for our staff and will not tolerate any inappropriate behavior,” he says.

Update April 19 at 6:20 p.m. Eastern time: See an update to this article on our site.

Not long ago, the actress, author, feminist, and activist Rose McGowan — who said last year she had been raped by Hollywood movie executive Harvey Weinstein — visited the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to consider opening a donor-advised account. A disgruntled staff member told her to look at the foundation's reviews on Glassdoor, a website where workers anonymously rate companies and their management.

The reviews there are abysmal, citing high turnover, a "toxic culture," "lots of scapegoating and blaming of staff," and claims of sexual harassment.

"The reviews caused me to not do business with them," McGowan says.

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Rose McGowan, who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, decided not to open a donor-advised fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation after an employee suggested she look at the organization’s negative reviews on the Glassdoor site.

It was a rare setback for the fast-growing Silicon Valley Community Foundation. With $13.5 billion in assets under management, the foundation has eclipsed all other community foundations, as well as such iconic grant makers as Ford and Rockefeller.

That growth has come at a human price, former employees of the foundation say. They 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.

This week, the community foundation said it has hired Thompson Hine, a national law firm based in Cleveland, to "do a full investigation of these claims and the alleged behavior of Mari Ellen Loijens."

The investigation began after the Chronicle presented Emmett Carson, the foundation's high-profile, charismatic CEO, with allegations against Loijens that included claims 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. Sarah Hall, a Washington, D.C., based senior counsel at Thompson Hine and a former federal prosecutor, has begun scheduling interviews with former employees referred by the foundation's human-resources department.

Loijens did not respond to emails or social-media messages. Sue McAllister, a foundation spokeswoman, said: "Mari Ellen is not available to provide comment." Carson declined to be interviewed to discuss the scope of the investigation or to say whether Loijens will continue to work while the investigation unfolds.

On Twitter, Carson said: "We are committed to a strong and healthy workplace for our staff and will not tolerate any inappropriate behavior. @siliconvalleycf believes in accountability and transparency and will share the learnings and actions from the independent investigation."

'Oppressive' Management Style

Well-educated and polished, Loijens, who is 48, has built close ties to wealth advisers in Silicon Valley since 2004, when she joined a predecessor foundation called the Community Foundation Silicon Valley. (It merged with the Peninsula Community Foundation in 2007.) Loijens has deep experience working with pre-IPO stock, real-estate, cryptocurrency, and other complex assets. She is, by most accounts, an accomplished fundraiser.

Her management skills, by contrast, are lacking. The Chronicle has during the last few months interviewed 19 former employees of the community foundation who describe their experience working for Loijens in strikingly similar terms. Most declined to be identified, saying they did not want to attract unwanted attention from current or future employers. But nearly all said that working for Loijens was unlike any work experience they'd had.

"Without a doubt, it was the worst. Not even close," says Daniel Hoebeke, a veteran fundraiser who left the community foundation after just five months back in 2008. Loijens, he says, demeaned people in public. "Her management style was just oppressive."

Jennifer Wood, a former director of individual giving at the foundation, says: "It was not uncommon to hear Mari Ellen suddenly screaming at the top of her lungs, berating one of my colleagues about how stupid they were."

"Mari Ellen created an environment where no one felt supported," says Elizabeth Dressel, an estate-planning lawyer who spent about a year working for Loijens.

And Catherine Kelliher, who's now a senior donor-relations officer at the San Francisco Foundation, declined an interview but said in an email that "it is a very toxic work environment there."

High Turnover

Former employees say senior executives of the foundation, including Carson, allowed Loijens's unprofessional behavior to go on for too long.

"It was well-known among all of SVCF leadership that Emmett did not entertain anyone complaining about Mari Ellen," says Rebecca Dupras, a former vice president for development. "Anytime I tried to bring it up with Emmett, he immediately changed the subject. As a CEO, he either knew or should have known. He should have asked questions, particularly as he saw the turnover in her division and saw the exit interviews from staff."

Another former executive describes it as implausible that Carson did not know Loijens's behavior was egregious and driving employees away. Loijens was given an executive coach recently, a sign that her issues were widely known.

"I would be shocked if he didn't know," says the former executive. "He always prided himself on understanding where the organization was. He micromanaged, to a certain degree, in certain areas."

The former foundation executive pointed to turnover among vice presidents who report to Loijens as one example of the churn she has generated. The foundation is on its fourth vice president for development and its third vice president for corporate responsibility in five years. The former vice president for marketing left in January, and the position remains unfilled. Loijens's behavior has spurred turnover at other levels of the organization, too, according to former foundation employees interviewed by the


. Last month,  three members of the development team quit within days of one another and without new jobs lined up.

The community foundation says that 73 people have left since January 1, 2016, out of a total of about 140.  It says high turnover is typical at nonprofits, particularly among fundraisers and in Silicon Valley. It also says that the average tenure of the employees who have left during the past two years is two years and three months, which is similar to large Silicon Valley companies, including Apple and Google.

When asked if he was aware of Loijens's behavior, Carson said by email: "We do not tolerate inappropriate conduct of any kind at SVCF, and we investigate all claims of misconduct and take action."

Expertise, Raises, and Promotions

In recent years, Loijens has been rewarded by the foundation with a series of raises and promotions. During 2016, the most recent year for which the foundation filed an IRS Form 990, Loijens was paid a salary of $273,475, retirement benefits and deferred compensation of $138,250, and other benefits of 21,453, for a total of $433,178. Five years earlier, she was paid $209,077.

The fund's assets have also grown fast during that period — from $8 billion to $13.5 billion. While the wealth generated by the Bay Area's technology industry has driven the growth, so has Loijens's development team, which brings in the donor-advised funds that account for about 83 percent of the foundation's assets.

Loijens, whose title is chief business, development, and brand officer, now oversees about 40 people in the foundation's departments of corporate responsibility, strategic partnerships, marketing and communications, and development, her longtime specialty. She sits on the boards of several grant-making organizations housed at the community foundation, including one led by Cari Tuna and her husband, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.

A  graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the former president of the Junior League of San Jose, Loijens, who is married, moves easily among the Bay Area wealthy. She displays her designer clothes, shoes, handbags, and jewelry on an Instagram feed that she describes as "my fun place to play with fashion and other personal passions." (The feed was just made private.) She's active, too, in professional associations, sharing her fundraising knowledge with others.

She is, by some accounts, a good teacher. A planned-giving specialist, who requested anonymity, is the only former employee the Chronicle interviewed who enjoyed working for her, saying: "I would describe her as one of the best bosses I've ever had. She's very good at developing people professionally." Others, including her critics, acknowledge her strengths. "She can be very charming," Hoebeke says. "Her knowledge base is fabulous."  Another former staff member says: "As terrible as Mari Ellen can be, she's also brilliant. I tried to learn as much as I could while I was there."

More typical is the assessment of a former senior executive at the foundation, who asked not to be named: "It's a culture where basic human respect is not a priority. … Taking people to task in a very public way, in a very crude way, with the goal of humiliation, was the status quo. So was bringing employees to tears over a small performance issue."

Loijens was a poor listener, other staff members say. "She squashed insight. She squashed input. It was smothering," says a colleague who left the foundation not long ago.  Another says: "We tried to structure team meetings so she wouldn't be there because if she was there, the meeting would be about how she was feeling that day. She dictated."

Sexual Comments

Several  former employees say Loijens made sexual comments that made them uncomfortable. Once, while taking a new employee out after work, Loijens began "talking about vibrators," according to Elizabeth Dressel, the estate-planning lawyer. Dupras, the former vice president, says: "She made a lot of inappropriate comments about how people looked and how they dressed."

At a staff meeting in 2017, Milton Speid, who had just been hired to lead the foundation's East Coast office, mentioned that he was going to meet with a former staff member who had left that year. "You better watch out for her. She's horny, and you're just her type," Loijens said, according to people at the meeting, including  Charles "Chuck" Brown, a former development officer.  "To say that in front of a group of subordinates, including our new vice president, was just unacceptable," Brown says. Another former development officer says: "The lewd comments were nonstop."

A former fundraiser says Loijens "made inappropriate sexually charged comments to me" and that many years ago at a party after work "she came up to me and said, ‘You're so hot. Do you want to make out?' " The incident came to the attention of human relations, which assured the employee that she would be protected — but required her to continue to report to Loijens. Their relationship grew so chilly and awkward that the woman left the foundation without another job; she says she spoke to Carson about the situation.

During this period, so uncomfortable were some employees with the sex talk that they came up with a word of warning — muskrat — that they told Loijens they would say out loud when they felt she had crossed a line. "She thought it was funny, but she was grossly inappropriate," says a former fundraiser. "We had a picture of a muskrat on the wall. You can't make that up."

Consumed With Growth

Virtually all of the former staff members agreed Loijens can be withering in her criticism. A former fundraiser, who has had an otherwise successful career, says she was told: "You can't do anything right." Loijens told a former vice president that she didn't push people hard enough and that a sign of her softness was the absence of complaints against her with HR. This vice president says: "She was just a bully. There is no other way to put it."

The Glassdoor ratings and reviews, while unscientific, paint a similar picture. Only 16 percent of the 42 people who posted reviews of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation say they would recommend it to a friend. Foundations and major nonprofits, with very few exceptions — the American Red Cross is one — are usually recommended by more than 50 percent of those posting reviews, and many are much higher.

All of this has affected the reputation of the foundation among Bay Area fundraisers. "Due to the toxic nature of the work culture, I have discouraged many good people from considering jobs there," says a former vice president, by email. "The high turnover level in certain departments says it all. They have a talent problem."

Former staff members say Loijens's fundraising prowess allowed her to get away with treating people badly. Her value to the organization, they say, includes the deep knowledge she has developed over the years about how to value complex assets such as artwork, real estate, and especially stock in privately held companies that can bring significant tax benefits to donors when they give it away. Donors who give appreciated assets to a nonprofit need not pay capital-gains taxes, and they can take the appreciated value of the asset as a tax deduction.

Insiders say, for example, that Loijens helped engineer a gift of shares in GoPro, the portable-camera company, from co-founders Nicholas and Jill Woodman, who eventually donated $500 million to their donor-advised account in 2014, when GoPro sold shares to the public. Loijens also sits on the board of the community foundation's real-estate trust, which manages gifts and subsequent sales of real estate.

"Accepting complex and unusual assets is part of the DNA of SVCF," Loijens is quoted as saying in a foundation news release. "Donors choose SVCF as a trusted partner with the experience to sit at the table with their IPO lawyers, bankers, the company's lawyers and CFO, and so on, without disrupting the business transaction."

Several former staff members say Carson and Loijens were consumed by their desire to grow the foundation, recruiting donors from San Francisco, which has its own community foundation, and from the East Coast, where it opened a development office in 2017.

A former staff member says: "Emmett values asset growth at the foundation above all other measures, and she is the head of development. There has been a lot of growth in assets there — she gets credit."

Of course, the foundation's growth has enabled it to increase its impact on Silicon Valley and elsewhere. The foundation awarded $1.3 billion to nonprofits in 2017, and it has granted $5.6 billion in its 11-year life to nonprofits that "share our vision of addressing the most difficult challenges facing our communities," Carson says.

Megan O'Neil contributed to this article.

Update: Mari Ellen Loijens has resigned.