Silicon Valley’s $13B nonprofit takes another hit: Toxic culture costs them 3 executives

On Friday, the New York Times published another expose on the “toxic” culture at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a nonprofit that’s quietly grown to $13.5B in assets.

May 14, 2018

On Friday, the New York Times published yet another exposé on the “toxic,” grow-at-all-costs culture at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a Mountain View-based nonprofit that’s quietly grown to $13.5B in assets — larger than both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

Over the past decade, huge gifts given by high-profile founders from Mark Zuckerberg ($1.8B in Facebook stock) to Nick Woodman ($500m in pre-IPO GoPro stock) have made SVCF Silicon Valley’s charity of choice.

But investigations into the abusive behavior of their top fundraiser have left SVCF in a precarious position.

The safeword is “muskrat”

In mid-April, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that SVCF’s top fundraiser, Mari Ellen Loijens, had been emotionally and sexually abusive to employees.

The Chronicle interviewed 19 employees who similarly described their employment under Loijens as “oppressive,” saying she “[screamed] at the top of her lungs” and at one point tried to kiss an employee.

Her transgressions became so frequent that Loijens and employees began to use a mutually agreed-upon safe word, “muskrat,” when Loijens had crossed a line.

Loijens resigned a day after the Chronicle article, and SVCF CEO Emmett Carson hired a law firm to investigate the allegations because he claims he was unaware of her behavior. But employees don’t buy it, saying Carson actively ignored their complaints.

Why didn’t the CEO stop this sooner?

In short, because Loijens was really good at her job.

For a combined $433k a year in salary and benefits, she oversaw the “donor-advised funds” that make up 83% of the foundation’s assets and had unparalleled knowledge of how to optimize donors’ tax benefits.

Sources say that Carson’s “bigger is better” mentality shielded her from criticism, and 65 of SVCF’s near 140 employees have since signed a letter to the board asking for accountability (Carson has been put on paid leave and head of HR Daiva Natochy resigned).

Their next moves will be crucial

Now, everyone’s watching to see what SVCF will do to right the ship — especially donors.

Forbes notes that, because SVCF’s strategy is so donor-focused, if their billionaire beneficiaries decide to take their money and run, SVCF may be up startup creek without a pivot.

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