The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is reeling from a crisis of leadership following allegations last week that the organization had allowed a toxic workplace culture to fester for years.
Last week, more than a dozen former employees of the Mountain View-based nonprofit went public with complaints against Mari Ellen Reynolds Loijens, the foundation's No. 2 executive and star fundraiser, alleging that she was an abusive manager who frequently berated her subordinates and made sexually inappropriate remarks.
Loijens tendered her resignation late last week; however, the influential nonprofit is still facing criticism that its top leadership had essentially condoned her behavior for years. Many current and former employees are calling for CEO Emmett D. Carson to step down, saying he was complicit in the oppressive workplace.
On Thursday morning, April 26, the SVCF board of directors announced they were placing Carson on paid administrative leave while they investigate the charges. The action came roughly one week after allegations of abuse first surfaced.
"Emmett Carson needs to go, they have to bring in a new CEO with a different style of management," said Sarah Lorraine Goodman, the nonprofit's former digital marketing lead. "The longer he stays, the more damage it'll do to SVCF as a brand."
The foundation wields a great deal of clout. SVCF's 150-person staff is headquartered in a Latham Street office building, but its role is global. Considered the largest organization of its kind, the community foundation has grown to be a vital funding source for hundreds of nonprofits, NGOs and other organizations. In roughly a decade, SVCF has seen meteoric growth, most recently reporting more than $13 billion in assets, much of it coming from donors from the tech sector.
Goodman joined SVCF in March of 2014 with the task of redesigning the organization's social media strategy, a job that put her a couple levels beneath Loijens. From her first day, she got the distinct impression that Loijens didn't like her. Drafts of her work proposals came back from Loijens' desk covered in disparaging comments, like "this is a waste of my time." Loijens never seemed to hold back in giving her a verbal dressing-down, almost always doing it publicly, to maximize the embarrassment, Goodman said.
Goodman remembers the big day, after a few months on the job, when she was supposed to present her marketing plan to some of the foundation's executives. She didn't get through the first presentation slide before Loijens cut her off and called it a failure. She then berated Goodman for botching simple instructions.
Other directors at the meeting rose to Goodman's defense, saying she had explicitly followed Loijens' own directions, she said. They even pointed to her own emails as proof.
In the end, it didn't matter. Loijens was undeterred and her harassment continued, Goodman said. That's when it was clear that her days were numbered at SVCF. Soon after, she was meeting weekly with human resources staff to figure out some way to continue her job, Goodman said. It was abundantly clear that staying at the nonprofit meant she was the one who was supposed to adjust to Loijens' behavior.
"One HR person told me: 'You need to realize that Mari Ellen isn't going anywhere; she's staying here. Either you figure out how to work with her, or you have to leave," she said.
After nine months, Goodman was asked to resign. HR workers advised her to tell her co-workers she was going back to graduate school, rather than being terminated.
Goodman met with Carson for an exit interview, and she laid out all her troubles with Loijens' bullying. Before shaking her hand, Carson told her he would look into it.
Four years later, following an expose about Loijens in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Carson and SVCF are in damage control mode as more stories of workplace abuse have emerged. On his Twitter feed, Carson emphasized a zero-tolerance policy toward inappropriate conduct, and he pledged to take "whatever actions are necessary" to move forward.
Carson and SVCF did not respond to questions submitted by the Voice. Loijens also did not respond to calls seeking comment.
As the allegations surfaced last week, Foundation officials announced that an independent law firm would be retained to investigate employees' concerns.
Privately, in a letter to the SVCF donors, Carson disputed some aspects of the complaints, saying they were focused on selective information. Most employees were content, he said, pointing to surveys showing that 85 percent of the SVCF staff felt respected by their supervisors. In 2017, the staff turnover rate was 26 percent, higher than average, he admitted.
"The allegations are serious and of great concern to me," he wrote. "We will continue to focus on improving our workplace and building the culture so we continue to make a positive impact in our communities."
Multiple employees told the Voice that annual turnover for Loijens' department was actually as high as 40 percent. They also disputed the survey statistics that Carson cited, pointing out he declined to mention that the same report showed only 33 percent of staffers felt they could give honest feedback without consequences.
The new revelations of staff disapproval have apparently sparked some concern that donors could revolt. On Monday, Los Altos Hills entrepreneur Steve Kirsch wrote an open letter in the San Jose Mercury News expressing disbelief that workplace abuse had continued for 11 years with no knowledge by top leaders. He threatened to take his future donations elsewhere unless the "failure of leadership" was corrected.
After a Monday board meeting, the nonprofit announced it was widening its investigation into the workplace abuse by hiring a second law firm to assist.
On Wednesday, April 25, an anonymous letter claiming to be from 65 current SVCF employees was sent to the nonprofit's board. The letter called for Carson and Vice President Daiva Natochy to be immediately suspended, and for the investigation to be expanded to include their role in the alleged abuse. Soon afterward, the board received a second letter signed by 25 former employees calling for Carson's immediate termination.
In a meeting Thursday, April 26, the foundation's 18-member board of directors voted to place Carson on paid administrative leave until the investigation is completed. A former board member, Greg Avis, was appointed interim CEO.
Several former SVCF staffers told the Voice that they didn't find Carson to be credible, saying he seemed to allow Loijens' dysfunctional behavior as long as she continued to attract substantial donors.
Internally at the foundation, around 2013 Loijens was reportedly credited for landing two colossal donations of Facebook stock from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. Today, those stock donations are valued at about $5.76 billion. In 2014, she also reportedly took credit for a $500 million contribution from GoPro founder Nick Woodman.
With those immense deals attached to her name, Loijens seemed practically "untouchable" at the organization, Goodman said.
"Everybody was flabbergasted and amazed that she could score this huge fish," Goodman said. "As long as she was able to bring in that level of money, it was clear that Emmett Carson was never going to get rid of her."
But would those donations have come in without Loijens? Some former co-workers believe Loijens' golden touch was a myth. As more tech companies began going public after the mid-2000s, there was a flood of newly-minted tycoons looking to do something with their windfall.
SVCF's predecessor, the Community Foundation Silicon Valley, made it a practice to tailor its donor outreach for tech leaders, especially those who would be interested in a large tax write-off for a charitable cause. Many donors came forward without much coaxing, said Sue Covey, who served as Community Foundation Silicon Valley director of planned giving.
"The big gifts that came into the organization had nothing to do with Loijens, but because of her position, she got the credit for it," Covey said. "She took credit for everything that came in, even though a lot of it didn't initiate with her."
Loijens joined the Community Foundation in 2004, making her Covey's direct superior. Even back then, she showed similar behavior to what is described in the new allegations, Covey said. To donors and her superiors, Loijens could turn on the charm, but to anyone in a subordinate position, she held them "completely in disdain," she said. Other described her erratic behavior as like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Covey resigned in 2005, a decision she attributes "100 percent" to Loijens' behavior. Like other former employees who were interviewed, Covey said she began warning others in the nonprofit field against working with Loijens or SVCF.
A difficult merger
In 2006, talks began for a merger between the San Jose-based Community Foundation Silicon Valley and the San Mateo Peninsula Community Foundation, a deal promoted as a way to expand philanthropic reach and donor base. Carson was picked to head the newly formed Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and even before the merger was finalized he selected Loijens as his No. 2, naming her his chief of staff. Some employees believe Carson found Loijens to be useful as an enforcer, the bad cop to his good cop.
It was a difficult transition, said Patti Pace, SVCF's former corporate philanthropy manager. All the staff were stripped of their titles and had to reapply for their jobs. Many senior professionals were ousted and replaced with younger rookies.
Pace recalls an all-staff meeting at the Mountain View office that Carson called around 2007 to address the early complaints being leveled at Loijens. It was an uncomfortable meeting, and Carson signaled that Loijens was operating with his full support. Pace will never forget what he told the staff: "When Mari Ellen speaks, I speak."
Former employees who had worked under Loijens, going back more than a decade, say that her bullying was an open secret among nonprofit professionals, but no one wanted to speak out because it seemed like career suicide.
"It was obvious she was abusing her power, but then everyone knew that you do not complain about Mari Ellen," Pace said. "What resulted is the SVCF lost a lot of really forward-thinking, innovative people who could have made major contributions."
At least one complaint did reverberate outside of SVCF's walls. In 2014, Loijens' former executive assistant Rui Zhou filed a lawsuit alleging she was unfairly terminated.
In her allegations, Zhou said she had years of "glowing" performance reviews from Loijens up until she went on maternity leave. Two days after returning to work, she immediately received her first negative evaluation from Loijens. Two more bad reviews followed, each giving little explanation for the poor marks except for Zhou's "calendar management" skills, according to court records.
SVCF later settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum. Zhou and her attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Just weeks before the lawsuit, a complaint was made to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging Loijens had a pattern of discrimination against female employees who became mothers, and she had forced them out of their jobs.
Pace and other former employees say there were at least two other lawsuits against Loijens for harassment, but these cases could not be located in the Santa Clara County Court records system. Past records are available only three years back at the state Fair Employment and Housing Department.
Loijens' division, the development department, reportedly became like a revolving door as people quickly burned out after working with her. Pace remembers a young administrator being brought to tears on her first day of work after being rebuked by Loijens.
Internally, much of the staff made it a practice to try and avoid Loijens' attention. A code word, "muskrat" was used to signal when she was verging on sexually inappropriate comments, according to a source who declined to be named. The development director position became particularly notorious, and new hires would routinely resign after less than a year in the job.
One recruiter told Pace that he could only hire people from out of town who didn't know Loijens. Over the years, the nonprofit's Glassdoor review page filled with warnings to job seekers that SVCF wasn't worth the hardship.
Several employees who were interviewed for this story say they suffered health and mental issues as a result of their experience at SVCF. Goodman, who worked only nine months at the nonprofit, says she needed therapy and couldn't work for more than two years afterward. One former SVCF employee described having post-traumatic stress disorder for years after she left.
"It was a very toxic environment and the worst employment situation I've ever had in my career," she said. The former employee declined to be named because she said she had signed a non-disparagement agreement.
In the coming days, the law firms heading the investigation will set up an anonymous reporting system available to anyone not currently employed at SVCF.
Editor's note: Bill Johnson, CEO and President of Embarcadero Media, which publishes the Voice, served on the Silicon Valley Community Foundation Board of Directors from 2004 to 2011.