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Foundation exec resigns after reports of workplace misconduct

Former Silicon Valley Community Foundation employees allege an environment of fear and intimidation

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation's second-in-command has resigned amid allegations she sexually harassed and abused co-workers, the nonprofit organization announced on Thursday afternoon.

Mari Ellen Reynolds Loijens -- the nonprofit's chief business, development and brand officer -- resigned Thursday, April 19, after an investigative article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy was published April 18. It detailed former co-workers' reports that Loijens created a "toxic culture" of bullying, embarrassing sexual remarks and oppressive office behavior that has led to significant employee turnover.

The Chronicle spoke to 19 former community foundation employees who described similar experiences with her management style. They alleged Loijens at times screamed at and berated employees.

Word of the Chronicle story and Loijens' resignation spread quickly among many former employees. Some told the Palo Alto Weekly their experience at the foundation was particularly traumatic because they were passionate about their charitable work and tried to stay on despite the alleged mistreatment.

"I loved that job; I loved that team. I felt like we were really doing something important and I wanted to be a part of it," said Rebecca Dupras, who worked at the foundation for three years as a director of planned giving and then as vice president of development.

But the alleged abuse nearly caused her to have a nervous breakdown, she said. Dupras refused to treat co-workers badly, she said, promptly Loijens to allegedly tell her that she was bad at her job because she didn't have any human resources complaints from her staff.

"It happened every day. It happened so much that you tried to normalize the behavior. I felt powerless to protect the people who worked under me," she said.

More than once, Loijens allegedly made embarrassing remarks about her, including in front of staff. In a room with a group of directors one day, Dupras said, she was feeling nauseated.

Loijens allegedly said, "Look out, you're pretty good-looking. You should make sure you're not pregnant. You could be pregnant," according to Dupras.

Many other employees have similar tales.

On Glassdoor.com, a workplace-rating website, former Silicon Valley Community Foundation employees described a company that had talented, dedicated hard-working employees whose emotional and mental health declined because the culture was "constantly instilling fear in employees."

"I'm just so, so happy that she's finally accountable," a former executive told the Weekly. The employee asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. "It was horrible -- horrible. It was absolutely toxic. There were nights I would go home crying and even sought therapy. Eventually I did leave."

"People want to remain anonymous because they fear retribution -- that's how toxic it was," said another former executive who left just a year after Loijens was hired. "She was untouchable in her job. She seemed impervious to the people around her."

The creation of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation -- the result of a merger of two local community foundations -- exacerbated the problems, former employees said.

"With the merger, it got to be: Who's the big dog in the room? The hubris got bigger than the mission," said another executive who asked for anonymity. "I felt she looked at who was out there to go do battle with."

As second in command below CEO and President Emmett Carson, Loijens wielded a tremendous amount of power, multiple former employees said. Dupras said she could not believe that Carson did not know what was going on.

"He sat there on the same floor with us every day," she said.

Asked to address that comment, Carson issued a written statement: “As we have firmly stated, SVCF does not tolerate inappropriate conduct of any kind, and we investigate all claims of misconduct. SVCF immediately launched a third party independent investigation led by Thompson Hine LLP upon hearing these allegations of sexual harassment for the first time, with the exception of a 2008 claim cited in the Chronicle of Philanthropy story, which was investigated at that time. We are committed to taking whatever actions are necessary at the conclusion of the investigation.”

He also gave a more detailed response on April 17 on the foundation's blog site, which states in part: "I am fully committed to further cultivating and ensuring a safe workplace and a culture that is inclusive and open. In this regard, we will share our learnings and actions at the conclusion of the investigation.

"While it is disheartening to hear these allegations and criticisms of our organization, I could not be prouder of our employees and the dedication they continue to show our communities across Silicon Valley, California, our country and the world. It is their collective passion for doing good that makes SVCF a remarkable organization."

Carson released a brief statement on April 19 announcing Loijens' departure: "Mari Ellen Loijens has resigned from Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The investigation into alleged incidents of misconduct will continue, and at the conclusion of that investigation SVCF will take whatever action is necessary to preserve the integrity of our organization. SVCF remains committed to further cultivating a safe and welcoming workplace," he wrote.

Loijens, 48, joined the former Community Foundation Silicon Valley in 2004, which merged with the Peninsula Community Foundation in 2007 and was re-created as Silicon Valley Community Foundation. She headed up corporate responsibility, development, strategic partnerships in the eastern region, and marketing and communications, according to her company biography.

The nonprofit has raised more than $8.3 billion under Loijens and now has $13.5 billion in assets under management, putting it at the top of all community foundations, including top grant makers such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Loijen's development team handles donor-advised funds, which account for approximately 83 percent of the foundation’s assets, according to the Chronicle.

Such funds aren't raised in the normal fashion of seeking donors, one high-ranking former executive told the Weekly. Rather, many in the tech industry who have recently gained tremendous wealth look for places to put their money as a tax write-off. The foundation is frequently approached by the donor's attorney.

Her credentials include working as director of development at Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties and as director of major gifts and planned giving at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, among other organizations. She was honored by the Silicon Valley Business Journal with a 2012 Women of Influence award.

Loijens could not be reached for comment on the allegations.

Editor's note: Bill Johnson, CEO and president of Embarcadero Media, which operates PaloAltoOnline.com, served on the Silicon Valley Community Foundation Board of Directors from 2004 to 2011. The board was not informed of any allegations of misconduct during that time, according to Johnson.

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Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2018 at 8:58 am

Michael G. Stogner is a registered user.

[Post removed; please stick to the topic; there are other threads related to the topic you're addressing.]


11 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 20, 2018 at 10:26 am

Carson - "...will take whatever actions are necessary..."
Hopefully including his replacement. No way the #1 didn't have knowledge. Also board members should have know about this as it was going on for years. Sounds like time for a new CEO and some board replacements.


4 people like this
Posted by grabbers
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 20, 2018 at 5:13 pm

[Post removed because it addresses another comment that has been removed]


2 people like this
Posted by Pundit
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 21, 2018 at 8:45 am

Sadly, charities are not immune to the bad.This giant was created by tech money (big donors include Mark Zuckerberg who may be the largest SVCF donor and who SVCF claims working behind the scenes for in Newark). SVCF is no different from the VC and tech community that built it. I would never trust placing my charity money to SVCF and am so disappointed and disgusted by the revelations. After all, SVCF was supposed to be in the doing good business. Apparently, it was just in business.


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