July 14, 2018; New York Times
In the course of covering some of the more prominent scandals in the nonprofit sector over the past few years, NPQ has noted some marked similarities among the descriptions of some of the organizations’ corporate cultures. The profile of Save the Children UK in Saturday’s New York Times further reinforces those themes.
The piece, “A Crisis Management Guru Bungles a Crisis,” written by David Segal, addresses the drive for growth at play in the organization, leading up to its high profile #MeToo complaints. This is, in the article, largely laid at the feet of its chairman since 2008, Sir Alan Parker, who was previously the head of the Brunswick Group, a PR firm that helps shape corporate reputations. He was known as a master spin doctor—a coach to other executives in crisis—but all of that came to not very much when he declared himself done shortly after the scandal in which he was implicated became public.
The BBC ran a story in March that charged Parker and the organization as a whole with mishandling complaints of sexual harassment and bullying lodged against some of the charity’s senior managers. A petition was soon circulating among staff demanding Parker’s resignation, and the British government’s Charities Commission announced they would run an inquiry into the organization. A week after the inquiry was announced, Parker resigned. It’s here we begin to see similarities in the profile of this organization and those of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) and the Wounded Warrior Project, both of which put such a heavy premium on growth that it sometimes clouded their judgment:
Current and former employees say the charity, under the leadership of Mr. Parker, created an adrenalized culture more suited to a battle-ready business than a charity. They describe a place gripped by a desire to win, with victory defined as raising more money and then spending it on splashier projects than other charities did. There were boasts about reaching more children. Dollars and headlines were key metrics. Beating Oxfam, a U.K.-based charity that fights poverty, was the goal.
Mr. Parker “was putting growth above all,” said Jonathan Glennie, former director of policy and research. “And the cost was that anything that got in the way of growth was ignored.”
A corporate creature to his core, Mr. Parker reacted to the harassment complaints like a chief executive from a bygone era, current and former Save the Children employees say. One of his priorities seemed to be protecting the jobs and reputation of the men responsible for the harassment, particularly Justin Forsyth, the charity’s chief executive officer at the time. A victim quoted in a 2015 internal review commissioned by the charity said that she was uncomfortable with Mr. Parker’s efforts at adjudication.
Parker is described here as “a maypole at London’s dance of elites. He is friends with the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, as well as the former Tory prime minister David Cameron. (Both attended his second wedding.) Invitations to Mr. Parker’s salon-style lunches at the men-only Garrick Club, which allows female guests, are attended by chief executives and media titans alike. He travels in a chauffeured Lexus and has a personal fortune reportedly close to $150 million.”
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Reportedly, the two executives who had the sexual harassment claims lodged against them shared Parker’s vision for a “bigger, brasher organization.” Justin Forsyth in particular, it’s said, wanted to be the kind of shop that would draw in hotter celebrities like Oxfam does.
And as far as acquisition of cash was concerned, the strategy worked. Segal reports, “As Save the Children UK started to act more like a corporation, it raised more money from publicly traded companies. Within three years of Mr. Parker’s appointment, business sponsorships had quintupled to nearly $30 million”—even if some of those deals appeared too close for comfort. Communications staff were sometimes asked, according to this report, to delay issuing critiques of companies that were donors or prospective donors.
This happened a few times when the press office wanted to chastise energy companies, including British Gas and EDF, for raising rates, said Dominic Nutt, the charity’s one-time head of news. “If the money got in the way of the mission,” he said in an interview, “the money came first.”
A current spokesman denies that the organization’s silence could be bought.
One recurring theme in the 2015 internal report is that Parker was too close to Forsyth to act impartially. This sounds to us like the situation at SVCF:
[Former CEO Emmett] Carson, a well-known figure in philanthropic circles, had been placed on paid leave in April when allegations of bullying and sexual harassment by one senior executive surfaced, followed by closer examinations of the foundation’s internal culture, which has been described as toxic, “overly hierarchical,” and enabling of the abuse. SVCF, of course, is well known as the fastest growing community foundation in the country, with 83 percent of its assets parked in donor-advised funds. After a mere 11 years, and with $13.5 billion in assets under management, it still had its founder on board, his eye on the prize of that continued rapid growth. The executive who staff said was abusive, Mari Ellen Loijens, was the head of development and very successful at it. Reports suggest that Carson did not welcome complaints about her.
Segal quotes Parker’s letter of censure to Mr. Forsyth, which ends with, “It is simply ‘not on’ for this type of behaviour to take place at Save The Children.”
In the end, Parker left Save the Children UK with serious damage to its reputation and its finances (donations are already down) “that will shadow the charity for a long time.” And of this we can be fairly sure, if we are to judge from other similar cases.—Ruth McCambridge