Let them eat mission: The trouble with the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Marc Gunther
Jul 8 · 5 min read

There’s a lot to like about the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a Seattle-based private foundation with about $800m in assets that, since its inception nearly 20 years ago, has been led by a advocate for social change named Luz Vega-Marquis. Leaders of social-justice organizations lavish praise on Vega-Marquis for providing multi-year and unrestricted support to grass-roots organizations that advocate on behalf of the poor. She has hired people of color to staff the foundation and assembled a diverse board. It’s no wonder that idealistic people who care about poverty, inequality and race have been attracted to jobs at Marguerite Casey.

Once hired, though, many grew deeply disappointed. Vega-Marquis “stifled dissent, sowed discord, refused to admit mistakes, and demanded obeisance from staff,” former employees say. It was, by most accounts, an awful place to work.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently published my story about Vega-Marquis and Marguerite Casey. Here’s how it begins:

Some years ago, a disgruntled staff member at the Marguerite Casey Foundation printed out reviews of the foundation from the website Glassdoor and sent them to the grant maker’s board. The reviews, which were posted anonymously by employees, painted a devastating portrait of Luz Vega-Marquis, the foundation’s longtime chief executive and a trailblazer in social-justice philanthropy.

One review described Vega-Marquis as “a tyrant, pitting her employees against each other, lacking in personal emotional control … and patronizing to her grantees.” Another said: “The board should conduct its due diligence by hiring an independent consultant to investigate the reputation of the foundation.” Still another described the workplace as an “extremely toxic environment. Culture of fear, distrust, micromanagement — coming from the top down.” Another: “Autocratic, capricious, punitive management and culture.” Only 26 percent of the reviewers said they would recommend working at Marguerite Casey.

Later, Vega-Marquis convened an all-hands meeting where she was joined by Douglas Patiño, a member of the Marguerite Casey board. Vega-Marquis said she wished that whoever had posted the reviews had come to her first. “I was totally dismayed that people didn’t have the courage to come and talk to me directly,” she says now. “I have an open-door policy.” Patiño took a tougher stance. Whoever did this is disloyal, he said, grabbing his tie with his fist and pulling it up beside his head, as if to make a noose. To those in the room, the message was clear: The board stood behind Vega-Marquis and had no interest in hearing complaints from the staff.

For what it’s worth, Laura Boyle, the director of communications and HR at Marguerite Casey, says this incident “did not happen nor would it be tolerated here at the foundation.” Two people at the meeting told me that it did, in fact, happen; the story subsequently became part of the foundation’s lore, shared with former as well as new employees.

To put those Glassdoor reviews in context: Marguerite Casey’s 26 percent “approval” rating compares with 71 percent for the Gates Foundation, 66 percent for the Ford Foundation and 73 percent for the Hewlett Foundation. Perhaps more surprising, Casey’s rating also falls below those for Amazon, Walmart and McDonald’s (74, 66, 54 percent). .

My story — please read it in full! — was written, not to single out Vega-Marquis or Marguerite Casey, but to illustrate a couple of broader points.

First, sad to say, leaders of nonprofits and foundations sometimes become so focused on their mission that they neglect the well-being of their staff or, worse, exploit their workers. This is particularly a problem with well-entrenched executive directors and CEOs. I’ve reported on this phenomenon at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Humane Society of the US and the Farm Animal Rights Movement, and heard about it from friends and relatives who work in the sector. It deserves more attention. Too often there’s a disconnect between the face that nonprofits present to the world, and the reality of how they treat their own people. .

Second, these workplace problems persist only when boards are disengaged. That appears to have been the case at Marguerite Casey. Even after those dismal Glassdoor reviews, the board did little. To this day, there has never been an anonymous survey of Marguerite Casey staffers to see how they assess the workplace culture or the leadership of Vega-Marquis. Turnover has been high; people were fired, given severance and in exchange required to sign non-disclosure agreements. There’s no good reason for non-disclosure agreements in the nonprofit world. This, too, did not get the attention of the board.

It’s no coincidence, in my view, that Marguerite Casey board members are well-compensated. The Chronicle story says:

They are paid $40,000 a year if they attend all meetings, with $26,667 paid in cash and $13,333 paid into a tax-advantaged deferred-compensation plan. Marguerite Casey’s 2017 federal tax return reports higher payments due to investment earnings on the deferred compensation: $47,910 for [board chair Freeman] Hrabowski;, $47,852 for vice chair Pat Schroeder, the former congresswoman; $43,992 for treasurer David Villa; and $47,866 for secretary Douglas Patiño. Over time, the deferred compensation adds up. When William Foege, a prominent epidemiologist and former director of the Centers for Disease Control, left the board after 16 years in 2017, he collected $265,412 in deferred payments. Marguerite Casey board members also get an annual discretionary grant budget of $60,000, as well as matching grants when they donate their own money.

An important element of a board’s job is to oversee the CEO and protect an organization’s people. But when a payday of more than $250,000 awaits a board member who hangs in for a decade or two, who wants to rock the boat?

A few days before The Chronicle published my story, Vega-Marquis announced that she will step down from her role at Marguerite Casey, albeit not until the end of 2020. After the story came out, others in the foundation world came to her defense. On his blog, Robert K. Ross, the president of the California Endowment, criticized the Chronicle’s report and wrote:

Over the past two decades of observing your leadership from the front row, it can be argued that no single leader in the field of philanthropy has done more to lift, advance, and support the voices of community-based, grassroots activism and advocacy for social justice than Luz Vega-Marquis.

Fair enough. But what about the experiences of those who worked for her? Some told me they were traumatized; other say they remain so fearful of retaliation they won’t go public with their criticisms. Don’t they count?

Ross went on to say that philanthropy needs more leaders like Vega-Marquis.

Most of those who worked for her, I can assure you, would strongly disagree.

An update on July 9: This Facebook post from Ludovic Blain, who directed Equal Voice Campaign, a project of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, adds more color to the story. So do the comments that follow, which confirm my intuition that this is not an isolated situation in the nonprofit world. Edgar Villanueva also writes about Marguerite Casey and Vega-Marquis in his fine book, Decolonizing Wealth.

Marc Gunther

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reporting on philanthropy, nonprofits, animal welfare, global poverty and whatever else interests me