Regime change underway at Animal Legal Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, & Tony La Russa’s Animal Foundation
COTATI, WALNUT CREEK, California; NEW YORK, N.Y.––Are unionization at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the resignation of five members of Tony La Russa’s family from Tony La Russa’s Animal Foundation, though not La Russa himself, and the exit of National Audubon Society president David Yarnold all unrelated changings-of-the-guard?
Part of a broader transition from “baby boomer” to “millennial” generation management?
Or symptomatic of lunatics trying to run their respective asylums?
Much may depend upon the vantage point of the viewer.
Millennial staff are revolting
In each instance the focal event appears to be a revolt by “millennial” staff, backed by some board members, against the management style of a “boomer” longtime chief executive whose tenure, measured by the usual yardsticks used for nonprofit chief executives, had been eminently successful.
In each instance the “boomer” chief executive and inner circle senior staff are alleged to have created a toxic, change-resistant work environment for younger employees.
Yet in each instance the “boomer” chief executive was earlier noted and praised for a reportedly easy-going, laid-back, non-hierarchical management approach, in contrast to the more rigid chain-of-command style of the World War II generation and “silent generation” managers who preceded the boomers.
Boomers trying to keep their marbles
The buzz words in each case include allegations of insensitivity and worse toward female employees, people of color, and non-heterosexuals. Yet, paradoxically, some of the leadership tier targeted for ouster by angry younger staff at the organizations involved fit those descriptions themselves.
Each institutional meltdown could be somewhat more simply characterized as older chief executives trying to hold onto authority, high salaries, and attractive perquisites for as long as possible before stepping down, repressing perceived challenges from below; or, from the opposite perspective, as younger, much less experienced employees becoming resentful of being told what to do, eventually staging a mutiny, hurling whatever charges they think might persuade board and donors to topple the old regime.
ALDF United wins election
“A super majority of [Animal Legal Defense Fund] staffers voted in an National Labor Relations Board election to join the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union,” announced ALDF United, the newly enfranchised collective voice, on March 26, 2021.
“ALDF United looks forward,” the announcement said, “to creating a more equitable, inclusive, and just workplace that will empower staffers to achieve their mission of protecting the lives and advancing the interests of animals throughout the legal system.”
Anticipated for several months, as ANIMALS 24-7 explained in ALDF United unionizing bid splits Animal Legal Defense Fund, the vote to unionize made the Animal Legal Defense Fund the first unionized animal advocacy organization in the U.S. since the American SPCA gave up the New York City animal control contract at the end of 1994. American SPCA animal control and kennel staff had been members of the Teamsters Union.
According to Nonprofit Chronicles writer Marc Gunther, “The [ALDF United] organizing effort took root shortly after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last May.”
Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells was at the time on a sabbatical leave, after 20 years of service, Wells told ANIMALS 24-7 several months before the blow-up.
“In response,” Gunther continued, “ALDF issued a tone deaf statement on Facebook that drew an analogy between the ‘excessive force’ that is deployed against animals and the police use of force against ‘human victims’ that is ‘often based upon the color of one’s skin.’
“The statement became a flashpoint inside ALDF,” Gunther said.
But as Gunther went on to detail, the Animal Legal Defense Fund promptly and positively responded, while the overwhelming majority of the animal advocacy sector continues to do little or nothing to increase racial diversity and sensitivity among staff.
“ALDF pulled all of its fundraising appeals for a time and cut back on social media to allow calls for racial justice to take center stage,” Gunther wrote. “The organization has engaged the firm of A. Breeze Harper, an antiracism scholar and editor of Sistah Vegan, a collection of writings by black female vegans, to do diversity training as well as an audit of ALDF designed to help it attract more people of color.
“So what is the unionization drive about?” Gunther rhetorically asked. “Power, as much as anything else, it appears. Union supporters describe the ALDF as ‘uber-hierarchical,’ with decision-making concentrated at the top,” as is the norm in most organizations throughout both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.
Wells had returned to the Animal Legal Defense Fund to oppose the ALDF United organizing drive. How long he will last as executive director post-unionization is a matter of conjecture.
National Audubon Society shoves Yarnold out of the nest
National Audubon Society president and chief conservation officer Elizabeth Gray on April 20, 2021 emailed to donors that, “The National Audubon Society’s board of directors has announced that David Yarnold,” executive director since mid-2010, “will step down as chief executive officer, effective May 14, 2021.
“I will step into the role of interim chief executive while a search for a successor is conducted,” Gray said, “which will consider both internal and external candidates.
“I was honored to join Audubon earlier this year,” Gray continued, appearing to introduce herself as a candidate. Yarnold had been both president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society until Gray was hired in January 2021.
Trained as a birding brain
“Trained as an ornithologist,” Gray said, “I have spent more than three decades as a conservationist, spending considerable time in the field, both nationally and abroad. I came to Audubon from The Nature Conservancy, where I most recently held the role of global managing director for climate.
“In the interim CEO role,” Gray continued, “I will be working closely with Jamaal Nelson, our new chief equity, diversity, and inclusion officer, to continue our equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.”
Nelson, previously partner and advisor with The Management Center, holds a divinity degree from Harvard University and a degree in human and organizational development from Vanderbilt University.
Former editor of the “Murky Turkey”
Yarnold came to the National Audubon Society after five years, 2005-2010, as executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Yarnold previously spent 27 years, 1978-2005, in various capacities with the San Jose Mercury News, locally long nicknamed the “Murky Turkey.”
Arriving as a Mercury-News photographer four years after the newspaper expanded into the 32-newspaper Knight-Ridder news syndicate, Yarnold left after a stint as executive editor, about a year before the syndicate was sold to the McClatchy news empire.
Yarnold at the Mercury News shared in a Pulitzer Prize for general news coverage of the 1989 La Prieta “World Series” earthquake, but otherwise during his news career rarely reported about environment, habitat, and animal issues.
Yarnold’s strength at the Environmental Defense Fund was reputedly fundraising.
Taking that ability to the National Audubon Society, Yarnold balanced the budget, after 14 consecutive years of losses, and increased annual revenue from about $74 million per year to $116 million in 2018, the most recent year for which IRS Form 990 is available.
Yarnold was well-paid for his work. His starting compensation at the National Audubon Society was circa $500,000/year, rising to nearly $700,000/year as of 2018.
Cat poisoning furor
Yarnold, less than two years into his National Audubon Society tenure, survived a furor after then-33-year Audubon magazine columnist Ted Williams––not related to the late Baseball Hall of Fame member of the same name––recommended poisoning feral cats with Tylenol in a guest column for the Orlando Sentinel.
Yarnold first suspended Williams, then reinstated him after encountering intense backlash from birders.
“Botched diversity meeting”
Yarnold’s nine lives at the National Audubon Society ran out, hinted Politico writer Zack Colman on November 12, 2020, after “a botched diversity meeting, a highly critical employee survey, and the resignations of two top diversity and inclusion officials,” amid “allegations that it maintains a culture of retaliation, fear and antagonism toward women and people of color, according to interviews with 13 current and former staff members.”
Colman cited the departures of Devon Trotter, who preceded Jamaal Nelson as senior specialist for equity, diversity and inclusion, and Deeohn Ferris, the National Audubon Society’s top diversity officer before Trotter.
Wrote Colman, “Trotter accused Yarnold of fostering a workplace that concentrates decision-making among a tight group of mostly white male allies.”
Said Trotter, “No one investigates. There’s no accountability. My complaints would just fall on deaf ears and into the hands of David Yarnold. There was no real avenue for recourse.”
Trotter alleged to Colman that Yarnold demanded to know which National Audubon Society staff participated in a survey that showed widespread dissatisfaction among “121 women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and early career professionals” who responded to the survey “with the understanding that their names would not be revealed,” Colman wrote.
The respondents were approximately 20% of the total National Audubon Society payroll.
Yarnold, interviewed by Colman, blamed much of the employee dissatisfaction on the difficulty of working through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our staff has been apart for eight months,” Yarnold said. “Managing staff amid Covid-19, a national reckoning on race equity, and a contentious election, and driving cultural change at the same time is an epic challenge, but we don’t have the right to give up — we have to keep going, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Continued Colman, “A crucial backdrop for the tensions at Audubon was a diversity discussion conducted in August 2020 by a consulting firm which had a past connection with Yarnold, in which many employees were offended by what they saw as stereotypes expressed during a slide show.”
About 60 National Audubon Society staff attended the discussion and slide show.
La Russa family members resign from Tony LaRussa’s Animal Foundation
Yarnold’s departure from the National Audubon Society was announced less than 24 hours after Bay Area News Group reporter Martha Ross reported on April 19, 2021 that “The Animal Rescue Foundation, the venerable Bay Area animal welfare nonprofit co-founded [in 1991] by Tony La Russa, is in turmoil after the baseball legend and his family announced they were resigning and stepping away from the organization amid allegations that its leadership has long subjected employees to a ‘toxic’ workplace that included abusive and retaliatory behavior.”
Continued Ross, “The stunning announcement that former Oakland A’s manager La Russa had resigned from the board of his eponymous three-decade-old organization, came in a statement posted to social media Saturday night and signed by his wife and daughter, Elaine La Russa and Bianca La Russa. The announcement did not specify the family’s concerns, but only said they had ‘collectively concluded that we cannot support or participate in ARF’s current leadership.’”
But the La Russa family appeared to have crossed signals.
Tony La Russa “wouldn’t walk away now”
Updated San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Scott Ostler on April 22, 2021, “Elaine La Russa and Bianca La Russa, announced that they were joining Tony in resigning from Animal Rescue Foundation. But Tony La Russa released his own statement via Twitter, declaring that he had not resigned from ARF and had no intention to do so.”
Tweeted Tony La Russa, “I believe it is a mistake for the La Russa family to remove ourselves from this team when we are most needed. I hope Elaine, Bianca (and three other family members [who apparently also resigned]) will reconsider their decisions.”
“I have not walked away from ARF,” Tony La Russa emphasized. “I’ll be as active as I have been through the years, because the work being done is vital. At some point, I’m hoping the Elaine and the girls can come back. They’re concerned, and I’m concerned. It’s just that I wouldn’t walk away now.”
“Can’t accomplish what we’ve accomplished when you’re toxic”
Tony La Russa, 76, one of the most successful major league baseball team managers ever, and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame since 2014, pointed out that “Every off-season I’m in there every day, almost. I’m around the volunteers, I’m around the staff. You can’t accomplish what we’ve accomplished when you’re toxic.”
Observed Ostler, “It’s unclear the exact nature of the problems within the Animal Rescue Foundation. The complaints seem to center around Elena Bicker, ARF’s executive director since 2006, and Greg McCoy, board president since ARF’s first year in existence. An independent investigation last summer found problems with some high-level staffers. When the problems were addressed, Elaine and Bianca La Russa were unhappy that no action was taken against Bicker. Elaine and Bianca La Russa were also critical of McCoy’s handling of the investigation and his initial reluctance to share the findings.”
Tony La Russa, like David Yarnold at the National Audubon Society, indicated his belief that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the meltdown.
Laid off staff
Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation, like many other charities and businesses, was obliged to lay off staff due to the cash flow crunch that followed quarantines to stop the spread of COVID-19. About a third of the Animal Rescue Foundation staff lost their jobs.
“The stuff about ARF and the (work) environment started appearing exactly after the COVID hit all organizations,” Tony La Russa told Ostler, adding, “I really believe you could trace a lot of the discomfort and complaints to people having to deal with the unfairness of the virus. And that has escalated into claims of retaliation when someone was let go.”
Some of those claims may go to court. Wrote Ross of the Bay Area News Group, “Orinda attorney Mark Venardi contacted this news organization to say his firm represents four employees, including ARF’s former human resources manager,” who “filed a lawsuit in December 2020, alleging she was wrongfully terminated ‘for insisting on a full, complete and fair investigation of complaints of discrimination and retaliation from dozens of current and past employees,’ said Venardi.”
Bicker accused of bullying
Added Ross, “A June 15, 2020 letter from employees, addressed to La Russa and ARF’s board of directors, alleged that longtime executive director Elena Bicker had failed to act on employees’ complaints, while engaging in bullying and retaliatory behavior herself. Bicker did not respond to repeated attempts to contact her by phone or email.
“Erin Thompson, ARF’s marketing manager, said in an email that the organization denies the toxic and abusive workplace allegations,” Ross reported, and “will not comment further on pending litigation.”
Bicker, formerly second-in-command at Tony La Russa’s Animal Foundation under Brenda Barnette, executive director from mid-2003 to January 2006, succeeded Barnette when Barnette moved on to head the Seattle Humane Society for three years before becoming general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services in 2010.
Few current humane society chief executives have had a longer tenure.