GR Community Media Center under scrutiny after complaints from former employees and board members
GREAT RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Community Media Centera non-profit organization founded in 1980 to provide community programming on various media platforms, is subject to internal and external scrutiny, MiBiz has learned.
The investigations follow allegations by several former GRCMC employees and board members, who have made claims that span approximately six years while the organization was under executive director Linda Gellasch. The Community Media Center oversees the operations of The Wealthy Theatre, 88.1 FM WYCE, Grand Rapids Cable Access and The Rapidian, an online community news site.
MiBiz spoke to six former GRCMC employees and board members — two of whom asked to remain anonymous — and each shared similar claims about Gellasch’s treatment of employees and financial practices.
At the heart of their allegations are claims about a lack of transparency between Gellasch and board members when employees raised concerns, which sources interviewed for this report say is contrary to the mission. of GRCMC.
Specifically, the claims involve Gellasch’s direct oversight of budgets and donor relations that former employees say had been handled by GRCMC program directors in the past.
Additionally, former board members cite these changes as having contributed to a decline in major donor contributions over the past half-decade.
The GRCMC’s budget is made up of donations and public funding through franchise fees from the City of Grand Rapids, as well as various media services provided by the nonprofit. According to the most recent publicly available federal tax returns, the GRCMC’s revenue from contributions and grants fell from approximately $643,000 in 2016 to approximately $337,000 in 2018. The GRCMC declined to provide further data. recent updates on contribution and grant revenue.
Meanwhile, former employees and board members have reported mistreatment via multiple forums, including a public blog post by a recent facility manager who was fired from her job earlier this year after less than three months of work. The employee, former Wealthy Theater manager Jessica Alverson, also refused to sign a confidential separation agreement with nondisclosure clauses that Gellasch signed on August 30, according to a copy of the document posted online.
Gellasch and board chairman Jason Wheeler said last week that they would take questions from MiBiz separately. Instead, a public relations firm representing GRCMC sent out a statement, which officials described as including the organization’s full response. In the statement which did not answer specific questions, the board said it “is aware of the recent allegations of wrongdoing against GRCMC and its executive director. The GRCMC Board of Directors has not received any evidence to support these claims.
In response to Alverson’s public claims against Gellasch, “the GRCMC Board of Directors is reviewing all human resources policies and taking a more active role in the ongoing oversight of those policies,” the organization said.
“Due to privacy concerns, GRCMC will not comment further on personnel matters,” the organization said in the statement. “However, the Board will continue to take appropriate steps to investigate any allegations of wrongdoing brought to its attention. We are confident that this process will demonstrate our adherence to GRCMC policies and our commitment to the mission, staff and community that we serve.
While the nonprofit’s board of directors has refuted allegations of wrongdoing, allegations by several former employees and board members have prompted a financial audit of the GRCMC by the City of Grand Rapids. . The audit “found no evidence of misuse of public funds, which was our primary concern and interest in the matter,” Deputy City Manager Doug Matthews said in a statement. MiBiz. “The (city) Comptroller has made a few observations and recommendations to improve future accounting and reporting processes, which will be included as part of an operational review currently underway.”
Matthews said it was in the city’s interest to “ensure that there was no misappropriation of funds received by the CMC under their contract with the city to manage the operations of public access television”.
“Call to Account”
Alverson wrote publicly last month about her experience as manager of the Wealthy Theatre, which lasted from June 14 to August 31 of this year. In a post on the web platform Medium, Alverson lays out his concerns about Gellasch’s actions as a leader, as well as the general lack of accountability and transparency within the organization.
“Many have tried unsuccessfully to get board members, supporting foundations and civic leaders to do anything, anything, about their leadership concerns as the CMC – previously a beloved champion of free speech and community voice — was weakened,” Alverson wrote last month. “Our stories all tell a scratched record of repeated staff mistreatment, financial indiscretion, loss of institutional talent, and an inability to both retain financial support and create programming for the benefit of the community and the voice of the community as a goal and objective.
“It’s a call to responsibility.”
Alverson has developed for MiBiz that the “financial indiscretion” stemmed from a “lack of transparency, exclusive and total oversight of finances by one or two people, and a reported inability to invest in basic infrastructure repairs – despite an account very solid banking and very reliable income streams.”
Kelly Koning — former GRCMC board chair and daughter of the organization’s founder, Dirk Koning — was board chair in 2017 and most recently served as a board member in 2018, according to statements by organization’s income. She left the board amid concerns about whether disputes within the organization were taken seriously by GRCMC management.
“There were a lot of diverse reasons (why I left the board), both personal and also with the leadership of the organization,” Koning said. MiBiz. “As a member of the board, I felt there were issues that needed to be addressed and voicing my opinion didn’t seem to be taken seriously.”
During his tenure on the board, Koning confirmed that several employees raised concerns with the board about Gellasch’s treatment of employees. However, she also said she “didn’t see any financial discrepancies that I would worry about”.
Former Wealthy Theater director Erin Wilson, who worked at the GRCMC for 14 years before leaving in late October 2017, was also responsible for overseeing major foundation gifts to the organization. He also expressed concerns about the handling of accounts with donors.
“Pledges to foundations are serious business because these relationships are built on trust. If something happens that I consider a breach of an agreement, I will say something,” he said in an email to MiBiz.
Wilson added that he takes issue with how his colleagues are being treated.
“I also had serious issues with what I saw as mistreatment of my co-workers. I left CMC because I love it and wanted someone to notice things were wrong. C “It’s an organization with a mission that’s desperately needed right now. Maybe more than ever. But you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror,” he said.
Another former board member, who asked not to be identified, said MiBiz they left with “great concerns about staff turnover, especially long-term staff.”
“We had a permanent management team that continued to leave the company without perhaps a clear directive from the chief executive as to why he was leaving,” the former board member said. “So you would hear from staff that they were leaving because of (Gellasch), financial practices, donor engagement or other frustrations and not having the opportunity to discuss it.”
The former board member added that “donors were disengaging from the process because the new process took responsibility for donor engagement with every leader within the organization and moved it to (Gellasch)” .
Former employees interviewed for this report say they want accountability not just at the GRCMC, but more broadly among nonprofits. Additionally, former GRCMC board members are calling for more transparency in how disputes between employees and management are handled.
Wilson, the former theater manager, said documents detailing the treatment of employees were provided to a “handful of community leaders, emphasizing the structural issues that left workers and volunteers in this vacuum, without any recourse”.
“And it’s more than just ‘these people are being harmed, and we need to help them.’ Workers on the ground in the nonprofit sector are also the canaries in the coal mine: if an organization’s internal safeguards fail, workers are the only way to know when things are going wrong,” said Wilson said. “We have to take them seriously. And, no, that doesn’t mean we automatically believe someone. But, we can still take people seriously. And, once there’s a whole bunch of people basically saying the same thing – either they’re all crazy or something’s wrong.
Janay Brower, a former GRCMC board member who quit shortly after Gellasch was hired, said “there needs to be a broader community conversation not just about the specific role of (GRCMC) , but also about how the nonprofit sector is held accountable for the people who work for them and for whom they work.
Koning, whose father started what would become the GRCMC, hopes the organization will stay true to its original mission.
“The media library is near and dear to me. I hope this change can happen in a positive way for the media center – I think it’s very important for the community,” Koning said. “Sharing voices is at the heart of what the media center is about, so when voices aren’t heard or people don’t feel heard, it needs to be taken very seriously.