June 7, 2011 at 8:50 am EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Equality Maryland rejects $500,000 donation

Equality Maryland’s board of directors turned down an offer by an anonymous donor to give the financially struggling group $500,000 in exchange for the board giving up its voting privilege and becoming an advisory body, with a new board to be selected by the donor.

Darrell Carrington, an Equality Maryland board member who knows the identity of the donor and acted as the donor’s representative, said he resigned from the board on Monday following the board’s decision to turn down the offer.

He said he recused himself from voting on the offer, among other things, because the donor wanted him to be part of a new board selected by the donor to help save the organization, which faces the prospect of having to lay off all of but one of its employees by July 1.

“It’s a gay man out of Montgomery County. I can’t identity him any more than that,” said Carrington, when asked to reveal something about the mystery donor.

“The reason why he made the offer is because he’s been following Equality Maryland for years,” Carrington said. “And of course he wants to see the organization survive.”

Added Carrington, “In any corporate type of structure, or even a non-profit, if someone’s coming in with money to lift the organization they need to be able to call the shots. And that was something that was not going to work for them,” he said of the board.

Patrick Wojahn, one of five remaining Equality Maryland board members, said Carrington also withheld the donor’s identity from the board. According to Wojahn, Carrington disclosed the name of another individual working with the donor who was to join the donor and Carrington to become a new three-member board that would take control of the group under the terms of the offer.

“There were a number of strings tied to the deal, which basically made us uncomfortable with it,” Wojahn said. “And we decided that if we are going to turn over the organization to some people who really didn’t have any ties to the LGBT community that we needed to have more of a conversation with the community first.”

Carrington, who is straight, works as a political consultant and lobbyist before the Maryland Legislature on issues other than LGBT rights. However, activists familiar with Equality Maryland say he worked hard for a same-sex marriage bill that died in the legislature earlier this year.

Since meeting with LGBT activists and Equality Maryland members over the past few weeks, the board has been told repeatedly that “people want more accountability and more transparency” from the group, Wojahn said.

“To basically turn over the organization to these folks who really didn’t have any ties to the community without further dialogue within the community about what that would mean, we thought that would not be fair to the membership of the organization,” he said.

Carrington said he and others who have worked with the organization doubt it will be able to survive much longer. “It’s essentially out of money,” he said.

“We don’t believe the organization is going to fold,” said Wojahn. “We’re looking forward. We’ve already been doing fundraising. We’re working on a plan to expand the board, to rebuild the organization, and we feel that we can work with the community to rebuild.”

Yet he said that unless contributions begin to flow to a substantial degree, the board will be forced to follow through with its earlier stated plan to lay off all but one employee by the end of this month due to an inability to meet the payroll.

Asked if the board would reconsider the offer by the anonymous donor after discussing the proposal with the group’s membership, Wojahn said, “I don’t know. They wanted an answer fairly quickly about whether or not we would take their offer. So I don’t know if it would still be available.”

Carrington told the Blade on Tuesday that the donor would consider making the offer available if the board should change its mind, but he said the terms would remain the same.

“The offer is we’ll put the money up but the current board has to be ex-officio,” he said. “They cannot have any voting rights or responsibilities.”

Added Carrington, “I’m a little disappointed, with the amount of work I have done over the years for marriage equality, for them not to understand that I would not put together a team that would try to destroy what we’ve built. I think the financial commitment should speak volumes to the level of commitment that everyone has to saving Equality Maryland,” he said.

“I have to question them when they say they are the custodians of the organization for the state of Maryland,” added Carrington. “My question is who are you the custodians of if you have to close your doors by the end of July? I just don’t know if they’re seeing the big picture here.”

In addition to Wojahn, the other board members remaining with Equality Maryland include Lisa Polyak, Rosemary Nicolosi, David Lublin and Mark Yost.

The group’s board chair, Charles Butler, resigned after stating in a Blade interview that the former executive director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets, was responsible for much of the group’s financial problems. Meneses-Sheets disputed his allegation, saying Butler and the board were responsible for the money problems. Butler said this week that he resigned from the board for personal reasons unrelated to the organization.

He said he and his husband were beginning the process of adopting a child and because of that, along with the demands of his job, he no longer had the time to devote to serving on the board.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • Going down with the ship.

  • This board continues to crash and burn. No direction, no leadership abilities, no realistic desire to see equal rights move forward. Huge egos and no commensurate accomplishments. How fragile yet predictable at this point.

    I’ve posted at least four times on the Blade website what a board should be doing. If this board had been meetings its obligations all along, it could have negotiated with this anonymous donor from a position of strength.

    The anonymous donor has the right plan though. This board needs to transition itself out completely and replace with a board that can hit the restart button.

    So sad. Equality Maryland did some good work over many years.

  • I understand the reluctance on the part of the board to turn control of Equality Maryland to others. But if Carrington characterized the would-be donor and potential board member as “a gay man out of Montgomery County,” why would Wojahn and his fellow board members dismiss out-of hand the offer because in Wojahn’s words the new folks “really didn’t have any ties to the community”? I don’t get that.

  • Typical “non-profit think.” No money, about to close, but “uncomfortable” with what accepting a lifeline might mean to their membership.

    Newsflash: there won’t be a membership, or an or, before long, and did they happen to think of their obligation to the issues and work the must be continued? No ties to the community? Says who? If someone is a member of our community, has a board member already allied, and is willing to put half a friggin million dollars on the line, I’d say that’s a pretty strong connection and commitment to the community.

    Sincerely hope the donor is willing to fund a new org. Don’t let the passion die, and don’t let the vital work go undone.

  • Anyone with any accurate knowledge of what happened in Maryland during the last legislative session knows that Equality Maryland’s board led the organization to the closest point it’s ever come — by far — to achieving marriage equality and gender identity antidiscrimination, despite obvious staff issues. Rather than view that achievement as a success, a handful of people, like “David” above, view it as a launching pad for endless criticism.

    I’d rather have the existing board continue than have the board sell the organization to an anonymous rich person with no known experience in LGBT issues who wants to buy control.

    • Dear Jeff,

      Thanks for weighing in — you continue to live up to your rep for being a voice of truth in the wilderness. And you owe us a donation ;-)

    • Jeff, Simply false. I’ve never argued here or anywhere else that coming so close and losing on marriage or transgender protection are reasons the board should transition itself out.

      Any board should be ultimately responsible for organizational leadership in mission, a strategic plan, selecting/supporting/mentoring the chief executive, fiscal responsibility, succession planning, and a short list or basic responsibilities. Google “board source basic responsibilities” for a comprehensive list–since you believe my informed opinions are suspect or ‘endless’. This board has failed to meet each responsibility: public name-calling with now two former executive directors (both of whom they and no one else selected); no fiscal responsibility leading to sudden urgent pleas for donations; destruction of public standing and trust including standing and trust among donors; no transition plan before, during or after the crisis they appear to have engendered.

      This is a textbook example of a failed non-profit board. Equality Maryland needs a healthy restart not the tit-for-tat you hope to start. You can certainly go ahead and win this online argument if it makes you feel good. But ultimately the winners of a board failure at Equality Maryland are Delegate Don Dwyer, the Maryland Family Association, the state Catholic bishops and everyone who hates gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transfolks.

      The current ‘listening tour’ is a symptom of a failed board, not a strategy for solving current problems.

      • David, your comments do not reflect reality. The board that selected Kate Runyon as ED consisted of entirely different people. Those on the board who pushed to select Morgan Meneses-Sheets also are long gone. Why can you not accept simple facts — Morgan withheld information from the board, which severely damaged the organization. An entirely new board wouldn’t change that.

        • So Wojahn and Polyak haven’t been board members since prior to 2008?

        • I spoke to Morgan exactly once when she called to asked me to renew my annual donation. Even is she was incompetent–and I don’t know that to be the case–again, it’s the board’s responsibility to hire, train, mentor and if necessary to terminate the chief executive. The way this was handled was a complete failure. The board has to take credit. Apparently at least two board members have resigned realizing at some level what a failure this was. It’s time for the rest to do so and push the restart button. This organization’s mission at least deserves that much.

          • Um, the board, under new leadership, did terminate the chief executive at the most appropriate time (after the legislative session). The board obviously continues to discover actions that she took, which she deliberately concealed from the board, that harmed the organization. If the entire board resigned, a new board would continue discovering the same things.

        • That’s a lie, I was on the Board both before KateAND before Morgan and 3 of the current five were there for both ! For the record, I voted AGAINST hiring both of them !!!

  • I’m not sure we really have enough information here to make an informed statement one way or another. What I can say is that any time there are “strings” attached to a donation, that is a red flag. A restricted gift (meaning that the gift is designated to fund a specific area of interest) is one thing, but “you will only get this gift if you take this action” is another. Any conditions and contingencies placed upon a gift should be reviewed VERY carefully.

    The main question here is the integrity of the organization. Would accepting the gift enhance or compromise the integrity of Equality Maryland? We must keep in mind that reputation and integrity outlasts the life of an organization, and even after the organization is gone (should it fold), can impact the work that it has completed, and legacy of the advances it has made. Additionally, an organization bearing the name Equality Maryland that operates in a way that betrays the core values of its charter, can be detrimental to the community (an extreme, and probably purely academic, example would be an anti-gay group that took over and worked against the LGBT community under the name Equality Maryland).

    So, if the contribution would have enhanced the organization (and I suppose the Board is the appropriate group of people to determine that), then the gift should have been accepted. If the contribution would have been detrimental, then the appropriate action would have been to reject the gift. We simply aren’t privy to the discussions and conditions.

    I do hope that they figure out a way to resolve their financial crises though…

  • Steve, its a good point. Who is telling the truth, or is revealing more of the facts? Only Darrell Carrington, the anonymous donor, and the third party suggested as the other potential board member should this offer have been accepted, know the identity, and thereby, the probable intent of the donor. Should one want to rule the LGBT advocacy roost, merely “buy” yourself an Equality Organization and its membership database. The problem with such an offer is, the board, through its past shortcomings has been accused of non-transparency. The offer if accepted without the opportunity to review it with the membership base would not be transparent. Additionally, they would be turning it over to whom? The donor was anonymous to them. It would have been equally irresponsible of the board to do such a thing. This was a no win for the board, yet I suspect that was the purpose, to embarrass the board even further than their own collective efforts have done over the last many months and years.

    No, the board was right in rejecting the offer, if the offer was in fact as described. A better response would have been to counter with the opportunity to present the concept to its membership base upon the full disclosure of the interested donor.

  • Doesn’t anyone else think an anonymous donation that keeps one of the board members sounds fishy…it sounds like a powerplay. Also who’s to say the donation was real or would go through…I think the Board was right on this one.

  • Buying a board even with the best of intentions is wrong.

  • No being an insider I have to consider the conversations on the street. It appears that NOM out spent EQMD in the last legislative session. By so much they cause EQMD to overspend. This appears to have been a gamble. I’m “we” (the LGBT community) has two more votes in the House and the measure passed. Morgan Meneses-Sheets would be a hero riding in the coming Pride Parade. It would have been a great gamble. She is a hero in my eyes. But the game has changed which will negatively affect our ability to get good work done next year. What we need now is a way forward. We need a positive attitude that this can be done. Money will help but it is not the entire solution. We are weak because we have allowed the coalition to splinter into fiefdoms. We are all in this together folks. I hear John Kennedy’s words echoing in my skull. So what can you as a member of the LGBT and allied community do to move this situation out of chaos and back to productivity?

  • I don’t necessary think it is buying the board. It is trying to save an organization that is supposed to be serving the GLBT community of Maryland. This past legislative session was a loss to Equality Maryland. (I would also include HRC with their meddling in the situation.) I don’t care how close you came, you lost. Also, the frequent amount of turnover in the Equality MD Board shows an organization that is struggling from the top down so a major takeover is almost warranted. This is common practice in the business world, and does occur with struggling non-profits.

    Of course the anonymous donor could start up his own Equality group, but it better serves Marylanders by already having a group with the name recognition. Equality Maryland will no longer receive my financial support as it currently stands, so if the new Equality organization got started I’m sure more of the members would change their annual givings as well.

    Based on this reporting, it doesn’t sound like EQ MD will last past July or August, so the anonymous donor can just buy up the rights to the name and membership listing when they go bankrupt and have to dipose of their assets.

    • Rich, are you suggesting the only thing of value the organization possesses is its name recognition and its membership listing? I’m not disagreeing with you, it just appears some less astute individuals without a working knowledge of revenue generation have a difficult time understanding this simple concept….

  • So let me get this straight. A person hiding their identity, with no word to the members and donors wants to buy ownership of the largest gay rights group in the state? If he was a valid person to run this organization then there should be no issue with him being public about his offer. This sounds more like a hostile takeover. What if the person has ties to NOM or Focus on the Family? Who knows? The Donors and members don’t? What if he wants to put Rick Santorum on the board? Far fetched, but not out of the realm of possibilitis.

    • Cam, I agree, however the bord member who presented the offer knows the identity of the mysterious donor. No, there is something more sinister than Rick Santorum or NOM taking over the board. It’s hubris. It has infected the prior board chair and now stands to infect the reconstituted board should such a blind offer have been accepted. The name recognition and its relationships its built over the years is highly prized. This mysterious donor recognizes that, otherwise he could have started his own equality group from scratch without any of the negativity currently surrounding EQMD.

  • Why does anyone pay any attention to Equality Maryland (EM)? Think about it… If the legislature in Maryland, the blueist of blue states, doesn’t pass gay-friendly legislation there’s nothing that an organization like EM can do about it.

    The reason gay-friendly legislation failed was because the black legislators got flack from their church-going constituents, and caved for fear of losing their seats. There’s nothing EM could have done or can do in the future to overcome an objection from legislators whose number one goal is to protect their own hide. I’ll give you the last word…

  • It seems to me that there’s good reason for a potential major donor to be skeptical about making a huge contribution to a poorly led organization. The boards of EqMd and its predecessor organization made some really bad personnel decisions over the years. In my view, the two worst were hiring Kate Runyon and firing Morgan Meneses-Sheets. In Runyon’s case, I’ve heard the names of two other candidates who were much better qualified. As to Morgan, we’re looking at a ‘he-said, she-said’ situation about what she did and what the board knew. I’m inclined to accept her version, because she built credibility with me by leading a really well-organized effort in Annapolis this year, hanging in right down to the last day. Although both priority bills ultimately failed, they both passed one house and came close to passing the other — a much better result than the organization had ever achieved before.
    Another reason to doubt the board’s version is that it has clearly failed to build a viable local donor base — otherwise they wouldn’t be in this situation.

  • Equality Marland and other state GLBT organizations choose to select staff leaders with no knowledge in non-profit management. If you have legal problem, you turn to a lawyer. If you have a cavity, you visit a dentist. So why not hire skilled non-profit professionals instead of continually hiring inexperienced GLBT volunteers? There is no reason for Equality Maryland to be in this position. Maybe the Board of Directors will actually hire experience and certified association staff to rebuild. There are many gay association executives in this area available.

  • when Equality Maryland said they weren’t comfortable with the anonymous donor’s requests (duh!), that should’ve been a springboard for the anonymous donor to at least come out of anonymity. if someone is truly interested in helping lgbt issues, IMO they should make that concession – “for the cause”. keeping it all anonymous IS a red flag – especially when we have so many haters out there. so even if that person is up and up (really pro-lgbt rights), they made a mistake here – and contributed to this not working out.

  • I just heard from an EQMD staff member that there were several donors and one of the conditions was to fund marriage-only activities. If that is true, then I am glad EQMD rejected the offer. EQMD should have been open about this from the start. I believe many people would applaud the rejection given this new info.

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