An Organizational Perspective

There has been some conversation in the comments of yesterday’s post that is relevant, expert, and unique in my experience of the discussion around D.J.’s handling of harassment reports at TAM. I am, therefore, promoting it to its own post.

psanity commented:

TAM is so busy harming itself, nobody else can get a scratch in.

I want to apologize for going off on what seems to be a tangent, but I think there are structural, foundational issues here that lie beneath all this other ugly stuff – things we need to be concerned about as a growing movement with organizations that are important to the movement’s health and welfare. There are more reasons than the ones obvious to the harassment/policy discussion to be very glad, relieved, that so many groups are addressing this particular issue relatively sensibly. I’m not much of a commenter on the blogs, but I am sorely tried.

(Caution: jargon-riddled somewhat meta rant ahead)

OK, so the kind of geek I am is a nonprofit governance geek, and my geek-o-meters have been redlining since DJ’s first statement on this. The thing that is driving me crazy is that DJ and his board are fucking incompetent at governance. First, from DJ’s statements, it’s patently obvious that they’re not logging their event, at least not usefully so. It’s essential to log events; some organizations even log their office hours. An organization that runs a big event and does not run a log is begging for trouble, because, 1) they’re not keeping an optimum record of the life and history of the organization; 2) a log is a means for all staff and volunteers to be aware of incidents, problems, odd things, venue issues, and cool stuff during the event; 3) a log is a basis for an effective post-mortem of each event (which is another thing it looks like they’re not doing); 4) a log is evidence of the organizations response to problems that arise.

I’ll go into 3 and 4 in a little more detail. An organization that doesn’t PM an event is neglecting the single greatest tool for making their event better, safer, and smoother, while at the same time making it easier to run. Especially with one big event a year, you need to nail down where the glitches were and what can be done to solve them – and even three weeks later, you’ll need the log to help with that. Events make people high, and they forget things. One organization I’ve worked with runs an internal log and a public log for their big event: attendees can just walk up to the table and write down comments when things are fresh in their minds. That is so useful at the PMs.

And evidence. Well, if something happens at your event that causes concern among attendees, you can refer to the log, get the straight scoop on what happened, and reassure folks by conveying that it was properly dealt with. If an incident results in intervention by venue security or police, you’ve got the basis of your police report. And if you get sued because of something that happened at your event, you have a record to hand your lawyer and your insurance company that shows your organization’s good faith and due diligence. Accidents happen, even to the best-run organizations and events and it’s wise to be prepared for them. Also, your insurance people like to know you’re not stupid.

Speaking of insurance, there must be nonprofits all over the country who’d like to know who is carrying JREF and TAM, because they must be the most laid-back insurance company ever. I mean, I’ve seen a company threaten to pull insurance over the color of exit signs. And, oh, FSM, please please don’t tell me they haven’t got insurance. That’s just not possible. They need to have liability and D&O (Directors and Officers). I suppose it’s possible that the venue carries the liability (I sure wouldn’t!), but they’d better have D&O because they may need it.

(Punchline coming up.) One of the main reasons for incorporating is to protect individuals, directors or trustees and officers, who are acting in good faith, from being sued as individuals for the actions or negligence of the corporation. The “acting in good faith” part is important, both in terms of duty of care to the organization and responsibility to the public. The other morning, JREF was blown out of the water on “good faith”. They were in trouble before, but now they are in the soup. The board better deal with this immediately, or they and the organization are at risk. Even if they do, they have demonstrated such a wilful lack of responsibility that they’ve lost their leadership position among skeptics, and they should – but they’ve also screwed themselves organizationally. I came to movement skepticism through JREF, so it pains me to say this, but I wouldn’t touch that outfit with a long, forked stick. JREF and TAM are not the flagship of skepticism; they can’t be. We can’t afford them. They’ve let the movement down; we can’t let them drag the movement down.

Even if they suddenly get their act together, get some help (governance, NOT PR), and rise like a phoenix from the ashes, I’d be wary of donating or participating until they’ve re-established themselves as a responsible organization. They need to do a lot more work than merely* state a harassment policy.

tl;dr: TAM is over, and not because of PR problems, or harassment, or politics, but due to abysmally poor governance.

*word chosen carefully to point out context; sexual harassment and safety are not “mere”. This just happens to be the altar JREF is sacrificing itself upon.

And commented again:

Oh, ya. The politics of the issue make it more complicated, not least because it’s so emotionally loaded, which does tend to focus people on fixing the blame, rather than fixing the problem. That makes it particularly interesting that the folks who are raising these issues have been all about fixing the problem, while the organization (certainly as represented by DJ) has been all about fixing the blame. Tells you exactly whose emotions are running away with them.

But this is just as crazy if you try to find analogies that are more mundane: what would people think of a cruise line that made it clear they had no policy regarding an outbreak of contagious illness? (That sort of happened, and it really hit the cruise companies hard.) How about a summer camp with no policy about life preservers while boating? A service organization with no policy about conduct (or treatment) of volunteers? These are all symptoms of deeply-rooted problems with governance and responsibility. TAM’s response to the harassment issue is really bad, but it’s a symptom. There’s probably a lot of boring things that are also wrong there.

Then cyranothe2nd:


Excellent post. To follow it up (and to answer the question, “WHAT DID YOU WANT DJ TO DO????”):

1. Man comes up to DJ and says, “Hey, there’s this Drunk Guy bothering some people. Can you do something about that?”

2. DJ gets hotel security and escorts the guy out. He asks hotel security to get Drunk Guy’s name and information (This is important, as he doesn’t know what’s happened yet, doesn’t know if he needs to report to police, etc.)

3. DJ goes back to Informing Guy and says, “Hey, just want to let you know that we made Drunk Guy leave. You said that he was bothering some of the other guests. Can you point them out to me? I want to make sure they’re okay.”
If IG demurs, DJ says, “Yeah, I realize that this might not be a big deal, but as an employee of JREF it’s my job to make sure that people feel comfortable and safe at the con, so I just want to touch base with the people that Drunk Guy was bothering and make sure they’re all right.”
IG points out a few women to DJ.

4. DJ goes up to Woman #1, introduces himself and says, “Hey, I heard that Drunk Guy was bothering you.”
W #1: “Yeah.”
DJ: “I want you to know that I had hotel security escort him out. I just wanted to ask, did he make any threats? Touch you? (Anything else that is possibly criminal and would need to be reported to police?)
W #1: “No, he was just being obnoxious and a little scary.”
DJ: “I’m really sorry to hear that. As you know, JREF really cares about the safety of con attendees. Towards that end, we instituted an anti-harassment policy. I’d like to you provide a statement about this incident. This isn’t to get anyone in trouble or to make a big deal out of anything. But your statement can help us to prevent incidents like this and to make people safer at TAM. Can you do that for me?”
W #1: “Sure, I guess.”
DJ: “Great. Can I get your name and email address? I’ll send you the form and you just send it back to me in the next few days, okay?”
W #1: “Okay.” (gives info)
DJ: “Great, thank you. I know that Drunk Guy was bothering several other people. Can you point out to me the people you know he was bothering?”

(DJ then goes to Woman #2, etc)

Notice that doing this gives DJ all the info he needs–names, email addresses, date of incident and severity, in a really low-key way. It also provides con attendees a private way to air their side of things. Most importantly, if gives them the information necessary to direct harassment incidents through official channels. THIS IS ALL STUFF DJ SHOULD HAVE DONE AS A MATTER OF COURSE. It is absolutely unconscionable that he could hear about an incident, participate in throwing a guy out, and then not follow up to find out what happened–at the very least to make sure he isn’t legally liable.

This is, at the very least, a serious lapse in training and judgment on DJ’s part. I think it’s worse–I think he is more interested in minimizing and denying harassment than in actually doing anything about it.

And psanity commented once more:

Well, I can only comment on how things appear to me, based on what I’ve seen in the public discourse, so that necessarily makes me be cautious and a bit general, but, let’s see.

One glaring thing, to me, is that 1) they seem to have no process for internal accountability that covers TAM. People in charge don’t seem to know what’s going on, what has gone on, or what actions they’ve taken. This interferes with their ability to solve problems, and to communicate well about a problem and how it is being solved.

2) There seems to be confusion about constituency. (Interestingly, there’s a lot of chat in Nonprofit World these days about this; apparently, it’s a common problem.) Generally, an org’s constituency is not the board, or the donors, but those served by the organization. It’s important that an organization define its constituency, because the best long-term decisions are made with that in mind. TAM/JREF appear to want a constituency that is broadly inclusive of skeptics, but when they meet a challenge, it’s clear that they have not determined how to serve a large portion of that community. The terrible PR issues are a result of that. If what they want is to be exclusive, and serve a smaller or more discrete constituency, they should do that. In this particular case, I think that would be detrimental, but it isn’t always. The important thing is to be clear, and have that inform your policies and programs.

3) I want to be very cautious about this, and not appear to be throwing around accusations. I see a big red flag waving about liability issues. With no other information than what I’ve gleaned from DJ’s statements and reactions, I’m very concerned about how JREF protects itself in terms of liability. I’d have to say this is based on instinct and experience, without having concrete information about internal policies, by-laws, etc. The symptoms are leading the diagnosis, if you will, with the lab results not in. But, these folks are running a big event with international attendance and a high profile, and it looks like they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. It’s bad even to allow that appearance.

NPO’s are usually started by good people with good intentions. They have a purpose, they get incorporated, work up some passable by-laws, then get busy doing their thing. Years or decades go by, the world changes, the organization develops, and one morning the current board wakes up and realizes they should have defined HR policies a while back, or they should have had an outside auditor’s advice once in a while, and they have a Big Problem. It’s not unusual, but the future depends on how you deal with it.

TAM is lucky, just lucky, that nothing worse has happened there (at least, to our knowledge). And here they’re surrounded by supportive people, people who raise money for them, people who promote them, people who are not only willing to point out problems, but also to offer a variety of useful and concrete solutions, and they act like they’re under siege. They obviously have no idea how lucky they are, and I doubt their luck will last.

From the people who are generally concerned with how organizations should run effectively to you.

An Organizational Perspective
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27 thoughts on “An Organizational Perspective

  1. 3

    *whistles (or would whistle if he could whistle)*

    That is one scathing though, far as I can tell, spot on assessment of the situation.

  2. 4

    Excellent comment, glad you elevated it to a post.

    That’s one of the things that has struck me the whole time about the harassment issue (as opposed to Elevatorgate and related stuff). This is not about trying to solve matters of privilege. It’s not even really about privilege per se, except insofar as the privilege is becoming a major roadblock to actually getting anything done here.

    Ultimately, this issue is much narrower in scope: it’s simply about addressing some significant gaps that skeptics conferences in general, and TAM in particular, have in regards to harassment reporting and other HR-ish issues. And as a result, it ought to be a lot easier, or at least a lot less emotionally charged. And yet, there’s this whole legion of people saying, “How dare you ask us to act like a modern professional organization?!” Blargh…

  3. 5

    Wow, I’m famous. Reading all that over, I’m pleasantly surprised I was making sense at 3am. I’m glad people are responding to the points I raised — it’s a relief to have a discussion about it, because it was broiling my brain.

  4. 6


    Ultimately, this issue is much narrower in scope: it’s simply about addressing some significant gaps that skeptics conferences in general, and TAM in particular, have in regards to harassment reporting and other HR-ish issues. And as a result, it ought to be a lot easier, or at least a lot less emotionally charged. And yet, there’s this whole legion of people saying, “How dare you ask us to act like a modern professional organization?!” Blargh…

    QFT. Especially the Blargh. Processes are informed by their environment, though, and sometimes the information is discomfiting.

    Welcome to 1985, JREF! Here, grab this rope, and we’ll pull you to 2012!

  5. 7

    I watched the FTB powwow video last night, and it was pointed and critical, while also illuminating, positive, and generous. See, that’s what civilized, reasonable discourse looks like.

    As the caffeine hit my brain this morning, I started gnawing at a particular point. Rebecca made it very clear how concerned and responsive DJ was regarding the threats to her safety last year — thus, the harassment policy of 2011. I got to thinking about how that response and policy were reactive — DJ was reacting to a specific problem, that he was genuinely concerned about, and did the right thing. BUT.

    Because the policy was purely a reaction, and had no process* behind it, the policy didn’t have infrastructure** and philosophy*** to back it up.****

    *I mean organizationally, and it’s admittedly an assumption

    **i.e., functional reporting

    ***Why are we doing this? Because our goal is that all attendees are safe and comfortable in the space we control. (Philosophy –> policy –> procedure)

    ****internal “foot”notes because that sentence had become so unwieldy I had to dissect it. Need more caffeine.

    I’m making some assumptions here, but it would explain a lot. Poor DJ: there’s a problem, he reacts to the problem by doing the Right Thing, and yet somehow it doesn’t work and lots of people are mad at him. So he’s defensive. Same with Drunk Guy: Drunk Guy was a problem, DJ threw him out, people thank him, good job! But somehow it’s all gone wrong. No fair!

    But, these things take us right back to lack of organizational process. Because of this lack, they haven’t built a functional system of “what to do if x”, and don’t have a philosophy/policy that tells them why they have and use the procedure. Most of us have a pretty good OK/not OK meter (and BTW, I think Creepy Camera Guy broke mine), but a NPO has to build the meter into the organization.

  6. 8

    I’ve been following this thing for awhile now. Since “youknowwhat-gate” last year, but have never commented. I appreciate the point that Rebecca, Stephanie, Greta, Ophelia, PZ and others have been trying to get across. I know its been frustrating, but I think in the end you all will have done a lot of good. So thanks.

    Anyway, I think Psanity makes some great points. From an administrative/liability standpoint, JREF’s actions make no sense.

  7. 9

    psanity, thanks for the road sign over to here. Yes to everything you say above, in spades.

    Who is watching the store? Who does DJ report to? This isn’t a witch hunt. This is a “you’ve got a serious problem and you don’t seem to realize exactly how serious this problem is” get your board to fire up the pumps because you may have missed it, but the ship is f’ing sinking.

    From Wikipedia:
    James Randi, Chairman, Board of Directors
    Rick Adams, Secretary, Board of Directors
    Daniel “Chip” Denman, Board of Directors

    Really, I’ve watched this happen to more than one convention. There are only two options available at this point: Everybody goes down with the ship or the Board steps up and gets their house in order.

    It’s clear that there are plenty of people who are willing to help, but as long as the conversation is being driven by pedantic a-holes arguing over word definitions or honing in on minutia about how something is phrased (and that seems to account for more than 50% of the comments I’ve read in the past few days), this is nothing but a death spiral of bad PR for TAM and JREF.

    This is how organizations die. And they’ve moved frighteningly far along the process very quickly.

  8. 10

    The silence from JREF is deafening. I assume they think that either this is a) an internet dustup that has no real significance (because the internet isn’t real!) and they can ignore it, or b) if they just shut up it will blow over and they can sit and think and take a month or so to come up with a policy that they will announce at the actual TAM.

    Either of those would indicate that they have no idea how social media works.

  9. 12

    They obviously have no idea how lucky they are, and I doubt their luck will last.

    Unfortunately, I believe their luck is running out. DJ does not appear interested in fixing problems, even when reasonable and workable fixes are presented. He got caught telling several untruths (I’m not going to call them lies) and instead of saying “oops, my bad, sorry about that” he pointed fingers randomly at the blogosphere and then retreated to sulk in his tent. And his constituency are getting annoyed. People are starting to vote with their wallets.

    JREF is going to have to do some massive damage control. One of the first things they need to do is hire a good PR person. The board of directors is going to have to take visible action to correct the perception that JREF doesn’t care about harassment and that who is to blame is less important than fixing obvious problems.

    I’m a white, upper middle-class, cis-hetero male skeptic. Apparently I’m in TAM’s target group. But I won’t be going to TAM any time soon. They lost me as a paying customer for their fundraiser.

  10. 13

    ‘Tis Himself @12

    “I’m a white, upper middle-class, cis-hetero male skeptic. Apparently I’m in TAM’s target group. But I won’t be going to TAM any time soon. They lost me as a paying customer for their fundraiser.”


  11. 14

    @12 I would suggest that their luck has already run out.

    TAM is tiny. It’s a really small con in a narrow subject area that attracts less than 2000 people. It’s got a draw location, but it’s in a convention town. There’s nothing stopping any of the other emerging skeptic/atheist organizations from convening there (if someone were being spiteful about it, they’d book the same weekend).

    This is a much less informed opinion than psanity’s, but JREF strikes me as not having groked that they are not the 800 pound gorilla of the skeptical world any more. People are willing and able to find other events that are closer and more in line with their interests (have you seen PZ’s travel schedule?). What they had was access to certain high draw names, and the cachet of being the original. That’s all very well when you’re sitting in the catbird seat and you’re an aspirational event (“Ah, I’ll save all the change I find in the couch, eat lots of ramen, and head to TAM next year”).

    Who’s aspiring to go now? Worse, what’s going to happen next year after the registrations decline, speakers tell TAM they’re unable to come (or explicitly tell them that they don’t want to be associated with TAM), and people coming into the movement are looking for someplace to go and be “out” as a skeptic see the dust up from this year and decide they don’t want to have anything to do with it?

    At some point, this shifts to tribal mode. If you support TAM, you’re good/evil and sides get picked (that it hasn’t already after the frankly egregious behavior of JREF is a testament to the desire of the rational community to be, well, rational). Once it happens though, there’s not really a path to recovery.

    Con death spiral. It’s taken down much larger prey than TAM.

  12. 15

    I also watched the FTB conversation and one of the best recommendations that came out of it was to get some HR consultants to advise them. I worked in management for a large SO Cal city and we were constantly trained in the what harassment was and what the city’s policy and procedures were to deal with it. There are videos out there that by themselves, that would go a long way into providing a start for setting such a system. Hell, I bet there are skeptics out there who would do it for free. None of this is new, as most of the videos I watched were probably made in the 80’s.

  13. 16

    @Psanity #7–

    I think you hit the nail on the head. There are two options here, and both of them make JREF look pretty bad. The first is that they set up a reactive policy with no idea how to implement it, and no real plan to do so. The second (and more sinister) is that they set up a policy to make it seem like they were doing something, but never really had any intention of following up on any harassment allegations. Again, both of these open JREF to HUGE issues of liability and PR problems.

    @ ‘Tis Himself–

    I think the likelihood that JREF will do anything to address this problem in any real way is hovering around zero. I think they will be content with their Deep Rift and will reference it a la “those touchy people, we didn’t want them in the first place, isn’t it nice how small and cozy TAM has gotten to be?”

  14. 19

    I met Carrie briefly at Freethought Festival in Madison, and I appreciate her work on her podcast. I’ve also been informed that she was in the studio when D.J. had his say about the definition of sexual harassment, though obviously not officially as Communications Director at that point. We’ll see how things go from here.

  15. 20

    Stephanie, I missed where DJ defined sexual harassment and couldn’t find a mention on Jason’s timeline. Could you point me in the right direction?

  16. 21

    A very loud, “Brava!” at psanity! Your posts were a masterful exposition of how and why policies need to be in place and you managed to avoid HR-speak so that people like me could understand it–thank you!

    I’ve volunteered for two non-profits in the last few years. Both had well-written anti-harrassment/pro-diversity policies in place. Both were *very* clear on what was not acceptable, how to report such incidents and to whom, what the follow-up would be, how investigations would be handled and by whom, and what the possible outcomes could be. That TAM still doesn’t is truly astonishing to me. Simple decency and a concern for the constituants should demand it, but, if for no other reason, than to provide the organization with some protection should the all-encompassing shitstorm of a lawsuit rear its ugly head demands it.

  17. 23

    Sorry to keep asking for clarification, I’d never heard of Emery before this “debate”, but his show is Ardent Atheist, correct? And you’re saying DJ has appeared on this show? Yikes, I didn’t think my opinion of him could sink any lower…

  18. 25

    Holy crap.

    In relation to the post: Some of that was rolling around in my head recently. But damn. That’s some really thorough analysis.

    Well done psanity and cyranothe2nd.

    That was great. Appreciate your insights.

  19. 26

    As a law nerd (meaning I sorely wish I hadn’t gone to law school and would probably take a job doing literally anything other than being a lawyer) I’ve been worried about that liability issue since (1) DJ denied there was a problem and (2) JREF refused to adopt a clear, accessible harassment policy.

    Notice that to successfully accomplish (2), you don’t really need to give a shit about women’s issues or any of the debate going (they should, but assume the worst case scenario-they’re assholes). All you need is an abiding love of your pocketbook and having a job.

    Now that this is all out, now that there are public discussions about harassment and previous incidents, they’re ability to defend a potential lawsuit by arguing “no one could possibly have known this sort of thing could happen ahead of time” is LOOOONG gone. Someone there needs to get a bunch of policies up on a website YESTERDAY just for ass-covering purposes.

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