GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Community Media Center, a nonprofit founded in 1980 to provide community programming across various media platforms, is the subject of both internal and external reviews, MiBiz has learned.
The investigations follow allegations from multiple former GRCMC employees and board members, who have come forward with claims that span roughly six years while the organization has been under the leadership of 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, a community-based online news site.
MiBiz spoke with 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 core of their allegations are claims about a lack of transparency between Gellasch and board members when employees have come forward with concerns, which sources interviewed for this report say is antithetical to GRCMC’s mission.
Specifically, the claims involve Gellasch’s direct oversight of budgets and donor relationships that former employees say had been handled by GRCMC program directors in the past.
As well, former board members cite these changes as contributing to a decline in major contributions from donors over the past half decade.
The GRCMC’s budget is composed of donations and public funding through franchise fees from the city of Grand Rapids, as well as various media services the nonprofit provides. According to the most recent federal tax filings publicly available, GRCMC’s revenue from contributions and grants dropped from about $643,000 in 2016 to about $337,000 by 2018. GRCMC declined to provide more recent data on revenue from contributions and grants.
Meanwhile, former employees and board members have made claims of mistreatment via multiple forums, including a public blog post from a recent facility director who was fired from her position earlier this year after less than three months on the job. The employee, former Wealthy Theatre Director Jessica Alverson, also refused to sign a confidential separation agreement with non-disclosure clauses that Gellasch had signed on Aug. 30, according to a copy of the document posted online.
Gellasch and Board President Jason Wheeler said last week they would respond separately to MiBiz’s questions. Instead, a public relations firm representing GRCMC sent a statement, which officials described as comprising the full organization’s response. In the statement that didn’t address 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 been presented with evidence to support these claims.”
In response to Alverson’s public claims against Gellasch, “the GRCMC Board is reviewing all HR policies and taking a more active role in ongoing oversight of these policies,” the organization said.
“Because of 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 review any claims of wrongdoing brought to its attention. We are confident this process will demonstrate our adherence to the GRCMC policies and commitment to the organization’s mission, staff, and the community we serve.”
While the nonprofit’s board refuted claims of wrongdoing, allegations from several former employees and board members 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,” Assistant City Manager Doug Matthews said in a statement to MiBiz. “The (city’s) Comptroller did have some observations and recommendations for improving future accounting and reporting processes, which will be included as part of an operational review that’s currently underway.”
Matthews said it was in the city’s interest to “ensure that there was no malfeasance relative to the funds received by the CMC as part of their contract with the City to manage public access television operations.”
‘Call for accountability’
Alverson wrote publicly last month about her experience as Wealthy Theatre director, which lasted from June 14 to Aug. 31 of this year. In a post on the web platform Medium, Alverson outlines her concerns with Gellasch’s actions as a leader, as well as the overall lack of accountability and transparency within the organization.
“Many have tried in vain to get board members, supporting foundations, and municipal leaders to do something, anything, about their concerns over leadership as the CMC — previously a beloved champion of free speech and community voice — was weakened,” Alverson wrote last month. “Our stories all tell a broken record of repeated mistreatment of staff, financial indiscretion, loss of institutional talent, and an inability to both retain funding support and create programming with community benefit and community voice as its focus and purpose.
“This is a call for accountability.”
Alverson elaborated to MiBiz that the “financial indiscretion” stemmed from a “lack of transparency, exclusive and total oversight of finances by one or two people, and a stated inability to invest in basic repairs to infrastructure — despite having a very robust bank account and some very reliable revenue streams.”
Kelly Koning — a former GRCMC board president and daughter of the organization’s founder, Dirk Koning — was board president in 2017 and most recently served as a board member in 2018, according to the organization’s tax filings. She left the board amid concerns about whether disputes within the organization were being taken seriously by GRCMC leadership.
“There were a lot of various reasons (why I left the board), both personal and also with the direction of where the organization was going,” Koning told MiBiz. “As a board member, I felt that there were issues at hand and voicing my opinion seemed to not be taken seriously.”
During her board tenure, Koning confirmed that multiple employees had brought concerns to the board about Gellasch’s treatment of employees. However, she also said that she “didn’t see any financial discrepancies that I’d be worried about.”
Former Wealthy Theater Director Erin Wilson, who worked at GRCMC for 14 years before leaving in late October 2017, was also responsible for overseeing major gifts from foundations to the organization. He also expressed concerns about the handling of accounts with donors.
“Promises made to foundations are serious business, because these relationships are based in trust. If something occurs that I consider a violation of an agreement, I’ll say something,” he said in an email to MiBiz.
Wilson added that he took issue with how his co-workers were treated.
“I also had serious issues with what I considered mistreatment of my fellow employees. I left CMC because I love it and I wanted someone to notice that things weren’t right. It’s an organization with a mission that is desperately needed right now. Maybe more than ever before. But you have to be able to look (at) yourself in the mirror,” he said.
Another former board member, who asked to not be identified, told MiBiz they left with “great concerns about the turnover of staff, especially long-term staff.”
“We’d had a tenured leadership team that continued to exit the company without perhaps a clear direction from the executive director on why they were leaving,” the former board member said. “So you’d hear from staff that they were leaving because of (Gellasch), financial practices, donor engagement or other frustrations and not having an avenue to discuss those.”
The former board member added that “donors were disengaging from the process because the new process was taking away ownership of donor engagement with each leader within the organization and moving it all towards (Gellasch).”
Former employees interviewed for this report say they want accountability not just at GRCMC, but among nonprofit organizations more broadly. As well, past GRCMC board members are calling for more transparency in how employee disputes with leadership are handled.
Wilson, the former theater director, said documentation detailing employee treatment was provided to a “handful of community leaders, with a focus on the structural problems that left workers and volunteers in this void, without any recourse.”
“And it’s more than just ‘these people are experiencing harm, and we need to help them.’ The workers who are boots on the ground in the nonprofit sector are also the canaries in the coal mine: If an organization’s internal safeguards fail, the workers are the only way we’ll know when things are going sideways,” Wilson said. “We have to take them seriously. And, no, that doesn’t mean we automatically believe anyone. But, we can always take people seriously. And, once there’s a whole group of people saying basically the same thing — either they’re all crazy, or something’s wrong.”
Janay Brower, a former GRCMC board member who left shortly after Gellasch’s hiring, said “there needs to be a larger community conversation not only about (GRCMC’s) specific role but also around how the nonprofit sector is held accountable for the people who are working for them and who they’re working for.”
Koning, whose father started what went on to become the GRCMC, hopes the organization remains true to its original mission.
“The media center is near and dear to me. I hope that change can come about positively for the media center — I think it’s very important to the community,” Koning said. “Sharing voices is the core of what the media center is, so when voices are not heard, or people are not feeling heard, it should be taken very seriously
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