After a month of brutal headlines, Time’s Up CEO Tina Tchen resigned on Thursday, leaving behind deep questions about the organization’s mission and values and whether it can continue in its current form.
Tchen, a former corporate attorney who served as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, pursued a theory of change that relied on cozy relationships with powerful figures. The organization’s board — mostly powerful people in their own right — will now have to decide whether that’s still the right way to serve the #MeToo movement.
“They need to ask themselves as an organization who they are,” said Elizabeth Searing, a professor of nonprofit management at the University of Texas at Dallas. “It’s important to remember that this isn’t the movement. Sometimes it’s the right thing to let a nonprofit die because it’s the right thing for the movement.”
Time’s Up faced withering scrutiny following the Aug. 3 release of the New York Attorney General’s report on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which showed that the group had coordinated with Cuomo’s office on its response to sexual harassment allegations. For an organization committed to supporting survivors, that was damning, and it led to the resignation of co-chair Roberta Kaplan, who had also been working closely with the Cuomo administration.
Subsequent reporting by the New York Times and the Washington Post has also detailed Tchen’s involvement in instructing the group to “stand down” from issuing a statement in support of Lindsey Boylan, the former Cuomo aide who came forward last December. The Post also reported on a text message, in which Tchen appeared to disbelieve Boylan’s account, saying it was “all over the place.” Tchen told the Post that she meant that Boylan’s story had been widely circulated, not that she doubted it.
Many survivors have been calling on Tchen to resign for weeks. Despite the strong backing from the board, the Post story proved too much for her to withstand. In her statement on Thursday, Tchen said she had become a “painful and divisive focal point” and that therefore it was best for her to move on. But she also defended her approach to change, saying it was important to have access to the corridors of power.
“Change happens when we move those who run companies to enact policies to make things better for women and other workers, and when legislators enact laws to further gender equity and safety,” she wrote. “And change happens when we also hold them accountable when needed… Time’s Up’s advocacy was based on that premise, that we cannot just shout on the outside for change without helping companies, government leaders and policy makers find the solutions to do better.”
Time’s Up is expected to hire a consultant to help fix some of its issues. But it is ultimately up to the board of directors to chart the course ahead. If it sticks with Tchen’s approach to working closely with powerful institutions, it will have to figure out how to better handle the inevitable conflicts.
Teri Behrens, executive director of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, argued that the board needs to spend some time deeply reflecting on their shared mission and values, and get clear on that before moving forward.
“They talk about trying to change organizational cultures,” she said. “But it’s slipped into these personal relationships, where they’re supporting the individual, rather than trying to create a more supportive culture.”
Searing argued that the organization needed to do a better job of guarding against both conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts. When Kaplan was approached for help with Cuomo’s response, she and Time’s Up should have recognized that such a request had the potential to tarnish the group’s reputation.
“In that case you tell your friend, ‘This is something I can’t do… I can’t have this conversation,'” Searing said. “That’s the line that could have saved them a lot of grief: ‘I can’t have this conversation with you.'”
GLAAD, the gay advocacy organization, has also straddled that insider-outsider line, but has done so well enough to survive for 36 years. Neil Giuliano, a former president of GLAAD, echoed Tchen’s argument that it’s essential to work closely with organizations, though he acknowledged that those relationships have sometimes become cause for criticism.
“We were close to them because we were educating them and training them,” he said. “You can’t do all of that by slapping people for doing something bad. You have to go into their culture and understand their culture to change their culture.”
At the same time, he argued, you have to draw lines and hold people accountable.
“You have to err on the side of doing your job,” Giuliano said. At the end of the day, he said, “You can only do one thing, and that is to say privately exactly what you would say publicly, with no compromise.”
Searing suggested that the change of leadership would be good for the organization, and that it may want to bring in new board members who can say “no” when needed.
“It is possible to come back from this kind of situation,” she said.
But, she added, the board may want to explore splitting up or disbanding entirely.
“I’m sure this is a wonderful organization, but I don’t think everything will be lost if it goes under,” Searing said.