Color of Change, Pioneering Racial-Justice Nonprofit, Is Plagued by Allegations of Sexual Assault and Bullying
Sean Campbell, Insider, May 17, 2023
Color of Change bills itself as the nation’s largest online racial-justice organization. Founded in 2005, the nonprofit raised at least $20 million in 2020, according to public documents, and regularly partners with A-list stars like Michael B. Jordan. Rather than on-the-ground action, the organization focuses more on building awareness through its various campaigns and petitions.
It pushed to end New York City’s racially biased “stop-and-frisk” policy, led a major advertising boycott that forced Glenn Beck off the air in 2009, and ran a campaign aimed at getting Fox to drop the show “Cops” from its lineup in 2013.
Its president, Rashad Robinson, is a regular on cable news, has been the subject of glowing profiles in Wired and Fast Company, and charges between $10,000 to $20,000 in speaking fees, according to one booking website.
But behind the scenes, some staff members say the organization has been wracked with internal turmoil, ineffective leadership, and deep layoffs. Insider spoke with more than two dozen current and former staff, managers, and directors across almost every team at Color of Change, and reviewed meeting recordings and internal communications.
Many sources said allegations of misconduct by senior leadership seemed to be ignored or glossed over, and a chaotic environment led to high turnover. One top executive was accused of bullying, harassment, and gender discrimination by multiple women in 2020, but quietly left the organization with a laudatory email after being cleared by a human-resources investigation. Conversely, the woman who first reported him was terminated.
A senior campaign-team manager was investigated after allegations surfaced in 2022 that he sexually assaulted an employee. After being cleared of wrongdoing by the organization’s human-resources department, he was removed from the organization a short time later. The allegations and the investigation sparked enough tumult inside the organization that Rashad Robinson held an all-hands Zoom meeting to address it.
In late 2020, multiple women accused a top-level Color of Change executive of bullying, harassment, and gender discrimination, according to internal communications and interviews with eight people who were with the organization at the time.
One senior staff member complained to the human-resources department about the inappropriate behavior she said she experienced, and within weeks of her initial contact with HR, her position was eliminated.
HR launched an investigation after the woman complained of wrongful termination, and multiple other women came forward to say they had experienced similar behavior from the executive. Two of those women said HR later informed them that it found no evidence of wrongdoing.
In January 2021, Robinson announced that the executive was leaving Color of Change. He received a laudatory send-off, and the allegations of misconduct were not mentioned. The executive did not respond to requests for comment.
He was not the only high-level employee accused of inappropriate behavior. Some former and current staff said that they were often berated by managers or denigrated in front of other employees. Others said that a former director would get drunk at organization events and make sexual comments to workers. Another former vice president was known to routinely yell at staff, and once threatened the life of an employee, according to staff and an emailed apology by the former vice president obtained by Insider. She declined to comment.
All of this came to a head in early 2022. According to interviews and a review of internal materials, the organization’s human-resources department became aware of an accusation that a senior campaign director on Color of Change’s criminal-justice team had sexually assaulted a female employee. The woman has not come forward, and she did not respond to requests for comment. Because she may be a victim of sexual assault, Insider is withholding her identity and some details.
Ariel Moore was on the team where the allegations arose. She’d been with Color of Change since 2020 and she’d seen this play out before: allegations of staff abuse by leaders, followed by an investigation and then sudden departures. Meanwhile, she said, the organization’s leader was focused on maintaining his visibility among the glitterati.
In an email announcing the second round of layoffs on May 4, Charles Fields, a new executive vice president of operations and impact, wrote that the recent cuts were designed to ensure the financial health of the organization.
But nearly every staff member Insider spoke to balked at the notion that the layoffs were tied to an unavoidable financial downturn. They pointed to the large sums spent on events that amounted to little more than photo ops and open bars, the millions of dollars spent on outside consultants, and the large salaries executives were paid.
Nine executives received nearly $2 million in compensation in 2019, according to tax filings for that year. Rashad Robinson alone received over $458,000 in total compensation, nearly $125,000 more than the president of the NAACP that year. (Color of Change did not report executive salaries on its 2020 tax filings and has not released its 2021 returns.)
Color of Change says that its compensation packages are indexed against peer organizations and done with the advice of external experts. The group said it also reduced its budget for consultants.
The organization has gone through multiple senior finance officers in recent years, and on April 24, Fields announced that the latest executive overseeing spending would be leaving Color of Change in June. An outside consulting firm is set to take over the finances after he leaves.
Color of Change is one of a handful of organizations that experienced a flood of donations in the wake of the murder of George Floyd Jr. and subsequent protests, and some have begun to question whether the money has advanced the cause of racial justice. Questions about the use of donated funds have dogged the social-justice advocate Shaun King for years, and reporting last year on the finances of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation revealed nearly $6 million in donor funds were used to purchase a luxury property in Los Angeles.
In light of the years of internal strife and high-paid senior leadership, Moore said that it was absurd that the organization’s union is still fighting for codified protections and changes to HR policy. In its statement, Color of Change wrote that it has “always operated in good faith to reach fair agreements” with the union and its representatives.
“It feels like a joke because of the organization’s values and mission,” Moore said. “It feels very much like we’re in a twilight zone, that we are trying to create a world that’s less hostile for Black people, and we refuse to protect Black women, Black people, at work.”