For 45 years, Haven Society has served as a safe harbour for women and children in the Nanaimo and Parksville region. The largest organization of its kind in the mid-Island area, it offers services like transitional shelters, counselling and food boxes for women and families fleeing domestic abuse.
However, for months, readers have asked The Discourse to investigate concerns that, over the last five years, Haven Society has become a “toxic environment.”
Sources say a strained relationship between the society’s board of directors and staff has caused nearly half of Haven’s roughly 30 employees to leave. Some employees had been with Haven for decades, some for years, some only a few months.
According to a source still working at Haven, six high level positions are currently vacant, covering a range of roles from finance to human resources, fundraising, community engagement and housing. Currently, there is an interim executive director and a business operations manager.
“The very nature of work has changed dramatically in the last three years and as a result, our organization, like many others, are experiencing some turnover,” stated then-executive director Lisa Scott, via email, on April 11 when asked about the allegations. “It is accurate to say we are currently in the process of onboarding staff in new roles and providing additional support and training to existing staff.”
Former employees who spoke to The Discourse have said they don’t know any staff who have left due to COVID-19. Several sources have stated they left the organization due to intimidation by management, feeling unsafe in the workplace and disagreement with the direction the society is going.
“An organization that is supposed to give women a voice and help protect them from abuse, inside their culture is abusive; and making sure that women don’t talk. It’s very backwards,” says Becca, a previous employee of Haven who asked that her real name not be disclosed due to safety concerns.
Becca is one of the many sources close to the organization who told The Discourse they felt it necessary to speak up. Former and current employees claim a range of issues from alleged bullying in the workplace to mismanagement of resources and to an overall dysfunction that is impacting services and community engagement.
The Discourse was in contact with over 20 former and current employees, board members and clients to understand these allegations. To protect their current and future employment, some sources have been given an alias. While their identities and roles within the organization have been verified by The Discourse, descriptions of their relationships to the society are intentionally obscured.
Some people declined to be interviewed citing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) written into contracts that prevents employees in management roles speaking publicly about their work experience at Haven.
According to some of these sources, NDAs were written into management-level employee contracts around 2021 and specifically relate to workplace relations, not client confidentiality.
Work Safe BC has conducted nine inspections within the last three years at the society, according to a representative. Three incident reports have been conducted this year, as of February. Usually no reports are conducted about the organization, sources say.
Some sources say they have attempted to involve their union, Health Sciences Association of BC, though progress is slow and support seems limited. A representative for the union declined to be interviewed.
Despite being fearful of retribution, employees say they are determined to see Haven live up to its values of equality, mutual respect and interdependence as it did before.
“It’s always the question; why don’t women leave an abusive relationship? Someone was asking me, why don’t people just leave Haven?” says Stacy, a current employee at Haven.
“I really love my work. This is the work that I want to do. I work with great women. I have a pension that I’m collecting. So there’s all of those reasons. But it’s also a toxic environment. So you keep trying to survive it. It’s hurting really good women that are trying so hard to protect and support our community.”
Related: Why The Discourse investigated Haven Society
In 1978, the Vancouver Island Haven Society was incorporated as a response to the growing demand of support for women and families experiencing violence and abuse.
Since then, the society has expanded to operate safe shelters in Parksville and Nanaimo and work in partnership with other organizations to deliver local programs like the Sexual Assault Response Program. According to the website, Haven supports roughly 5,000 people each year.
“People wholeheartedly believed in working to end violence against women and children and felt supported in their work,” says Aly, a long-time employee who made the difficult decision to leave the agency after years of service.
She describes an organization that was built on feminist values and cooperation between staff and management. “A leadership team was developed with representation from across the agency. Weekly meetings facilitated decision making and open communication. This collaborative process was dismantled with the shift to a top-down leadership style.”
This shift appears to have begun at some point in 2018, and affected many aspects of how Haven operated, including the way staff were treated.
That year, a respected leader within the organization, Theresa Gerritsen, was fired and escorted off the property.
“Staff were deeply impacted [by that event],” recalls Aly. “It brought up a lot of fear and uncertainty. She held important knowledge about the budget and contracts and always had an open door for any staff with questions or concerns. It felt like the heart of Haven was gone.”
Gerritsen was the business and finance manager at Haven Society from 2013 to 2018 and was “deeply respected for her knowledge, analysis and compassionate approach to leadership,” says Aly.
She also developed Haven’s groundbreaking Men Choose Respect program, which focused on men who sought to change their abusive behaviour.
“I was terminated without cause, so there was no issue with my work,” Gerritsen told The Discourse.
A clinical therapist and professor who works as a consultant in nonprofit management and community development, Gerristsen says she was given a letter of termination which stated that the organization was undergoing a restructuring of management, and was not given an opportunity to gather up her belongings before being walked out to her car.
“It was a really strange way to have to exit after being there for almost five years… I’ve never really understood why that was done that way,” she says, adding that it was indicative of the “radically different” change in leadership style at that time.
Before 2018, it was common for employees and volunteers of Haven to stay at the society for 10 or 20 years, according to multiple sources. Board members and executive directors also usually served the society for long terms.
“The executive directors that I worked under came from frontline experience first, so they were social workers or counsellors in other lives; they had come from the feminist, anti-violence sector,” says Amber, a former employee who left prior to 2019.
Previously, both staff and the board of directors were involved in hiring the executive director, a high-level position responsible for overseeing the day-to-day activities of the organization. The last few executive directors have been hired on an interim basis by appointment from the board of directors only.
Staff members used to attend board of director meetings to give insight into the issues on the front lines, however according to multiple employees, around 2019 the board decided that staff were no longer welcome to attend meetings and are discouraged from reaching out to them.
These staff members allege this disconnection has created a lack of transparency and concerns about staff safety. Employees say they are now in constant fear of losing their jobs or being disciplined if they speak out against management and the board.
Around 2020, the board of directors at Haven had 13 members. According to the 2021/2022 annual report, almost half of the board of directors did not serve the full year on the board. After the annual general meeting in September 2022, the society restructured down to only five members, two of whom were on the previous board.
The growing number of problems came to a head in the spring of 2022, when roughly five managers and employees, in addition to the executive director, collectively resigned, according to multiple sources.
Though it was the first time an exodus of this scale had happened, sources say employees had also resigned or been fired from the organization before this point.
“I was really sick. I was getting hives. I was having a hard time sleeping. I was having anxiety and panic attacks,” says Aly. “It was more than a job. Staff were passionate and committed to working to end violence against women and children. People volunteered and participated in events and fundraising opportunities. Political activism was part of the vision. That seemed to have shifted …. I don’t see Haven at the table or participating in women’s events or community activism anymore.”
While executive directors used to serve in long-term capacities at Haven, since 2021 the society has had three different executive directors.
Last spring, Lisa Scott was hired by the board of directors to be the society’s temporary executive director before becoming permanent in the position.
The Discourse sent a detailed list of questions to Scott beginning in December 2022, and made multiple interview requests for over six months, as well as reaching out to a board member, who did not respond.
“Our organization is currently undergoing a cultural transition as we move to better incorporate principles of reconciliation, equity, and inclusion,” Scott finally stated, via email, on April 11.
“In recent months, we’ve held a series of workshops with staff including how to deal with conflict in the workplace, cultivating safe spaces, and addressing bullying and harassment. We’ve also focused on the importance of self-care for service providers. Haven will continue to provide well-resourced, critical services for people in our community, rooted in our anti-violence, feminist, and anti-racist values.”
Three days later, on April 14, Scott resigned. Currently, the organization has as its interim executive director, Maeve O’Byrne, who was appointed by the board of directors.
Related: How to get non-profit governance back on track
Cuts to services and programming
Employee turnover and alleged disconnect with staff and the board are not the only issues at Haven Society. In recent years, programs and community engagement have also been cut back.
For more than 20 years, for example, Haven provided long-term clinical counselling for clients; this model was eliminated around 2019 and currently the society only offers individual counselling for a maximum of eight to 10 sessions.
“When clients have had complex trauma and have often experienced childhood abuse as well as sexual abuse, sexual assault and violence in intimate relationships, it’s hard to imagine how they could be effectively supported with such limited sessions and very short-term work,” says Aly.
While sources interviewed for this story stress that Haven Society is still providing a range of services to women, children, youth and families, internal programming has also shrunk, such as in-depth training on abuse, diversity and safety for volunteers and board members.
Board members used to be required to go through the training sessions before volunteering at Haven but are currently not required to take any training, according to multiple sources.
A current employee said staff also lacked adequate training to deal with the vulnerable population they are required to serve. “We don’t have Naloxone training. We don’t have ‘dealing with violence in the workplace’ training — and we work in a place where dangerous, homicidal men could be coming up in our workplace. We have no training, no safety about that,” says Stacy.
Since January 2023, staff have received first aid training and participated in a bullying and harassment session. Multiple sources have stated that during the bullying seminar, they felt intimidated by the presenter to not voice concerns to management.
Sensitivity and safety training should be required for all staff, concludes one current Haven client, who alleges she has been bullied and harassed by staff members.
“There was a lot of help in a physical sense that you won’t find anywhere else… There simply just isn’t enough resources to go around and there’s too many people who need help,” says Micha, who has used housing services from Haven for over a year. “I was infantilized repeatedly and spoke to in a racialized manner by [staff].”
Micha says she attempted to voice her complaints to the executive director and management team, but was told it was a “she said, he said” situation. She has now been cut off from support at Haven due to what she describes as unsubstantiated allegations against her.
Related: What are vulnerable tenants’ rights in non-profit housing?
Funding and spending seem balanced from 2013 until 2018, according to the annual reports published on Haven’s website. After 2018, the organization began bringing in more revenue than what was spent on services.
In the 2020/2021 annual report, Haven secured roughly $3.4 million in funding whereas they only spent approximately $2.5 million of that revenue, an almost million-dollar difference. Haven’s surplus in 2021/2022 was $389,473.
A surplus of this size is seen as significant for a non-profit organization. It’s more typical for a budget to be roughly balanced, according to experts consulted by The Discourse, although in some years, land acquisitions or other investments may require a surplus.
“The surplus could be due to a shift in executive directors and program managers, as well as departure of ‘boots on the ground’ staff and managers ensuring things happen,” Gerritsen says, noting that she had left the organization by this point.
“2020 was also COVID. Maybe clientele weren’t coming. I can only guess, but it implies that it was difficult to meet the service objectives, either due to low staff or low client volume,” she says, adding that employee wages represented almost 80 per cent of the budget at Haven when she was there.
“But sometimes it’s also related to ‘how do you implement,’ right? So you’ve got a brand new person at the helm, and there was a lot of management [turnover] through that time period. Those are all people that were responsible for certain things, and how do you keep operations moving if you don’t have sufficient people to carry those out?”
Final reports can also be affected by a big surge in revenue, such as donations, “but typically, you should be able to see the sources of the revenue,” says Gerritsen. “Then underspending just implies that the deliverables were not accomplished.”
Past employees suggest the organization is now being run more like a for-profit business, pointing to a shift in leadership styles and overall atmosphere at Haven around 2019.
“It was a completely different set of values and vision of leadership; no collaboration and no consideration of the voices and perspectives of front line staff. It was a top-down, ‘what I say goes’ corporate-style of leadership. So, that was a completely different style of leadership I had never seen before, and this style was deliberately brought to Haven by the board of directors,” says Amber.
Haven did not respond to questions about the cuts to services, how this may or may not relate to employee retention, budget surplus or the alleged change in management approach. “A number of the questions you’ve raised touch on personal, confidential, or ongoing matters that we are not in a position to comment on specifically,” then-executive director Scott wrote, via email.
In the midst of this strenuous time between staff and the board, the society received recognition from Domestic Shelters — the Purple Ribbon award for Outstanding Board of the Year in 2021. A member of the administration at Haven nominated the organization for the award.
One local community group did not share the same praise. Grassroots community group Nanaimo Women Helping Women reached out to Haven in August 2022 to support their work with women and families, however Haven was not responsive to working together, according to emails reviewed by The Discourse.
“NWHW offers a variety of supports to numerous organizations in Nanaimo and surrounding areas to provide much-needed assistance to women and families in our community,” says Kerri Isham, one of the founders of the community group. “NWHW approached Haven to offer support, however the past ED declined to work together.”
Related: Nanaimo women organize to deliver low-barrier support for women in need
Coming together to create change
Concerned about the society’s direction, some board members tried to organize a special general meeting in 2021 to vote out the allegedly problematic members, but as board members began to resign throughout the year, there wasn’t enough support to follow through.
Another attempt to remedy the situation came in May 2022, when a group of current and former staff members penned a letter describing their “concern about the well-being of Haven Society,” and contacted local news outlets for support, encouraging community members to get involved by becoming members so they could vote at the annual general meeting.
Current and past employees hope raising public awareness of the dysfunction at Haven will become a catalyst for positive change.
“It will take time to restore the society back to its feminist values,” says Aly, though she believes it’s possible. “It’s like you’re rebuilding a whole new organization.”
Editor’s Note: Sources interviewed for this story were quick to emphasize that Haven Society is still providing services, and staff continue to work hard within the organization to deliver them. Read more about the ethical considerations behind this investigation in this Reporter’s Notebook.
If you or anyone you know needs assistance, do not hesitate to reach out to Haven or other groups within the community.
- Women and children in need of transition housing can contact Haven Society at 1-888-756-0616 and Cedar Woman House at 250-591-5580
- Kw’umut Lelum has resources to support local First Nation members at 250-591-0933
- People in need of counselling can contact Nanaimo Family Life Association for access to services, including counsellors who specialize in supporting survivors of sexual assault, 250-754-3331
- Children and youth can contact the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s Helpline for Children at 310-1234 anytime, no area code is necessary. Youth can also visit YouthinBC for more resources