Two hours before committee members were scheduled to discuss plans for the upcoming Darkness to Light gala during a June meeting, they learned that the November event - long considered one of Charleston's biggest black-tie parties - had been canceled.
A series of smaller, "grassroots" events would do a better job reaching a national audience, Darkness to Light President and CEO Jolie Logan told the group in an email. A local gala wasn't a good fit anymore.
"We have had so much growth over the last several years, and there's one thing that hasn't changed - the gala," Logan said in a recent interview. "It served its purpose."
While Logan and her Board of Directors insist this was simply a strategic business move - particularly because a $300-per-ticket party no longer seemed like the best way to spread their message about preventing child sexual abuse - some longtime supporters and ex-employees interviewed by The Post and Courier worry that Darkness to Light is unraveling and that canceling the gala was simply the latest in a string of poor management decisions. Local volunteers who remain deeply committed to the cause believe Logan is alienating the community that nurtured this organization from the ground up in favor of becoming a national brand.
"It just feels like they're turning their backs on the hand that fed them for so many years when they were getting started," said Katie Shayda, who started volunteering for Darkness to Light more than 10 years ago as a College of Charleston student. She said she felt compelled to walk away after the gala was abruptly called off. "It was literally hours before one of our scheduled meetings."
Darkness to Light was founded in Charleston 14 years ago by Anne Lee, a survivor of child sexual abuse. She has since left the organization, but it continues her mission - developing training programs for adults to detect signs of sexual abuse among children. An estimated 6,700 facilitators now teach the Darkness to Light curriculum in all 50 states and in an additional 16 countries.
But recent staff departures and the fact that only one local member remains on the Board of Directors concerns some volunteers and former employees - and they believe Logan is to blame. An executive coach that the board hired to improve her management skills isn't working, they said.
"The community and the issue deserve better," said Doug Warner, who resigned in March as director of development.
Logan contends that the organization's balance sheet is strong, that its influence is growing and that a disgruntled, but vocal minority is simply reluctant to embrace change.
"Every company goes through growth. That leads to change," she said. "All of that sometimes comes with detractors, but we're focused on making a difference - and we are."
When Lee, Darkness to Light's former president and founder, quit in 2011 - citing "philosophical differences" with the Board of Directors - Logan was promoted to the position.
Meanwhile that fall, conversations about child sexual abuse - locally and nationally - were forced to the forefront when allegations surfaced that Skip ReVille, a former Citadel summer camp counselor, and Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach, had molested dozens of young boys. Both men have since been convicted for their crimes.
Immediately after Lee left, Logan told The Post and Courier that Darkness to Light intended to train more than 10 million people in the next decade. She estimates the organization sold 185,000 training packets during the past fiscal year, up from 76,000 in 2011.
"We have a big vision and we need to be focused on it," she said.
In 2012, Penn State students organized a high-profile "Walk for Prevention" following the Sandusky sex abuse scandal to benefit Darkness to Light and Logan brokered a deal with The Citadel to train everyone on campus, including cadets, to notice signs of sexual abuse.
Logan, who is paid $120,000 a year according to tax records, regularly offers expert commentary on child sexual abuse to national news outlets and helped forge partnerships with more than 200 YMCAs across the country.
"We are this little Charleston organization supported by amazing people in Charleston, but with a reach that is really sometimes mind-boggling," Logan said. Darkness to Light was recently named a Top 5 Child Rights program by the United Nations Foundation. "We're so proud of that. The community should be very proud of that."
Local volunteers have "given selflessly for years," said David Repinski, the Darkness to Light Board of Directors chairman, who lives in Atlanta. Still, the organization needs to continue broadening its scope, he said, and that includes nixing the gala in favor of other events that can be replicated across the country.
"We don't mean it at all as a slap in the face to Charleston," he said. "We worried about that."
Prior to Logan's 2013 performance evaluation, several of her employees shared their feedback on her abilities in a series of emails obtained by The Post and Courier. The comments were overwhelmingly negative with staffers expressing doubts about her effectiveness, leadership skills and fundraising abilities.
"I have serious doubts about the current effectiveness of the executive management of the organization," wrote Beth Anne Crane, a former gala committee chairwoman, in an email.
Crane laid out those concerns to the Darkness to Light Board of Directors chairman on May 6 - a full month before she found out the gala was canceled. "I have benefactors and volunteers asking me 'What is going on at D2L?'"
Ralph Mellard, a local real estate agent and the only Charleston representative on the Board of Directors, would not disclose how much the board spent on Logan's executive coach.
"I know many executives in many companies that do have coaches and it helps them develop and that's the sole purpose of it," Mellard said.
Repinski, the board chairman and CEO of a claims management firm, said, "If we didn't have confidence, she wouldn't be leading the organization."
But Crane said recent staff departures speak for themselves. The director of operations left last September. The special events manager and the programs prevention manager left May and June.
"I didn't feel comfortable raising money," Crane said. "I saw, sort of, the writing on the wall."
Tax records show Darkness to Light raised $2.3 million during the 2013 fiscal year. Most of it - about $1.4 million - came from the training kits.
By comparison, special events, including the annual gala, raised $154,000 after expenses. During the 2012 fiscal year, proceeds from the gala were even lower - only $84,000 after expenses.
"It's not just about the money, otherwise no one would do events," Logan said. "That's the tough part - they don't raise as much money as other efforts, but they do other things. It's the community interaction. It's all the reasons that the gala has been important to us over the years."
Previous galas drew hundreds of people with deep pockets and featured well-known names - supermodel Lauren Hutton and TV host John Walsh, for example.
When Logan announced that the 2014 gala was canceled, committee members were confused. Some felt her email was flippant and that she seemed ungrateful for work that they had already invested. Companies had committed to buy several $2,500 tables. A designer was working on the "Alice and Wonderland" themed invitations.
But the gala no longer seemed the best way to spread Darkness to Light's message, Logan said, partly because it "lent itself to a fairly exclusive audience."
Darkness to Light will host a Charleston event in April during which Matt Sandusky, one of Jerry Sandusky's adopted children and abuse victims, will speak. Tickets will cost about $40 - significantly less than the $300 gala tickets - making the event more affordable for many people. It's an example of a local event that may be more easily copied in other cities, Logan said.
Even so, deciding to cancel the gala this year was not made lightly, she insisted. The board debated the idea for months, reviewing decisions that other organizations have made and pouring over best practices, including a national report called "Breaking the Gala Addiction," which explains that galas are among the most expensive and riskiest ways to raise money.
"The decision was not an easy one," Repinski said. "I hope we got it right."
Still, Shayda said volunteers are upset about the change.
"Some people care, some people don't," she said. "It's just sad because we are all very, very passionate about the actual cause."
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.