CFI Budget Cuts Lead to a Number of Firings June 2, 2010

CFI Budget Cuts Lead to a Number of Firings

***Update***: Here’s a fact sheet released by CFI (PDF) regarding their financial situation and the lapsed donor in question.

***Update2***: You can read a response from one person with more knowledge of what happened here.

There’s been a lot of bitter back and forth between the Center for Inquiry and founder Paul Kurtz (who recently resigned).

This time, Kurtz is reacting to the unceremonious downsizing that is happening:

I arrived at the Center for Inquiry at shortly after 1:00PM today. Norman Allen (Director of International Programs and Director of African Americans for Humanism) was carrying a box of books to his car.

I said to Norm, “How are you, Norm” He replied, “I have just been fired by [CEO] Ron Lindsay!”

Neither Lindsay nor [executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism Tom] Flynn thanked Norm for his years of service. Norm was stunned. He recently returned from the most successful meeting that African Americans for Humanism ever had (in May in Washington, DC) and that they received world-wide news stories. Moreover, he was enthusiastic about the continued growth of humanism in Africa. There are now 72 groups in over 30 countries! Norm had visited them several times, and he had been in constant contact. Norm believes that the African American Humanist program–the only one of its kind in the North America– will suffer irreparable damage. Similarly for his significant role, not only in Africa, but world-wide, as Norm Allen heads up our international programs….


Four other people were fired today in a similar way: Toni Van Pelt, Henry Huber, Rick O’Keefe, and Matthew Sapara. Meanwhile, the Office of Public Policy in Washington, DC and CFI Florida in Tampa have been closed. The downward spiral of the Center for Inquiry continues under the regime of Ronald Lindsay.

Budget cuts have affected all the organizations in the atheist/Humanist world, but CFI acted on their woes in a rather callous way, it seems.

This is obviously only one side of the story. The firings don’t surprise me, because when your budget falls, people have to be let go. That’s how it goes. And it’s the leaders’ responsibility to figure out who stays and who doesn’t.

I’m more curious as to why it seems to have occurred in a way unbefitting a Humanist organization.

(via R. Joseph Hoffmann)

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  • NewEnglandBob

    All people act stupidly at one time or another. It is part of being human.

  • anon

    CFI website says the budget problem is due to the loss of a single anonymous donor. Maybe this donor didn’t like the way Paul Kurtz was treated, so he’s going to take his ball and go home?

  • plutosdad

    All layoffs are callous, and when they happen no matter what management says “it’s not about you” you don’t believe it (after all why didn’t they lay off this other guy). And you are angry and want to rant against something but don’t know what to rant against.

    If you are more credulous you will believe it’s some sort of conspiracy. Just like people who suffer from circumstance, you ask “why?” But there doesn’t need to be a why, well in this case because it is humans acting there IS a why, but it may be impossible to determine, an organization doing bad financially because of years of decisions that weren’t necessarily right or wrong.

    It sucks but people being upset when they are laid off doesn’t mean there really was anything else going on. That’s how you feel when it happens to you.

  • Melody

    I think it’s unwise to post comments by staff members after a highly emotional time where they may have said things that they don’t mean or weren’t thinking clearly.

    We are $800,000 in debt (because of the loss of one big donor, our other donations have actually increased) and had to make financial cuts. There was absolutely no way around it. Many of us are surprised that more staff cuts were not made. I lost my physical Center in DC, which I am completely heartbroken about, but I have no choice but to understand. I purchased a home next to my Center so you can imagine what a great loss this is to me.

    FYI – I was completely responsible for the planning and executing the first African Americans for Humanism conference with little to no help from Amherst or Norm Allen. That’s not to downplay the work Norm has done, especially in Africa. We all thank him for his decades of service. Staff will carry on the torch and our AAH program will continue and flourish.

    I recommend that everyone read this fact sheet to answer any questions you may have:

  • OK, to call being laid off “fired” is a touch dramatic, but budget cuts wouldn’t excuse lack of courtesy and gratitude (assuming the part about not being thanked is true). I don’t know they other people, but I do recognize Norm Allen’s name, and I’m surprised he would get the axe. It’s hardly like he’s deadweight – he’s had some recent and awesome accomplishments. I don’t follow the CFI dramatics terribly closely, but it seems both factions have their members behaving in an unbecoming manner. More’s the pity.

  • This is indeed a terrible thing for Norm and others involved, I cannot imagine how they feel. However, the sad fact is that an $800K annual shortfall from a single donor has to be made up somewhere. I for one am increasing my annual donation to the best of my limited means in order to (minimally) try and make up for it. I urge others to do the same.

    R. Joseph Hoffmann has repeatedly censored mine and other CFI staffers polite and accurate comments on his blog. He is far from a reliable information source.

    Melody is correct, Hemant should at least post the PDF fact sheet and the information inside it. It is abundantly clear that current CFI management did whatever they could to ensure that this donation came through and simply did not hear back from the donor. In fact on April 20, Ron Lindsay even offered to resign effective Dec. 31, 2010 if Paul Kurtz would succeed in getting the donor to complete his donation by the May 19 board meeting. This did not occur and Paul Kurtz resigned completely on his own.

    PS @Hemant: I’m more curious as to why it seems to have occurred in a way unbefitting a Humanist organization.

    What are you insinuating? Your only knowledge of what “seems to have occurred” is from second/third hand accounts that are hardly partial. I think as a board member of another secular organization you should be careful how that might be interpreted.

  • Alex

    What was that last humanist manifesto put out by Paul Kurtz really about? I think if you put out a poll and asked people which they would rather do, sit in a dentist’s chair or read that manifesto, the dentist’s chair would likely win out. I met and heard Ron Lindsay at recent conference. It sounds like he is wanting to make CFI and other secular organizations more relevant at local and national levels.

  • @Simon The fact sheet has been put up at the top of the post now.

    Even if Hoffmann is not be a reliable source, as you say, the email was indeed sent out by Kurtz and that was confirmed from another source.

  • Melody

    Hemant, I hope that you know that we have done everything in our power to get this donation and prevent any layoffs. No humanist organization could have withstood this enormous financial loss. And surely you don’t think Kurtz is impartial in any way. The fact sheet will provide information to put this in perspective.

  • @Melody — I don’t doubt that for a second. And I don’t think Kurtz is impartial, either, but I’ve never known him to be an outright liar.

    I understand that firings had to happen. But I would hope CFI would offer a heartfelt thank you for their service or a letter of recommendation for those people looking for new jobs. Is that the case?

  • Melody

    Of course, everyone was explained the situation and given their heartfelt thanks and apologies. Everyone else handled it very well. There were lots of tears and heartache involved both yesterday and today. Some people I would expect not to handle this well and that is the case. We are all sorry for the loss of our colleagues and our “homes.”

  • JD

    Shortfalls and letting people go is a fact of life, that is a given.

    However, if this story is true, it sounds like the managers in question need to learn tactful and non-bozo ways to tell people they are being let go, at least if the firing in question is not because of misconduct on the employee’s part.

  • Melody

    Management handled things appropriately. As I said, everyone else understood and handled it very well. I would expect this sort of manipulation of the facts from the sources given.

  • Barry Karr


    I was part of one of the employee discussions yesterday, with Ron Lindsay. We went to great lengths to explain the situation, and the reality of the position the Center was in because of the loss of the donation. It was difficult, painful and cordial. The person was thanked for his service and the contributions he had made to the Center. I was not part of the conversation with Norm, but I have no reason at all to expect it was any different, knowing how Ron handled himself in our earlier meeting.

    It sickens me to see how some people are trying to make some political/personal points off of this difficult situation.

    Barry Karr

  • R Joseph Hoffmann

    Just for the record, I have no pretense of being impartial. Just factual. If the truth be told, I suspect this is now about saving (a few) jobs and face rather than programs. The very fact that only Paul Kurtz could deliver the “goods” when it came to the “single anonymous donor” tells me that trust and confidence has evaporated. CFI has faced deficits before, but when it did it had the intellectual and personnel resources to offset them, which translated into donor loyalty. Is that still the case?

  • Melody

    Mr. Hoffmann, please end your obsession and go on with your life. Stop trying to discredit a good organization. You are not impartial. You do not have the facts. My community has never been more devoted or organized. We have more donors and more donations coming in than last year. We lost one significant donor. That says nothing about the organization as a whole, despite your great efforts to harm it. Get a job or write a book. Please keep yourself occupied with something you know something about.

  • @Hemant: Thanks for posting the pdf link.

    I highly doubt that CFI would give anything short of a glowing recommendation in writing to Norm Allen (or anyone else) given his many years of service and the unfortunate financial circumstances. Had the donor kept giving all staff would still be with the organization-does that not say enough in itself?

    Even if it is not your intent, I find it in pour taste for someone like yourself who is a leader in a competing organization to use an unfortunate situation to make what come off as petty jabs (“callous”, unbefitting”, etc.) when you simply do NOT have the facts.

    @ JD/Hemant: Only the three people in the room could by definition know what was said and how it was said. Paul Kurtz was not in the room (indeed why was he even at the offices given that he resigned 2 weeks ago?), R Joseph Hoffmann was not in the room, you were not in the room. None of these people can know what went on-end of story.

    @Melody: ditto.

  • Er, ‘poor’ rather.

  • I’m not taking sides here because I respect everyone involved, including R. Joseph Hoffmann. But it should be mentioned that he was in charge of The Jesus Project, and the funding for it got cut under Ron Lindsay if I’m not mistaken.

    Looks like we’ll have to move on. It’s a sad state of affairs. If that anonymous donor does not support CFI at this point in time I hope he or she will do so in the future, or donate to other worthy skeptical causes.


  • “a leader in a competing organization”

    The skeptical/atheist/humanist organizations are competing now? I thought we were all working together…

  • Melody

    We do work together. Often we use terms like “friendly competitors.”

  • Big BillK

    Personally, I find it quite appalling that Kurtz would use this current dire situation for his own personal vendetta. It seems strange for someone who claims to value ethics so highly to do that. It makes me wonder if he didn’t actually have a hand in engineering the loss of funding and the donor’s recalcitrance. It seems so petty to adopt an attitude of preferring to see an organization fail (even helping it to do so) merely because they won’t pander to one’s ego.

    I do have to admit to a certain amount of bias. On the few occasions that I’ve met Kurtz, the disdain literally seemed to drip off of him, letting me know that I’m not part of his elitist clique. On the other hand, I’ve never felt any such attitude from others at Amherst, including Ron Lindsay. But that’s just my personal feeling.


  • Grimalkin

    The loss of donors when there’s a leadership transition is 100% normal in the not-for-profit universe. In our sector, it’s not uncommon for donation levels to take up to 5 years to bounce back after an ED or Chair is replaced. That some donors pulled out after someone like Kurtz, who has been so integral to CFI for so many years, leaves is not at all surprising and does not in any way translate into lacking “intellectual and personnel resources.”

    People were laid off. Guess what! The economy is in the tank and has been for a while, and CFI is dealing with the added burden of losing a long-time board member! I would be suspicious if there WEREN’T any lay-offs! Maybe The Powers That Be should have been more gracious in their procedure. Who knows? Either way, this is an internal issue that should have been deal with internally. There is no reason for this sort of airing of dirty laundry. The public forum is not the place to resolve these kinds of issues.

    Combined with Kurtz recent article accusing Atheist groups of not providing alternatives to religion ( – which, if not a lie, is at least woefully uninformed for someone who’s been in the secular movement for so many years – I’m frankly quite disappointed in him. I would have expected better.

  • I have just been made aware of these posts and I am taken a bit back by the negative tone presented here. To pose questions for clarity is not the same as to attack!

    I would think that we could be more critical of ourselves, and others, in this movement. We are a small community and can not afford to have this infighting. It is counter productive to our efforts and dare I say a bit childish!

    It is always a mistake to not have a diversified funding stream for any organization. The ideological nature of our organizations, often make it difficult to acquire funding, but this development at CFI clearly shows why it must be done.

    We should take this as a lesson in creative thinking and ask ourselves as we move forward, what do we need to do to strengthen the financial viability of our organizations. We can not do this is we fail to look inward and accept both our strengths and weaknesses.

  • getreal

    This is a real shame. For years CFI’s operations were bloated, and there were numerous programs that generated no apparent support or revenue. The anonymous donor apparently kept things running, though, and kept people’s pet projects alive, obviating any need to justify their value. If indeed Kurtz has had anything to do with the withholding of the yearly donation, and if as the fact sheet describes, Lindsay even offered to resign to ensure the donor’s yearly support, then what appears to be being orchestrated here can only be described as both Machiavellian and Messianic. It’s a terrible shame that Hoffmann and others who appear to harbor bitter feelings are using this unfortunate chain of events to try to secure for themselves some sort of future in whatever new organization Kurtz cooks up, or perhaps CFI if Kurtz orchestrates a reversal of what he claims was a “palace coup.” It would be more productive for humanism in general to focus on supporting the various organizations that do good work in the field, and that includes CFI, rather than this pernicious infighting, backstabbing, subterfuge, and puffery. The recession has hit all non-profits, so the fact that these cutbacks are happening is and should be no surprise. To make more of it for personal gain, however, is ugly.

  • “It’s a terrible shame that Hoffmann and others who appear to harbor bitter feelings are using this unfortunate chain of events to try to secure for themselves some sort of future in whatever new organization Kurtz cooks up, or perhaps CFI if Kurtz orchestrates a reversal of what he claims was a “palace coup.” It would be more productive for humanism in general to focus on supporting the various….” I have no idea where this information (or impression) came from, but it’s total nonsense. I agree with the writer’s sentimnent about what humanism ought to do, however. I have had no ambition to be associated with CFI since my resignation in 2008.

  • I have to say, as a younger person just getting involved in the atheist/skeptical/etc movement, this is all pretty discouraging.

    I know there’s a fair bit of politicking whenever you get people in groups, but the sheer amount of infighting here is dismaying. We are supposed to be the rational ones here.

    I’ve only met Kurtz once and didn’t agree with him much, but I can’t really comment on the people involved (I met Lindsay too, and he seemed pretty American, but that’s it).

    A lot of the stuff CFI and similar organizations are involved with are good and positive, but I think there’s a lot of us down here who don’t like the old guard sort of ideas – it’s one of the reasons New Atheism is gaining ground despite the age of some of its proponents.

    And yeah – that ‘competing’ organization thing sticks in my throat. I know there’s limited funding out there, much like in science, and so people are competing for donors etc. But I’d like to think we weren’t undermining each other, that we feel bad when similar organizations have problems, and feel glad when the do well.

    Here’s hoping we can avoid (as much as possible) lapsing into sectarian infighting.

  • @Dianne+Sivi: I wholeheartedly agree. The situation is beyond unfortunate. If I had the $800K that this donor stopped giving, I would donate it myself. The fact that people’s jobs were sacrificed is horrible.

    Anyhow, I would urge everyone to please consider the simple possibility that Norm left the room as soon as he found out the bad news and before they had a chance to thank him for all the great work he has done. This is a much more reasonable assumption than what R Joseph Hoffmann put in his blog post. I spoke to people at Amherst and they were in tears. NOBODY wanted this to happen, Norm is like family.

    However it only makes things worse to call the people with the task of carrying out this difficult decision and who worked happily alongside Norm for 20 years “callous” and “unbefitting”. Hemant is on the board of SSA, a group similar to CFI On Campus. He is undoubtedly a big picture guy and team player in the secular community (as am I), however it looks bad when you assign adjectives like this-even with the best of intentions. All I’m saying is that as a secular leader, it would be good to err on the side of caution (especially when the facts are not known) and avoid even the appearance of such a conflict of interest. I read this blog “religiously” so am only saying this because I respect Hemant and support what he does 100%. Apologies on my tangent, I only wanted to clarify.

  • gwen

    I’m just blown away that the CFI, for so long, depended on a single donor for such a huge chunk of it’s funding. That in itself was hugely irresponsible of Paul Kurtz, and was setting the organization up for what eventually happened..funding failure. After all, rather than being asked to leave, Kurtz could have dropped dead. It has happened before. The funding would have most likely dried up upon his death. That is not responsible leadership from someone who wants an organization to continue to grow.

  • Ralph Dumain

    As an outsider to this organization, not privy to its inner workings, I cannot prejudge the facts surrounding the financial crisis, the closing of offices, and the layoffs. It should be evident, though, that there is something deeply rotten here including a lack of candor about the real situation. Presumably certain parties are not at liberty to tell the whole truth, but if you think the dirty laundry is going to elude airing, and that stonewalling our skeptical inquiry will succeed, you are sadly deluded. Is it not evident at the very least that both old and new management are at fault for the instability of this organization and the precipitous nature of this turn of events?

  • Joe

    I see the fired the one black guy employed by the Center. Speaks volumes about Mr. Lindsay from the great state of Virginia.

  • @Joe — Umm… who do you think is in charge of African Americans for humanism now? It’s a black woman also employed by CFI. (I know her. She’s awesome.)

  • It would be wrong to assume that the layoff of Norm is racially motivated. He himself did not claim this when he fired off his angry missive, and there’s no point in hitting below the belt in the process of questioning the wisdom of this downsizing. The question of priorities remains a live one, even when the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of this public dispute is dissipated. It seems highly unlikely that these layoffs would have occurred except for dire necessity. As for whether the correct choices were made, and as for the ethics of the current CFI leadership (in Amherst,that is, what power the DC office has in decision making is unknown to me), more information is needed to which people receiving second-hand information are not privy. For example, one former employee has charged that employees are subject to draconian restrictions including a gag order, and that this reflects a questionable corporate mentality. So is the dispute then going to become one of a probable fiscal and managerial irresponsibility on the part of Kurtz, vs more competent, efficient and allegedly more corporate leadership? Much of the discussion so far has been highly unsatisfactory, Barry Seidman makes a plausible case for his point of view, but since this is all hearsay from my position, I can only treat it as another conjecture. My own inclination is to discount the self-justification of Kurtz, but to be wary of an unqualified defense of the current regime. It would be foolish to question what is happening now without questioning the entire history of the organization: the programs it has sponsored, its deployment of resources, handling of finances, etc. These are all internal matters, but as the general public is being drawn into this drama, combined with urgent appeals for donations, the potential airing of dirty laundry becomes a delicate subject.

  • R Joseph Hoffmann

    Mr Lindsay had known for two years about the donor in question

    The simple, single, unassailable fact is: he has neither planned to compensate for the eventualityof this donor not coming through (he has not come through before, btw) and has raised $0 on his own.

    If this was a football team, he would be looking for work.

    It’s only the fact that humanists are in general forgiving, impractical souls that explains his continuation in office.

    I’m only sorry that so much of this discussion takes place against the background of local” CFI staffers who have no idea of the real financial stats in Bflo and can only cheerlead from the sidelines.

  • getreal

    Dr. Lindsay was left with an over-extended organisation that needed paring down, and every attempt to pare it down was met with protests about the emasculation of CFI. Moreover, the base of support actually has grown, such that there were more donations received from a broader base of supporters in 2009 than ever. Amazing, actually, given the recession. Read the FAQ.

  • Assuming that not all those who were pared down were dead weight, does this mean that re-hirings are in the works? Does CFI have a useless sculpture it could sell off?

  • getreal

    @ R. Dumain: one can only hope. I wouldn’t pay 10 dollars for that thing. Have you seen it?

  • I have not. I’ve been told about it from someone who lives in the area.

  • getreal

    Note above: “It’s a terrible shame that Hoffmann and others who appear to harbor bitter feelings are using this unfortunate chain of events to try to secure for themselves some sort of future in whatever new organization Kurtz cooks up

    and then Hoffmann’s weasel words: “I have had no ambition to be associated with CFI since my resignation in 2008.”

    and now see:

    looks like it worked and was likely in the works at the time.

  • It is curious that the mission statement includes a decidedly liberal bent. Not that I’m complaining. But didn’t Kurtz have a tiff with the American Humanist Association decades ago that led to him founding his own groups? This seems like quite an odd development.

  • getreal

    Ralph: yes, it would seem to be a pattern.


    This new manifesto reminds me of a paraphrase of a famous quote by Marx: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The intellectual dishonesty and delusional pretension of this document are remarkable. I can understand for practical reasons why former employees of CFI signed onto this, but I don’t know what to make of some of the famous names I recognize getting mixed up in this. This ridiculous label “Neo-Humanism” is like a magic wand erasing the real history of secular humanism (and its terminological siblings “atheism” and “freethought”). It unwittlingly bespeaks not only of its own ideological character but of the ideological functioning and intellectual boundaries of the entire history of the secular humanist movement since the McCarthy era.

  • I finally got a look at that “sculpture” that adorns CFI headquarters. I was told $35,000 was awarded for that piece of shit. Looks like mismanagement to me.

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