Bloomberg — He was one of the most powerful men at one of the world’s most prominent disaster-relief nonprofits. And then, in a surprise to staffers, he was gone; an unceremonious exit punctuated by a brief Slack message.
“Hi all, sharing here that Tim Kilcoyne’s last day with WCK is today,” Nate Mook, the chief executive officer at World Central Kitchen, wrote to employees on June 6, 2022. “Please contact Jason Collis with questions on work-related items.”
Kilcoyne had been director of emergency relief at WCK, the nonprofit co-founded by celebrity chef José Andrés that collects hundreds of millions of dollars a year and was the subject of a documentary by Oscar winner Ron Howard. An accomplished chef himself, Kilcoyne spent much of the first half of 2022 alongside Mook and Andrés, delivering food around war-torn Ukraine.
What wasn’t apparent from Mook’s note to the staff: Kilcoyne’s departure wasn’t by choice. He was dismissed following an internal investigation related to allegations of sexual harassment over the course of years, according to the nonprofit and interviews with women who flagged his behavior. The probe hasn’t been previously reported.
By the time Kilcoyne was sent to Ukraine, several employees and volunteers had complained, the first time to Mook and then to human resources once a dedicated staff was established, about Kilcoyne’s behavior, allegations ranging from inappropriate flirting, to talking about his sex life, to pressuring them into meals, sleeping in his hotel room and even having sex. Bloomberg News corroborated these claims through interviews with 10 current and former employees, volunteers and contractors, including five who say they were directly harassed.
Mook saw the first of these complaints as early as 2018, when a volunteer chef wrote him a letter and he responded, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg News.
“I need to feel safe from harassment and safe from a fellow co-worker harming me physically,” the volunteer wrote. She said in the letter that Kilcoyne told her about his marital troubles and tried to make her stay in his hotel room. She also said he spoke about crashing into a tree or driving off a cliff while she was in a car with him. “I went home to nightmares that lasted a week.”
“You are absolutely right that it’s an unacceptable situation,” Mook replied in an October 2018 email to the volunteer. Kilcoyne “will not be on any future WCK missions until we fully address it.”
Mook says he removed Kilcoyne from the field after receiving the letter and sent him home. Weeks later, Kilcoyne appeared on WCK’s Instagram, responding to the Woolsey Fire in California and posing for photos with firefighters. It was one of many more missions that he would take part in over the next few years.
The month after Kilcoyne’s exit, in July 2022, Mook stepped down from the nonprofit, which he helped build into a powerhouse of roughly 100 staffers and thousands of volunteers who cook for communities in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other disasters.
“WCK does not tolerate any type of discrimination, harassment, or offensive behavior,” Rob Wilder, chairman and co-founder, said in an emailed statement this week. It conducted an “investigation into potential misconduct,” which led to “prompt termination” of Kilcoyne. A subsequent review of WCK’s internal systems and procedures led to Mook’s departure shortly thereafter, Wilder said.
In an email to Bloomberg, Mook said he addressed concerns about Kilcoyne after receiving the volunteer’s letter in 2018. He disputes that the behavior described in that complaint is sexual harassment and said he instituted mandatory anti-sexual harassment training in August 2019.
Mook also said he’s “disappointed” in how WCK is characterizing his departure, saying “the WCK board and I had differences over the CEO role.”
“I take reports of sexual harassment very seriously and worked hard to create a safe working space,” Mook said.
Kilcoyne didn’t respond to several phone calls and text messages requesting comment, and deleted the Twitter account he used for WCK work after they were sent. WCK didn’t make Andrés or other leaders available for interviews.
The shakeup at WCK is an example of how rapid growth in the world of nonprofits — and especially disaster-relief organizations that operate in chaotic environments — can lead to pain if adequate protections for employees and volunteers aren’t scaled up as well.
“Especially for large organizations, you need infrastructure to have a safe workplace,” said Elizabeth Dale, an associate professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University. “Nonprofits often get squeezed in that way.”
After decades of explosive wealth gains among the ultra-rich, some billionaires are making bigger charitable pledges than ever before and seeking out places to park enormous sums. Like donors of all sizes, the gifts are often directed to nonprofits where they have a personal connection, like friends or celebrities.
A Businessweek investigation this year into CORE Response, the nonprofit controlled by actor Sean Penn, surfaced concerns over its financial management and employee allegations that it failed to shield them from or expediently respond to alleged sexual harassment. CORE’s ambitions were boosted by $30 million in gifts from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. (CORE has said it adequately addressed sexual misconduct claims and denies allegations that it mishandled its finances.)
Back in 2018, WCK had yet to emerge as a nonprofit that caught the attention of billionaires and politicians from Jeff Bezos to Joe Biden, but it was well on its way.
As WCK brought in larger sums of money over the next four years, Kilcoyne rose through the ranks — and allegedly harassed a number of women he had power over, according to the interviews with staff, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they signed non-disclosure agreements or fear professional reprisals. They say that regardless of whether a person was a full-time worker, contractor or volunteer, Kilcoyne was frequently in charge on the ground and dictated what they did for WCK and where they stayed.
For much of that period, WCK had no full-time HR team, even as its revenue grew more than 4,000%, from less than $10 million to about $400 million, and its staff ballooned to about 100. Rather, workers say they were told to report concerns like allegations of sexual harassment directly to Mook, and then to Val Gonzalez, who was hired to run HR as well as finance. She’s now chief financial officer.
Kilcoyne, Mook and Andrés were close, making Kilcoyne seem more powerful than the average director as few people had the ear of both the CEO and co-founder, current and former employees said. At least one woman who said she was harassed said she didn’t report his behavior because of this dynamic.
Mook said he wasn’t any closer with Kilcoyne than he was with other senior employees, and that they didn’t speak outside a work context.
In an internal email Tuesday night, WCK’s new CEO, Erin Gore, who used to be in charge of fundraising for the nonprofit, described to staff in greater detail what led up to Kilcoyne and Mook’s exits.
“The Board of Directors, including José, were first made aware of Tim’s misconduct during the final stages of the investigation and his subsequent termination,” Gore wrote. “They were deeply concerned and alarmed with the findings and that this behavior happened within WCK, which led to a secondary review into the internal processes and procedures in place. This led to our former CEO’s departure in July 2022.”
This was the first time a formal explanation was given to all staff about Kilcoyne and Mook’s departures, according to one former and one current employee.
“I was not privy to or involved in the investigation process and I only recently learned more details surrounding Tim and Nate’s departures,” Gore said. “I was committed to improving our culture before knowing these details, and now I have an even stronger conviction to lead WCK into a new phase where we can and must be better to, and care for, our staff, contractors and volunteers.”
Until relatively recently, WCK was a small operation. Andrés, a Spanish expatriate who moved to the US in the early 1990s, started it in 2010 after making his name at a Spanish tapas restaurant in Washington, DC, eventually becoming a co-owner of that restaurant and several more, publishing a Spanish cookbook and starring in his own cooking show.
For several years, tax filings show WCK was supported by less than $1 million annually. In 2017, however, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, interest among volunteers and donors spiked after Andrés showed up to help and fundraised more aggressively than ever before. Some 20,000 volunteers served 3.6 million meals for WCK in Puerto Rico alone, and the nonprofit’s revenue rose from roughly $636,000 to $21.6 million for the year.
Mook, an entrepreneur, documentary filmmaker and friend of Andrés’s, was right alongside the famous chef, helping run operations in Puerto Rico.
“Even though we had no experience running a disaster-relief operation at that point, it’s also just so simple,” Mook says about this effort in We Feed People, the Howard documentary, for which Mook is credited as an executive producer.
By early 2018, Andrés put Mook in charge of the entire nonprofit. Kilcoyne joined as a volunteer around the same time, in late 2017 after a wildfire hit Ventura County, California, where he owned a sandwich restaurant.
After the 2017 fire, Kilcoyne helped respond to a volcanic eruption in Guatemala, to a hurricane in North Carolina, to feed federal employees in Washington, DC during the government shutdown and later to a Bahamas hurricane and Puerto Rico earthquake.
In each of these places, Kilcoyne allegedly harassed women working for him, according to the 2018 letter and interviews with four of the women who described his behavior toward them directly.
One woman, a current employee, said Kilcoyne harassed and flirted with her for years. She said when she told him to stop, Kilcoyne stopped talking to her altogether. A woman who worked for WCK for more than a year as a contractor said Kilcoyne told her about his sex life within minutes of meeting him, repeatedly pressured her into having meals with him and sent texts to her late at night. Another former worker said Kilcoyne, with whom she was told to coordinate about plans to work with WCK after an earthquake, insisted they had a romantic connection before they even met in person. She said when arriving she felt like she was at Kilcoyne’s mercy and had a panic attack.
On multiple occasions, Kilcoyne would tell women he couldn’t get them their own hotel room and they would have to stay with him, according to the volunteer’s 2018 letter and two women who encountered this situation. Two other former employees said they heard of this alleged behavior from multiple women.
In at least one instance, a woman told Bloomberg that Kilcoyne pressured her into having sex with him, which she said she later reported to HR. WCK didn’t directly comment on this allegation when asked by Bloomberg.
“We remain committed to the well-being of our staff and volunteers, as well as the people we are feeding, no matter how challenging the conditions,” Wilder, the chairman and co-founder, said in his emailed statement.
Five current and former staffers say they were dismayed that there was no sign for months that Kilcoyne was disciplined after they and others reported his behavior to HR in 2021. On social media, where Andrés has millions of followers combined, he regularly posted photos and shared videos of Kilcoyne, calling him “a friend” and a “true American hero.”
The nonprofit hired its first dedicated HR employee at the end of 2020. At that point, it had about 50 employees, thousands of volunteers and $270 million in annual revenue. (Michael Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has also donated to WCK through his charitable organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies.)
Even after Mook’s message about Kilcoyne’s departure, three former and current employees say there was little explanation as to why he was let go — except for those who directly reported him to HR. About a week after Kilcoyne’s last day, Clarissa Balatan, WCK’s vice president of HR at the time, sent an email to some of the people who’d spoken out to her.
“Interviews have concluded, and our investigation is now complete,” she wrote, according to two copies of the email shared with Bloomberg. “I can tell you that the appropriate action has been taken to ensure that such conduct does not repeat itself.”
The following month, at least two of the people who reported Kilcoyne got another email — from a lawyer who said she was an outside attorney for WCK in an investigation into the nonprofit’s “sexual harassment reporting process/structure.” Mook left shortly thereafter.
The board replaced Mook with acting “co-executive leaders”: Erich Broksas, the chief operating officer, and Gore. In March, Gore was named the sole CEO, with Broksas continuing in the COO role.
In her Tuesday email to staff, Gore said the CEO role was redefined after Mook’s departure.
“It is my charge to build a supportive and transparent culture — one where all staff, contractors, and volunteers feel safe to raise concerns during activations and at home,” she wrote.
Most of the women who told Bloomberg they were harassed by Kilcoyne no longer work with WCK.
After he stepped down, Mook said in a Washington Post interview that he expected WCK to take in at least $400 million in 2022, up from about $123 million in 2021, owing in large part to the war in Ukraine.
About a week after WCK announced Mook’s departure, Andrés tweeted a picture of the two of them together, praising his work. “I can not wait to see what you will do next,” he wrote. “Gracias amigo!”
Read more on Bloomberg.com