In a couple of short years, the Integrity Institute, a think tank founded by former Facebook employees, has become an influential voice on how to make social media safer. Its research on issues like election misinformation and online bullying have influenced European Union regulators and US lawmakers, and have become required reading inside tech companies. “We’re crushing it,” the institute’s executive director, Sahar Massachi, wrote in a December blog post.

But by March, when the nonprofit brought its dozen or so staff and research fellows to a small New York conference room for a strategic planning retreat, the mood was grim. As Massachi and cofounder and chief research officer Jeff Allen presented their visions for growing the institute, many in the audience stared at the ground or folded their arms, and few wanted to socialize after hours.

The institute’s rank and file had grown tired of hearing the founders’ sometimes dueling plans for the nonprofit, which left them unsure what to prioritize. They were drained by a fight in Slack over Israel’s assault on Gaza. And a few staffers knew that the institute’s external HR agency had just begun investigating Massachi after a number of workers alleged he was verbally hostile to women in the workplace.

WIRED’s account of the previously unreported tensions inside the Integrity Institute draws on reviewing internal communications, as well as interviews with several people familiar with the organization who asked for anonymity to speak about private discussions. Early last week, Massachi announced his resignation as executive director in a morning email that didn’t mention the investigation into his conduct. Allen, who was in Brussels for meetings with EU officials, sent his own email 15 minutes later that thanked his cofounder and said a transition plan was in place. “The work of the institute continues full steam ahead,” Allen wrote.

In a statement, Massachi did not comment on the external HR investigation or allegations about his workplace conduct. He says he resigned of his own volition after accomplishing his goal of building an organization that unselfishly serves the public interest. “Working hard to achieve that was not easy, and I’m looking forward to taking a break, and then working on the 2024 elections,” he says.

Behind the scenes, the institute is now trying to recover from an ironic setback. A smart bunch of do-gooders full of advice on how tech companies can create more welcoming spaces couldn’t get their own house in order. Challenges that have plagued the tech industry—namely content moderation and allegations of workplace discrimination—proved just as pernicious for an institution stacked with relevant expertise and under no pressure to make a profit.

In response to a request for comment, Allen sent WIRED an internal memo that he shared with people involved in the nonprofit on Wednesday in which he acknowledged that the institute hadn’t done enough to set its own standards and vowed improved transparency and integrity. “To date we have been laser focused on the substance of our work,” he wrote, “but have not done enough to talk about the internal environment and needs of the Institute.”

Allen, a data scientist, and Massachi, a software engineer, worked for nearly four years at Facebook on some of the uglier aspects of social media, combating scams and election meddling. They didn’t know each other but both quit in 2019, frustrated at feeling a lack of support from executives. “The work that teams like the one I was on, civic integrity, was being squandered,” Massachi said in a recent conference talk. “Worse than a crime, it was a mistake.”

Massachi first conceived the idea of using expertise like that he’d developed at Facebook to drive greater public attention to the dangers of social platforms. He launched the nonprofit Integrity Institute with Allen in late 2021, after a former colleague connected them. The timing was perfect: Frances Haugen, another former Facebook employee, had just leaked a trove of company documents, catalyzing new government hearings in the US and elsewhere about problems with social media. It joined a new class of tech nonprofits such as the Center for Humane Technology and All Tech Is Human, started by people working in industry trenches who wanted to become public advocates.

Massachi and Allen infused their nonprofit, initially bankrolled by Allen, with tech startup culture. Early staff with backgrounds in tech, politics, or philanthropy didn’t make much, sacrificing pay for the greater good as they quickly produced a series of detailed how-to guides for tech companies on topics such as preventing election interference. Major tech philanthropy donors collectively committed a few million dollars in funding, including the Knight, Packard, MacArthur, and Hewlett foundations, as well as the Omidyar Network. Through a university-led consortium, the institute got paid to provide tech policy advice to the European Union. And the organization went on to collaborate with news outlets, including WIRED, to investigate problems on tech platforms.

To expand its capacity beyond its small staff, the institute assembled an external network of two dozen founding experts it could tap for advice or research help. The network of so-called institute “members” grew rapidly to include 450 people from around the world in the following years. It became a hub for tech workers ejected during tech platforms’ sweeping layoffs, which significantly reduced trust and safety, or integrity, roles that oversee content moderation and policy at companies such as Meta and X. Those who joined the institute’s network, which is free but involves passing a screening, gained access to part of its Slack community where they could talk shop and share job opportunities.

Major tensions began to build inside the institute in March last year, when Massachi unveiled an internal document on Slack titled “How We Work” that barred use of terms including “solidarity,” “radical,” and “free market,” which he said come off as partisan and edgy. He also encouraged avoiding the term BIPOC, an acronym for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color,” which he described as coming from the “activist space.” His manifesto seemed to echo the workplace principles that cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase had published in 2020, which barred discussions of politics and social issues not core to the company, drawing condemnation from some other tech workers and executives.

“We are an internationally-focused open-source project. We are not a US-based liberal nonprofit. Act accordingly,” Massachi wrote, calling for staff to take “excellent actions” and use “old-fashioned words.” At least a couple of staffers took offense, viewing the rules as backward and unnecessary. An institution devoted to taming the thorny challenge of moderating speech now had to grapple with those same issues at home.

The incident added to mounting frustrations about Massachi’s leadership within the institute. Research fellows griped that blog posts about their findings bore the names of Massachi or other staffers rather than their own. Several staff and fellows alleged Massachi had independently asked each of them, plus an outside agency, to draft a communications plan, without explaining the need for duplicative work. And at a staff retreat last May, Massachi asked everyone to write a brief essentially justifying their role, while exempting himself from the exercise.

Rachel Fagen, who was the institute’s founding director of operations, left last October despite believing that the institute had been providing valuable new oversight to the tech industry. She says her job entailed overseeing relationships with external partners and funders—but that she was also treated as secretary, therapist, and intermediary between an unpredictable Massachi and the rest of the staff. “When it became clear that the board and executive director weren’t going to take staff concerns seriously, the staff and I worked together to build internal processes, governance, and documentation to lead from within—and kept doing the work as best we could,” Fagen says. “Sahar was the only staff member I would never have hired into the organization, and one of only two people I couldn’t fire.”

Massachi’s leadership began to significantly unravel the institute’s tight community, in the view of some inside the nonprofit or its orbit, after Hamas attacked Israel last October and Israeli forces began to besiege Gaza. Massachi, who was born in Israel, posted on the institute’s Slack community about the grief he felt about the attack on Israel. “It feels wrong and less than human to say nothing,” he wrote. But Massachi didn’t engage in further dialog on the issue as members began to quarrel in Slack about the conflict, and he rejected requests to host a special forum for members about the war. Some institute members created their own group on WhatsApp, no longer feeling welcomed in the official Slack community.

Massachi’s leadership also troubled some outside the institute. Fagen says representatives from multiple institute funders warned last year that Massachi proposed too many ideas without supplying clear implementation plans. Some staff felt that Massachi and Allen appeared to have no process in place to settle their disagreements.

The founders had been slow to build out the institute’s board of directors, which until late last year appeared to include only themselves despite pleas from staff to add others. Last December, Massachi announced that a former colleague from Facebook had joined the board. By early this year, a second person with ties to Facebook was listed as a director on the institute’s website, creating a board of four men with roughly similar professional backgrounds.

The institute’s strategy of working directly with companies to tackle their problems had proved difficult to pull off. Policymakers and academics were much more open and enthusiastic. Navigating that split became challenging for staff, with workers believing Allen and Massachi each wanted to invest the institute’s limited resources in different directions, such as prioritizing research over public relations—almost like separate organizations. “They should have had twins but ended up with one child and they didn’t understand how to raise it,” one of the sources says. “The staff was caught in the middle.”

In March, several people with ties to the institute raised concerns about Massachi with Charles River CFO, an outside firm providing HR services to the nonprofit. In calls with an HR representative, they alleged Massachi was often blunt and rude toward women, especially those of color, and flagged the “How We Work” document he had written. They claimed that some women on staff who had quit the institute did so in part because their working relationship with him deteriorated.

Charles River was still assessing the complaints when the institute gathered for its New York retreat in late March. At the gathering, a facilitator hired by the institute from consulting firm Brighter Strategies tried to push the team to define clear goals for the next couple of years. But as the group huddled around a conference table, with Massachi and Allen sitting apart, the pair seemed to again offer competing priorities. During one hastily-called-for 45-minute break, the facilitator huddled privately with Allen and Massachi, hoping to resolve a stalemate. “It had just gotten to a boiling point where we weren’t moving forward and they could sense that,” one source says.

Massachi was barely seen or heard by institute staff for several weeks afterward, as the HR investigation continued. That left Allen calling the shots, including on a tricky content-moderation decision in the nonprofit’s Slack one April weekend. Though the institute offers advice to tech platforms on setting content policy, its digital community had no detailed guidelines for what could be posted beyond its general codes of conduct and integrity oath for members and staff.

The debate began when a member of the institute’s external network wrote in a channel visible to all staff, fellows, and members that, as integrity professionals, “we can do better” to acknowledge Palestinian civilian deaths in the war and create spaces where a person can use terms such as “genocide” without getting fired.

Rachel Townsend, the institute’s brand-new managing director, quickly posted a message in response supporting those sentiments, and about 15 others reacted to the original Slack post by “hearting” it. But another external member responded with frustration, describing the original post as “rife with half truths and … antisemitic tropes” and lacking acknowledgement of the atrocities suffered by Israelis, including the ongoing hostage crisis. The fiery post went on to question the misinformation-spotting skills of fellow members who had liked the original post.

As disagreement flared in a Slack channel that once provided a clubby place for like-minded technocrats to discuss how to fix the internet, members with varied perspectives on the debate complained to institute staff. Allen ordered the deletion of the two opposing posts and told Townsend to post an apology for her reply. (Allen did not dispute this series of events.)

After the member who had started the discussion publicly demanded an explanation, Allen wrote that he and colleagues had determined that the conversation was necessary but “not going to unfold in a way that would constructively benefit our community.” He added that he had come to regret deleting the posts, telling others internally he could have instead created a new forum dedicated to having difficult conversations. “We responded, in hindsight, too much out of fear and in ways that failed to honor you and the important conversation that you were raising alongside the concerns of those made uncomfortable by it,” Allen wrote in his public reply to the member who kicked off the discussion. “For that we apologize.”

Allen worried the head-spinning episode could leave some members feeling that the institute was no more inviting a place for open discussion than the likes of Google or Meta—tech giants whose faults had inspired many of the nonprofit’s staff and supporters to join its cause. Both companies have reprimanded workers who’ve flagged or protested company actions that they view as supporting Israel.

And multiple people in the tech nonprofit world say the Integrity Institute isn’t the only one to experience internal divisions over the workplace status of women and the stifling of discussion about Israel and Gaza. Trust and safety workers who flee Big Tech’s systemic obstacles can face the same cultural problems even in environments supposedly focused on the common good. A couple of members left the institute’s network because they no longer saw it as a place capable of protecting the full diversity of internet users.

As the Slack drama quieted, Charles River concluded its investigation into Massachi’s alleged workplace behavior. Allen and the institute’s two independent board members all agreed it was best for Massachi to leave, prompting him to send out his resignation email. “I’m moving on to both pursue important projects, and also take a deep breath and relax after the nonstop grind of startup life,” he wrote. Although some coworkers had noticed him looking burned out for some time, the abrupt departure came as a shock to staff, members, and importantly, donors.

A further surprise for those who knew about the HR investigation was that Massachi’s email also said he would remain close to the institute, as part of its network of experts. “It’s time for me to sit back and enjoy this remarkable community we’ve built—as a member,” he wrote. Some staff privately questioned the institute’s leadership on whether it was acceptable for Massachi to remain a part of the community after what had transpired. “Integrity requires us to be honest, not just take a victory lap,” a former staff member says.

The institute is now planning to expand and diversify its board, and is drafting new internal policies to enable having difficult conversations, Allen says. It’s also developing a forum to give members a louder voice, potentially leaving the organization better set up for its inevitable next crisis. There’s near-universal hope among those who spoke with WIRED that exposing the leadership drama and cultural strains won’t further impede the institute’s ambitions, but rather accelerate them. As Fagen, the institute’s former operations director, puts it: The people who created this venture with Massachi are still carrying it forward.

Additional reporting by Vittoria Elliott