What was only whispered about last year at this time is now out in the open and finally receiving the attention it deserves: sexual harassment and assault in the nonprofit sector and – particularly – the plight of vulnerable fundraisers at the hands of powerful donors and board members.
For many groups, the fundraising or development professional is vital to the organization’s success, but that person’s activities take him or her beyond the usual employer-employee interaction and often include out-of-office meetings with established or prospective donors.
At its core, sexual harassment is, according to fundraiser Beth Ann Locke, who has written previously on the topic, “(a)n insidious use of power and/or privilege over those with less…; the need for donations outstrips the need for protection from sexual harassment.” Well-known nonprofit commentator, Vu Le, agrees that “power dynamics” are a key to the “perpetuation of sexual harassment” in the fundraising context.
Harassment of Fundraisers is Widespread
In 2017, as revelations of workplace sexual harassment became major media stories, plans were made for a sector-wide study of the problem for fundraisers in the nonprofit sector.
On April 5, 2018, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) released a first-of-its kind study and survey of sexual harassment of fundraisers. Respondents are 1,040 current members of AFP (90% from the U.S. and 10% from Canada) who are either in-house fundraisers or consultants to nonprofits. The survey was compiled from an online poll conducted in February 2018 by the well-known Harris Poll organization.
The full report titled “Professional Harassment Survey” is here; an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on April 5, 2018, by Timothy Sandoval reports on the findings and conclusions. The results are dramatic but not necessarily surprising to fundraising professionals who – over many years – have silently suffered from this kind of abuse. Some observers believe that the survey would have revealed worse statistics if people who had left the field of fundraising on account of this rampant abuse had been included.
A quarter of female fundraisers have been sexually harassed; only 7% of male fundraisers say they have been victims. The harassers are 96% male. Of the respondents who reported on-the-job sexual harassment, two-thirds said that donors were the culprits; the rest answered that colleagues, “mostly those in senior positions,” were responsible. Thirty-five percent also reported that “board members — who often make big gifts to organizations — have been at fault in at least one instance.”
Fundraisers who responded they have been harassed described the type of conduct involved: 80% were subjected to “inappropriate comments of a sexual nature”; 55% “experienced unwanted touching or physical contact”; 36% “encountered unwelcome sexual advances”; 29% “faced verbal abuse of a sexual nature” and 26% “received requests for sexual favors.”
When these same respondents were asked about what, if any, action they took, 43% said they reported the conduct to their organizations, but 27% took no action at all. “Others took smaller steps, like distancing themselves from offenders.” Over a quarter of the entire group of responding fundraisers “said they’d heard about or witnessed sexual harassment but took no action.”
Of those fundraisers who made reports, “(s)lightly more than half … were either somewhat dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied with how the organization handled their allegations.”
What Happens Now?: Solutions
In his article accompanying the release of this landmark survey, Timothy Sandoval reiterates the point made by other observers that any solution to this problem must “focus on power dynamics” especially “(b)ecause women are the main targets of sexual misconduct.” Although “70 percent of fundraisers are women,… chief-executive and board jobs, especially at elite nonprofits, are often held by men.” And, of course, most donors are older men.
Big donors have a lot of influence over nonprofits, especially because many fundraisers are rated on their ability to pull in large donations. Adding to the challenge: Meetings with donors often occur in intimate settings, like in homes, at bars, or in restaurants — increasing the odds that harassment will take place, experts say.
“We cannot address this issue,” Vu Le writes, “without acknowledging the power imbalance in our sector, between board and staff, between donors and fundraisers, between staff and clients, etc.”
In the urgent task of developing solutions to this entrenched problem, nonprofits must unequivocally, commit to an organizational philosophy and promise to their personnel including fundraisers: “We don’t value donor dollars more than we value your personal safety and dignity.”
Nonprofits must “create an environment that is safe for [their] staff, volunteers, and community members” which includes “having strong policies.” That includes anti-harassment policies in-house, employee handbooks, and board governance manuals as well as gift acceptance policies and related documents that make clear to outsiders, including donors, that there is a zero-tolerance policy on harassment.