Beyond awkward – Donor Sexual Harassment in the Nonprofit Sector

It’s not every day you see a university institution hand back a check for a half million dollars. But a Quebec institution recently had to do just that when it found itself in a sticky situation because of a donor who had the impression his donation had bought him certain privileges with university fundraising staff.

The university had very clear policies already established to prevent and deal with sexual violence as part of its code of conduct. When the school’s rector left the restaurant dining table after finalizing the details of the VIP donor’s sizeable gift, both accompanying employees received unwanted sexual advances from the donor. He harassed each woman separately, seizing his opportunity while the other went to the washroom.

The charitable sector is not immune to sexual harassment. Like in the private and public sectors, all workplaces are prone to the same power dynamics that we have in broader society.

How Should We React to Donors Who Believe They Can Have It All?

Saying we should simply denounce inappropriate behavior would be an easy way out of avoiding the search for root causes. Without delving into the underlying source of the phenomenon, we risk sidestepping the interrelated issues around gender inequality that are deeply ingrained into our social culture and how that spillovers into the nonprofit workplace.

Ever since the #MeToo movement went mainstream in 2017 in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, we’ve collectively become aware to what extent the entitlement mentality has become the norm for those in positions of power. As Weinstein’s former assistant, Zelda Perkins, said, “I don’t think he’s a sex addict. He’s a power addict. Everything he did, everything that drove him was about dominance.”

An invitation to a restaurant could be a friendly proposition or an unwelcome advance that puts a fundraiser in a difficult position to manage. How do you assess the risk? Should one accept an invitation that, even if it seems safe, promises to be profoundly boring when a large donation is at stake? After all, a dull evening is a small price to pay if the donation is going to make a major impact on the organization’s mission.

But the reality is that an organization can’t rely on an individual’s own criteria to assess risk. So many variables affect this kind of decision-making process that could ultimately put someone in a dangerous position. Imagine someone who wants to decline an invitation but doesn’t know if their employer will support them or if they will be reprimanded. An organization must have the forethought to anticipate that these situations could come up as part of day-to-day operations and mitigate the risks collectively.

Talking About It!

Everyone is at risk of being pressured into doing something that goes against their professional and personal values. According to an Angus Reid survey reported by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, “more than half (52%) of women in Canada have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” Management, board members, staff, and volunteers should all seek to learn more about what constitutes harassment in the workplace to engage in a real discussion. After all, knowledge is power.

Discussing different scenarios openly is the first step in developing mechanisms to ensure the safety and well-being of staff. For example, in response to an unwelcome invitation, could the reply be, “Good idea, I’ll invite my colleague”? By collectively deciding as an organization to have a buddy system established when meeting with donors, you are taking measures to create a safer workplace for everyone.

Creating a Policy

Schedule a board meeting to involve board members in the process and get a consensus. Review your organization’s values and ensure that they reflect the work environment you want to provide for your staff. Based on this review, you may find it necessary to add one or two values to the list. These values may not be new, but by stating them clearly you remind everyone what you stand for. You may even realize that some board members have outdated ideas and that maybe your criteria for selecting board members also need to be refreshed.

Taking Action

Every organization has an obligation to provide a safe work environment free of sexual harassment. Developing a policy that defines the nuances of harassment and details the procedures in place to protect those in your workplace is essential.

Most organizations already have a donation acceptance policy that provides criteria for receiving donations and for rejecting those that don’t align with their mission. Your policy should be updated to include situations involving power relationships where a donor is seeking personal gain. That way, your fundraising activities adhere to the same values that your organization is committed to.

Workplace policies can be made public on your website so that donors are aware of your values, and it also makes it easy for staff to quickly access and refer to if they find themselves in a situation that calls for clear boundaries. In addition, staff, volunteers, and board members should be trained on how to handle these situations, including using the right language and tone to convey a clear message to donors. Knowing your rights and not fearing that your job is in jeopardy goes a long way to establishing a safe working environment.

Finally, the organization should have a complaint procedure in place in case a dispute arises. Words and actions can sometimes be open to misinterpretation due to cultural or generational values influenced by history, social and economic class, and gender stereotypes. A joke may seem light-hearted and harmless to one person but hurtful and humiliating to another. To prevent those in power-positions from minimizing their words and actions – a form of gaslighting, employees should have formal resources available to them when disagreements arise.

Changing the Mindset

Historically, the judicial system has failed to provide justice to victims of sexual harassment. The systemic barriers that exist to redress wrongdoing compound the injury to the victim of abuse. The status quo of power imbalance in society. Indeed, according to Equality Now, an international organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women around the world, “many sexual violence and rape laws across jurisdictions effectively deny justice to survivors of sexual violence due to loopholes and protection gaps in the laws.” It is more important now than ever for organizations to lead by example and take a bold step ahead of government institutions and the judiciary system by recognizing that a more just way to operate is possible.

Power that manipulates professional relationships

Many people are questioning the validity of donor-centered fundraising strategies. “The idea of centering the happiness, desires, and convenience of donors, especially major donors, is pervasive, goes unquestioned, and has unintended destructive consequences.” By bending over backward for donors, overly thanking them publicly, and giving them special privileges, some donors lose sight of the fact that their donation supports a cause and not their ego. Keela’s Itse Hesse explained why the focus of fundraising strategies must shift from being donor-driven to community-driven in order to rebalance the needs of the community and with donors’ motivations.

The issue of sexual harassment in the not-for-profit sector is not about personal boundaries. When an organization expects staff to do a favor for a donor (accepting a dinner invitation) in order to get another favor in return (a large donation), it leads donors to believe they have the power to ask for more.

Letting Your Values Lead

It is not the place of organizations or their staff members to educate donors on how to behave; the onus is on each donor to choose what values govern their actions. However, organizations have a very important role to play in deciding exactly how their values permeate the different aspects of their structure. From employee training, donation acceptance policies, board diversity, and an integrated communications strategy – every element contributes to the health of the organization. The ability to create safe working conditions that protect your employees from harassment and to implement actions that increase equity, diversity, inclusion and justice is a signal to the world that you are healthy and stand strong. Those qualities make an organization attractive to the right kind of donors and create a much bigger impact on society.