Sexual Harassment in the Nonprofit Sector

The #MeToo movement has thrust an all too common workplace occurrence into the open: sexual harassment.

Commencing with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood, there has been an enormous ripple effect throughout the male-dominated media world. Powerful figures have had to answer for their abusive behaviors, some after years or even decades of inappropriate conduct.

The movement’s impact has expanded into the political realm, resulting in elected officials either resigning or forgoing reelection campaigns at the local, state, and federal level.

The nation is in the midst of a cultural sea change. From here on out, it will be difficult for the powerful to sweep sexual harassment and sexist behavior under the rug.

Despite the growing pressure on abusive men in sectors with high public visibility, there are still many industries in the U.S. economy that either overlook sexual harassment or enable workplace cultures that enshrine it. The nonprofit sector is one of them.

In the world of philanthropy, fundraisers rank among the most susceptible to unwanted sexual advances and mistreatment by superiors. Four out of five development professionals are women, meaning that the industry’s workforce as a whole faces a hostile work culture antithetical to the pro-social principles that underpin the philanthropic sector.

In a 2017 survey of fundraisers, Inside Philanthropy found that not only did a majority of female respondents report sexual harassment, but that a stunning 43 percent encountered patterns of mistreatment at work.

The nonprofit sector’s distinct structure makes its culture of sexual harassment particularly difficult to counteract. The industry features the typical power dynamics between management and staff, but also includes a host of other players in positions of power, from major donors to trustees. The Inside Philanthropy survey found that these parties were guilty of sexually harassing female fundraisers.

The complex web of power encourages many at the top to look the other way. Writing for Philanthropy, Sarah Beaulieu describes anecdotes from colleges where HR or executive personnel responded to complaints of sexual harassment committed by donors by referring to the incident in question as a “sticky situation.” A donor, after all, is not an employee of the organization, and a nonprofit’s top brass may be reluctant to jeopardize vital funding sources. As Veritus Group’s Richard Perry and Jeff Schreifels put it, for nonprofit executives, “money outweighs the offense and life just goes on.”

This lack of support for fundraisers is dangerous. Fundraisers meet privately with powerful figures, often over dinner or in situations that may encourage unscrupulous donors to indulge in inappropriate or even criminal behavior.

Like private businesses, most nonprofits maintain policies designed to safeguard against intra-organizational sexual harassment. Policies protecting against third party abusers, however, are less common. It is incumbent upon nonprofit leadership to make sure that staff members are protected by cogent and actionable policy measures that guarantee workers’ rights to pursue their important work free of sexual harassment.

By neglecting the wellbeing of its work force, the nonprofit sector only tarnishes its own image as a promoter of the social good. Nonprofits cannot do justice to their missions or brands without advocating for their workers.

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