Another #MeToo Scandal Hits the Nonprofit Sector

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman received accolades for his efforts on behalf of the #MeToo movement. As the head law enforcement official in New York, he filed charges against Harvey Weinstein to win additional compensation for the numerous victims of the Hollywood magnate’s misconduct.

Now, Schneiderman has resigned and faces an investigation following the release of a New Yorker report alleging that he physically abused several women. These shocking revelations underscore how pervasive sexism and sexual violence are throughout all sectors: private, nonprofit, and government. They also demonstrate how rhetorical allies can, in fact, be perpetrators themselves.

When leaders abuse power to hide and perpetuate their chauvinistic behavior, the ramifications course throughout their organizations and industries. This was on full display in February when the Human Society bungled its response to the allegations against its then CEO, Wayne Pacelle.

While an elected official falling from public grace in the #MeToo spotlight may seem irrelevant to nonprofits, Schneiderman’s abrupt departure impacts New York-based nonprofits significantly. The now disgraced former attorney general used his office to aggressively police venal and corrupt individuals in the nonprofit sector, thereby raising the public’s trust in social good organizations.

He also championed legislation that would enact a state level version of the Johnson Amendment, the federal law that enshrines nonpartisanship among 501(c)(3) nonprofits. Donald Trump has threatened to dismantle this important U.S. tax code provision, which could result in the abuse of 501(c)(3) fundraising for political ends.

The tax law appears safe in the New York State Legislature’s hands, but the effective operations of the Charities Bureau—which is under the attorney general’s scope of responsibilities—is now uncertain. Will the next attorney general police bad actors as aggressively? Or will this brief period of accountability and smooth regulation end?

The #MeToo reckoning has been long overdo. Reinstating trust in organizational leadership and fostering gender parity are essential priorities across all sectors. As Schneiderman’s case illustrates, bad actors harm their victims and have a detrimental ripple effect.

The Human Society’s Cautionary #MeToo Tale

(Photo: The Human Society Headquarters in Washington, DC. Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

As we have previously discussed on Nonprofit Pro Media, the #MeToo movement has pushed sexual harassment at the workplace squarely into the spotlight. Across a number of industries, perpetrators whose behavior went unchecked for decades are now facing accountability for abusing their power. The nonprofit sector, however, has yet to fully reckon with its own culture of sexual harassment.

This was painfully on display last month when the Humane Society bungled its response to credible allegations that the organization’s now former CEO Wayne Pacelle had sexually harassed female employees.

Pacelle — who had helmed the widely respected animal welfare organization for over a decade — purportedly force-kissed a former intern and requested that a female employee watch him masterbate. The accusations against him, which include other alarming behaviors, extend back to 2005.

In a shocking move, the Human Society’s board decided to abruptly scuttle the investigation into the allegations out of deference for Pacelle. Rick Bernthal, the chairman of the board, explained the reasoning behind the decision in a statement:

Many of the allegations were explosive in nature, and reading or hearing about them is a shock to anyone. It was to us, too. But when we sifted through the evidence presented, we did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence.

Despite defending the board’s vote, Bernthal acknowledged that three of Pacelle’s accusers received severance packages upon leaving the organization, qualifying that “there was no motivation . . . to silence women.”

The backlash was swift; volunteers and staff spoke out, and high-level associates announced that they would not renew contracts. Not long after the upheaval, Pacelle stepped down.

The end result — the departure of a controversial CEO — occurred despite the board’s efforts to thwart change. The effort to safeguard Pacelle only made matters worse. Seven board members quit in protest over the initial decision to end the investigation, and the organization’s name has been dragged through the mud. Now, the Human Society’s top levels are in disarray and it has a massive public relations disaster on its hands. This mess underscores that nonprofits suffer from leaders who abuse power not unlike their for-profit counterparts.

Nonprofit leaders: do what is right. Donors: demand that those whose actions are ill-reputed be held accountable. Heed the cultural moment and value your workers rather than digging in your heels for the sake of familiarity. Your organization’s success depends on it.

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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