Sexual Harassment? Not Us. Not So!

A November 2017 article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy ( makes clear what a number of us have known for a while about sexual harassment in the nonprofit sector. While many would prefer to think that in the world of mission driven enterprises such egregious improprieties and heinous abuses of power would be hard to find, the article is proof, for any who still need it, that the arena of 501(c) 3 organizations is far from immune. The Chronicle piece follows several other important calls to action, including a study arguing that as many as 40% of female fundraisers and significant numbers of women CEOs have experienced inappropriate sexual advances from supervisors and donors.

Because sexual harassment is about power imbalance we should not really be surprised that there is growing evidence of female fundraisers being at particular risk. Even in the best of circumstances, relationships between hired development staff and affluent donors include elements of power discrepancy. These are only exacerbated under certain conditions associated with charitable solicitations.

Many development professionals are women, often hired, as is true for their male counterparts, because they are extroverts who convincingly convey passion and enthusiasm for the cause in a warm and friendly manner. Aspiring fundraising professionals are often encouraged to incorporate elements of good stewardship into their work – taking a genuine personal interest in the prospect, continual contact and follow up, and a willingness to meet the donor at a time and place of his convenience. Meetings at his office, or at a restaurant are not uncommon. In some cases donors and development professionals may even attend the same conferences or out-of-town meetings. While on their face such extra-curricular encounters may enhance the loyalty of the contributor to the organization, they are also high-risk and must be carefully examined.

As is certainly true for the corporate world, the nonprofit sector has much to work on in this area. To begin with, individual department heads, CEOs, and board members must recognize that they have important roles to play in addressing the multi-faceted and complex nature of sexual harassment in the workplace. Organizations must create open channels in which allegations of impropriety are taken seriously. But that is only a first step; things get much more complicated quickly. No CEO wants to call out a trustee for errant behavior of any sort, certainly not when it comes to untoward behavior. The same applies to board members who may believe that many long-term contributors see their behavior as either “just how they’ve always done it,” or nothing more than good-natured playfulness. They are wrong, and their actions cannot be tolerated. But organizational leaders must be trained in how to deal with an inappropriate donor or supervisor. And, because confronting this issue – as they must – may have detrimental effects upon the campaign, those who lead an organization must be prepared for what could come next.

No staff member or trustee should deal with this situation alone. As a result, organizations have a special obligation to draft appropriate institutional policies and must inventory their insurance coverage in order to protect and support all who move against such behavior.

But beyond policy questions, contemporary nonprofits may well need to rethink what has often been accepted as standard operating fundraising procedures. Meetings with donors may require two representatives from the organization rather than one woman alone. Organizations may need to re-evaluate the circumstances under which a staff member meets with a donor, for example only during working hours and in a setting appropriate for business discussions. The particular details will vary depending upon an array of organizational realities but, to paraphrase, Linda Loman (Mrs. Willy in Death of a Salesman), “Attention, attention must finally be paid.”

Nonprofit training programs, trustee onboarding efforts, and professional development sessions can no longer avoid these issues. They must become integral parts of the training curriculum.

For far too long, sexual harassment has been kicked under the rug. Leaders on both the governance and management sides of a not-for-profit organization must assume responsibility for placing it atop the agenda. Appropriate policies must be implemented, difficult conversations must take place, and training must become a regular part of an institution’s modus operandi.

No fundraiser or executive, doing the good work of a charitable institution, must ever be placed (even unwittingly) at risk of predatory behavior.

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© Dr. Hal M. Lewis / – All Rights Reserved

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