Power Dynamics Exacerbate the Issues of Sexual Harassment in the Charitable Workplace

Blog post by Daniel Billingsley, Vice President of External Affairs

In the altruistic world of the charitable sector, there continues to be an undercurrent of the same, insidious issues our society faces. This month, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s cover read “#MeToo Hits the Nonprofit World” and the publication features a scathing expose about sexual harassment of professional fundraisers.

It should come as no surprise. The #MeToo movement over the last several months has not only challenged the patriarchy within the film industry but the corporate world as well. Millions of women have come together to share stories of sexual harassment of some kind in the workplace.

What might surprise some in the charitable sector is that while one in four women say they have been harassed in the Chronicle’s recent poll, the perpetrators were most often donors, not coworkers or supervisors. Fundraisers who were harassed said at least one offender in the past was a donor: 32% of those surveyed said it was a major donor, 29% said it was a prospective donor and a whopping 35% said it was a board member of an organization.

The article brings up old issues of power and equity. The charitable sector continues to operate on an “old power” model, where power is concentrated at the top and moves downward. Donors and board members through their positions of power had created a system of inequity for employees and volunteers.

Not shocking was that 27% or more than one out of four victims took no action and didn’t report the behavior, and 27% of fundraisers who witnessed harassment of a colleague did not take any action or report the behavior. And while the survey results indicate sexual harassment in fundraising may be somewhat less prevalent that in other fields, it also shows that the charitable sector is not immune to what happens in workplaces across the country. The biggest problem with our sector is that half of the respondents who reported harassment were unhappy with their organization’s response.

In the Standards for Excellence, we teach that all organizations must have a robust sexual harassment policy that is zero-tolerance in addition to policies to prevent other types of harassment in the workplace. Additionally, organizations must have a mechanism for reporting harassment, and managers should be trained to prevent, investigate and report inappropriate behaviors, dealing with them according to policy.

Unfortunately, while this is written into most policy manuals, practice often falls short. When supervisors hear about harassment – whether sexual in nature, discriminatory or other types of harassing behaviors – we have a tendency to do one of two things. We either choose sides and loyalties immediately, possibly doubting either the accuser or accused, or we over-rationalize to maintain neutrality or try to smooth things over, hoping the issue will resolve itself or go away. We must do neither.

If an employee says they have been harassed or experienced discrimination in the workplace – either from a colleague, supervisor, board member, volunteer, consumer or donor – we should believe them, hear their story and investigate. More importantly, after investigation, we need to close the loop with all parties involved. We should follow our policies and procedures to the letter. And we should realize this happens in even the best of circumstances.

Lisa Eisen, of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, is featured in the article and believes that power dynamics and imbalance must be addressed at all levels of an organization. She believes grant makers should join forces to help nonprofits build more equitable workplaces. “You start with the issues of harassment, but you very quickly get to equity and women’s leadership.”

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