3 in 4 fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment at work – often due to inappropriate behavior by donors

While the #MeToo movement that raised awareness about sexual harassment is making less headlines than in 2017 and 2018, this problem has not gone away. This is still an especially important issue for nonprofit fundraisers, the professionals tasked with developing relationships with charitable donors.

We are nonprofit academics who have been researching sexual harassment in fundraising for several years. We found that approximately 76% of fundraisers report having experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment during their career. This is partly because fundraisers interact with a large number of donors, board members and volunteers.

It’s the fundraiser’s job to keep these stakeholders happy so they donate their money and time, making it difficult for fundraisers to push back when their harassers behave inappropriately.

A persistent problem

In addition to investigating the extent of sexual harassment during fundraisers’ careers, we asked about more recent experiences. We found that 42% of fundraisers reported experiencing behaviors defined as sexual harassment in the two years leading up to summer 2020. This rate, which includes harassment by co-workers, donors and others not employed by fundraising organizations, is high the standard.

For example, the rate of sexual harassment in the federal workplace was 14% in the two years leading up to the summer of 2016.

Our findings come from a series of 75 interviews with fundraisers and a survey of 1,782 members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In the survey, we looked at the source of the sexual harassment. We found that in the two years to summer 2020, 18% of fundraisers had been sexually harassed by colleagues, 10% had been harassed by donors or someone outside the organization, and 14% additional had been harassed by the two.

Nearly 79,000 people work in fundraising in the United States, most of whom are white women. These professionals raise funds for non-profit organizations such as hospitals, universities, food banks and environmental groups.

“A lot of men in these situations are just plain powerful,” said “Matilda,” who isn’t her real name, because we protect the privacy of the people we interviewed.

They’re “men getting what they want, you know, and often that means being able to take advantage of a young woman, or any woman, and get away with it,” continued Matilda, a collector of fund who said she had been harassed by a donor. “All the situations I told you about were men [that] suffered no consequences. And so they continue to do so.

Some fundraisers are more risky than others

We found that lesbian, gay and bisexual fundraisers were more likely to be sexually harassed than their heterosexual counterparts.

The worst form of sexual harassment is sexual coercion, which includes pressure for sexual favors or dates, harassment, or even rape.

Our survey results show that fundraisers who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, as people of color, or as both people of color and LGB, are more likely to experience sexual coercion than their heterosexual white peers.

Sexual harassment of fundraisers of color may also constitute harassment based on race. “Angela,” who identifies as African American and female, told Us in an interview that she’s heard comments from donors like, “I’ve never had a black wife.”

‘Everything that’s necessary’

The performance of fundraisers is usually judged by the amount of money they bring in. Fundraisers also feel compelled to generate lots of donations, as this funding can determine whether layoffs are needed and how many clients an organization can serve.

To understand how this can create pressure to support sexual harassment, imagine a fundraiser who works for a small health clinic. A potential donor shows an interest in donating a large sum of money. However, he continues to ask the fundraiser to meet him for late-night drinks, kissing them on each cheek as a greeting and eventually proposing to them in an inappropriate and sexual text message.

Is the fundraiser enduring this behavior to obtain a donation that could allow the organization to remain fully staffed and serve uninsured patients? The fundraisers we interviewed all had their own answers to this question.

Many, including “Victoria,” shrugged and said they were “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Some confront their stalker, but others use avoidance by making excuses for why they can’t meet in person. We also heard from fundraisers telling us that they quit their jobs after being sexually harassed at work. Some of them have left the profession for good.

An office worker carries the contents of her desk in a cardboard box after leaving her desk.
Some fundraisers who experience sexual harassment at work quit their jobs.
Jackyenjoyphotography/Moment via Getty Images

Sexual exploitation

We also found that 23% of fundraisers have experienced not only harassment, but also sexual exploitation at some point in their career.

A common example of sexual exploitation experienced by fundraisers occurs when supervisors in their own organization pressure them to dress more attractively or put themselves at increased risk of sexual harassment for get more donations. “Ruth” told us how one of her bosses had invited her to the boss’s to prepare a gala.

The boss made her try on “very fitted and very tight” dresses in which she did not feel comfortable. The boss insisted on lavish makeup and high heels.

“Carrie” told us she was encouraged to meet a no-bra donor because he would “love it.”

Ruth, Carrie and other fundraisers we interviewed said they felt belittled and humiliated by these interactions.

fight the fight

Only 15% of fundraisers who were harassed by a colleague and 27% who were sexually harassed by a donor or other external stakeholder chose to report such cases, it was found.

Reporting of sexual harassment is generally low in all workplaces, and research indicates reasons why reluctance is justified. People who report sexual harassment often face negative consequences. When an incident goes unreported, it is difficult to remedy.

“Lucille” said she experienced sexual harassment from a supervisor for six years before reporting it. The organization retaliated against her, rather than her boss, by demoting her. As she considered quitting, she continued to “fight” because she wanted to protect others.

After researching and sharing many ways nonprofit leaders can prevent sexual harassment, we believe it shouldn’t be up to fundraisers alone to solve this problem.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, much nonprofit fundraising took place remotely, which reduced opportunities for sexual harassment. As more office work and fundraising events happen in person, fundraisers inevitably face higher risks again.

Nonprofits can reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment by following best practices that we’ve included in a research-informed toolkit that is publicly available online.

Some of the best practices we recommend include writing an anti-harassment policy that includes donors and others outside the organization who may engage in this behavior. In addition to policies, nonprofits need to train their staff, volunteers, and donors, and top leaders need to reinforce the information shared during these trainings.

Above all, fundraisers need to hear from supervisors that no donation is more important than their dignity and safety.

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