Most Fundraisers Have Been Sexually Harassed. Here’s How Nonprofits Can Address the Problem.

Earlier this year, Dr. Erynn Beaton, Assistant Professor of Nonprofit Studies at John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University of Public Affairs, co-released a report regarding sexual harassment in the fundraising profession. The findings are difficult to process — over three-quarters of our colleagues have been sexually harassed at work.

Dr. Beaton studies the ways in which the nonprofit sector combats, reflects, and sometimes reproduces structural inequalities that lead to issues such as sexual harassment. We invited Dr. Beaton to write a guest column to share her research and ways in which nonprofits can work to address the problem.

Thank you, Dr. Beaton, for sharing your expertise. We hope the nonprofit sector can find ways to utilize this data for good.

— Mollard Consulting

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For about four years now, I have been researching sexual harassment in fundraising. What I’ve found is astounding. Within the profession, 76% of fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their careers. An even higher percentage of LGBTQ+ fundraisers have experienced it at 83%, and fundraisers of color experience the most egregious forms with 10% having been pressured for sexual favors, stalked, or raped.

Sometimes the harassment is perpetrated by co-workers, but nearly as frequently it is an external stakeholder like a donor, volunteer, or board member. Nonprofits seem particularly ill-equipped to support fundraisers in the latter scenarios.

What is happening?

Sexual harassment is an exercise of power. A harasser exerts power, or seeks to increase power, over their target via their harassment. Therefore, those accustomed to holding the most power are the most likely to sexually harass others. The fundraising profession operates at the confluence of a variety of sources of power including gender, wealth, social status, race, and sexual orientation, among others. It is the role of the fundraiser (most often a woman) to build relationships with donors (commonly wealthy men) to elicit a gift.

This power dynamic too often begets poor behavior — behavior enabled by norms of the fundraising profession. For example, it is common for fundraisers to meet donors in the evening for drinks when the donor may feel too comfortable making unwanted sexual advances. It is the norm to act overly familiar at board meetings by greeting, instead of with a handshake, with an embrace, during which a board member might feel too comfortable placing their hands too low. This same norm of familiarity can oblige fundraisers to provide their personal phone number or “friend” stakeholders on social media, where inappropriate photos are too comfortably shared.

All of these behaviors are unacceptable, but what I find most concerning is when fundraisers’ nonprofit employers condone or even facilitate sexual harassment. I’ve spoken with fundraisers who have reported harassment to their supervisor, but the supervisor dismissed it and required that the fundraiser continue the relationship. Even worse, I’ve spoken with fundraisers who have been encouraged by their supervisors to dress or act more provocatively to entice donors.

What can be done?

The best and most permanent way to abolish sexual harassment in the profession is to eliminate the power donors hold over nonprofits. This can be done by moving away from donor-centric philanthropy. Only when nonprofits are prepared to tell poorly behaving donors (who harass, bully, or give tainted money) that they are unwilling to tolerate their behavior for the sake of a gift, will donors begin to consider the harm they cause.

Such a wholesale shift is unlikely to come any time soon. In the meantime, there are smaller ways nonprofits and fundraisers can provide protection. At the organizational level, nonprofits can ensure they have an anti-harassment policy in place and that it protects against harassment by external stakeholders such as donors. At the individual level, fundraisers can use the data available to raise awareness of sexual harassment as an occupational hazard and advocate for greater organizational protections. Fundraisers can also support one another by listening to peers and mentoring junior colleagues when they experience sexual harassment.

Harassment within any profession is unacceptable, but especially within a sector that strives to improve the quality of life for communities — particularly those who are underserved. While this data is alarming and tragic, it is my hope that it will be utilized to create change and better protect those who work tirelessly to help others.

Article by: Dr. Erynn Beaton, Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University John Glenn College of Public Affairs

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