Power + Nonprofit Boards – Part Two

Last week, we reviewed the power dynamics of nonprofit boards and donors, the larger cultural context at play, and how those challenges impact chief executives and the sector.

This week, we highlight a study commissioned by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) with the research of two professors — Drs. Erynn Beaton and Megan LePere-Schloop — at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University.

We begin with the following infographic from their “Speaking Truth To Power In Fundraising: A Toolkit.”

It seems incomprehensible that 76% of fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment over the course of their careers and that 23% of fundraisers have experienced sexual exploitation.

But, when we consider the larger context of aggression and bullying that we discussed last week, coupled with the constant need for more money, the power dynamic of sexual harassment and exploitation should not be surprising. As the authors state, “When misuse of power is common in and around the organization, it can incentivize managers to exploit their power as well. Misuse of power begets greater misuse of power.”

Boards play a critical role in governing and leading the organization, along with their level of tolerance for abuses of power.

There are three policies that we believe are essential for nonprofit boards, especially as they relate to the board’s relationship with their chief executive — the conflict of interest, whistleblower, and harassment policies.

When we review these policies for our clients, we often find them to be only employee specific. For instance, stating that “no employee shall harass another employee”.

However, what we have found in our practice, and Drs. Beaton and LePere-Schloop found in their research, is that employee-focused policies are inadequate because they do not hold board members, donors, volunteers, or other key stakeholders accountable for their behavior.

As the authors state,

“By not including other organizational stakeholders (e.g., volunteers, board members, donors, etc.) in its sexual harassment policy, an organization can inadvertently signal that harassment perpetrated by or targeted toward a stakeholder who is not an employee is not worthy of addressing. This can leave targets feeling vulnerable and unclear about what their next steps could or should be in such a situation… Most fundraisers indicated that their policy covers employees (97%) while fewer indicated their policy covers board members (61%) and volunteers (57%). Fewer fundraisers indicated that their policy covers consultants (44%) or donors (34%).”

Yet donors are the ones who can hold the upper hand in a power dynamic.

The authors share this story from a fundraiser,

“I was in my office, and I heard him outside… Long story short, I hear him talking. I’m doing work. I don’t think anything about it. About an hour goes by and Ella comes into my office, and she’s literally sobbing. I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ She relays to me an incredibly inappropriate conversation that he had with her. That she felt trapped. She was sitting at her desk, she couldn’t leave. He basically was like, ‘You’re so beautiful. I would treat you so good.’ Just laid it on to her in a way that was incredibly inappropriate and crossed a bunch of boundaries like about… what he would do to her if they were together. This is all happening as I’m sitting in my office having no idea that this is going on… She was very scared, because she had shut it down. She was very scared she had just offended one of our biggest donors.”

Without proper whistleblower and harassment policy protections, this fundraiser may not know who to speak to or what to do. A lack of clarity on the process may signal to the staff member that they are not as important as the organization’s “biggest donor.”

Board members have a duty of care, loyalty, and obedience to the nonprofits they serve. They have an obligation to ensure the public’s trust and to be stewards of the organization’s resources. The human resources of an organization are fundamental to mission fulfillment, not just the financial resources, and that talent should be supported with the power and full weight of the board.

When board members are able to have the courage to speak out against abuse of power, there are policies in place to mitigate against power dynamics, and they are held accountable for their actions and behaviors, then organizational culture thrives. When that happens, the people and places served by the mission can thrive.

Reflection Questions

In addition to asking if harassment policies include board members and donors, the following are critical questions for nonprofit boards to consider:

  • Does the board have term limits (not just terms but limits on the terms)?

If not, long-serving board members can wield excessive power.

If yes, a regularly-meeting, decision-making executive committee can create a board-within-a-board power dynamic.

  • Do individual board member(s) give directives to staff leadership or staff members?

If yes, they may be over-extending the boundaries as a test for further power plays.

  • Are there major donor(s) on the board that drive conversations, direction, and decisions?

If yes, they may have an undue influence over the organization and/or leaders in the organization.

  • Is a building, wing of a building, or room named on behalf of a donor serving on the board?

If yes, the power imbalance by the sheer presence of the name on the wall and the person at the table can severely limit comments from others.

  • Is there trust, candor, and respect between board members and between the board and chief executive?

If not, the culture may not be sufficient to enable others to speak up.

  • Does the board have thoughtful and productive resolution of issues and disagreements?

If not, and the tendency is just to “move on” or “let it go”, then bullies or harassers may see an opening.

  • Has the board and staff received sexual harassment training, and is there an awareness of the heightened incidences faced by people of color, women, and those in the LGBTQ+ community?

If not, the organization and the people devoted to its mission may be at risk.

  • Is the board aware of the potential for exploitation of fundraising staff, especially if fundraising needs are heightened?

If not, the chief executive may be working in a way counter to organizational values and putting staff members in harm’s way.

To learn more about the important work by Drs. Beaton and LePere-Schloop, read Dr. Erynn Beaton’s guest column and visit https://glenn.osu.edu/research-and-impact/speaking-truth-power-fundraising-toolkit.

Share your experiences with us. How has your board and your organization’s leadership addressed power?

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