Sexual Harassment in the Fundraising World: How Bad Is It Today?

With the steady drumbeat of news about women and a few men complaining about unwanted sexual advances from powerful men like film executive Harvey Weinstein, comedian Bill Cosby, broadcasters Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, and most recently, actor Kevin Spacey, Inside Philanthropy is revisiting a 2010 article I wrote for the Chronicle of Philanthropy on sexual harassment in the fundraising world. 

After requesting examples more than seven years ago, I heard from more than 20 American fundraisers who’d experienced unwanted advances on the job, including rape in at least one sad case. Two of the fundraisers were men who were harassed, one by another man. All the rest of the fundraisers who came forward were women hit on by men.

There are multiple reasons why fundraisers are vulnerable to what appears to be the pervasive problem of sexual harassment across numerous fields. For one, the ranks of development officers have been increasingly dominated by women over the past two decades. Second, pressure has only grown in recent years in mega-campaigns to raise ever larger amounts. That places many women in the position of seeking large sums from older, wealthier, more influential men, creating a power imbalance that researchers say is common in sexual harassment cases.

And finally, while many nonprofit organizations have policies banning sexual harassment, those policies mostly cover employees and rarely apply to leading donors and trustees.  

Still, it’s not just donors and trustees who’ve made unwanted moves on fundraisers. Some fundraisers have experienced unwanted attention from more senior colleagues who control not only their paychecks, but the overall workplace environment, comprising another type of power imbalance.      

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