Sexual Harassment Is Common In the Fundraising World—And Often Goes Unpunished

  Photo: 7th Son Studio/shutterstock

 Photo: 7th Son Studio/shutterstock

Recent headlines increasingly report on powerful men, including broadcast journalist Charlie Rose, who have been forced out of lucrative jobs after sexual harassment offenses. But all too often, Inside Philanthropy has found, charity donors, trustees and nonprofit executives sexually harass the fundraisers at their organizations with impunity.

The problem appears widespread, based on an Inside Philanthropy survey of development officers and fundraising consultants that generated 75 responses. A majority of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment, with 43 reporting multiple incidents. More than half of the 13 female respondents who said they'd never personally experienced harassment knew of colleagues who had. And among seven male survey respondents who said they had never experienced sexual harassment themselves, five described unwanted solicitations involving fundraising colleagues, mostly women.

A lack of disciplinary action against offenders was a common theme among survey respondents. Worse, fundraisers who report sexual harassment by donors, trustees or senior colleagues are often punished for speaking up. Twelve respondents who said they had reported sexual harassment were ignored, laughed at, or treated with disrespect or disbelief by colleagues and superiors, ultimately prompting most to leave their organizations. 

“Everyone in the Crowd Was Laughing”

A young woman at a charity providing services to developing countries reported one such incident. The fundraiser, 29, said she accompanied donors and staff to an annual overseas site visit. The trip abroad culminated in an awards dinner to recognize leading donors. 

When the fundraiser, who requested anonymity, announced the winner of an award, the recipient, a 64-year-old male donor, leapt onto the stage, grabbed her, and kissed her on the mouth in front of the audience. He then proceeded to chase another young female fundraiser around the stage, trying to do the same to her. “Everyone in the crowd was laughing,” the fundraiser wrote, and no corrective action was taken with the offending donor.

Another fundraiser, Alyssa Zavislak, agreed to be named on the record. A five-year sector veteran, she cited harassment experiences that were “too many to count.” Among them: a volunteer who sent her inappropriate pictures, an intoxicated board member who contacted her with unwanted messages, and a corporate sponsor who reached out inappropriately on social media.

The other on-the-record fundraiser who responded is Barbara Gross, a consultant with nearly 30 years in the profession who described several harassment incidents she experienced over her long career. One trustee at a board retreat she helped organize followed her back to her hotel and forced himself into her room, even though his wife was on the trip. “I felt devalued and cheapened,” she said in an interview.

In another fundraising job, Gross said, she asked a hospital president to intervene when the board chair of an academic medical center repeatedly made suggestive comments to a young female member of her fundraising staff.

Gross said that she also confronted the man directly at a fundraising event, where she told him, “Get your hands off my staff.” While the organization eventually took corrective action, she said, “the perpetrator acted like I was a tattletale.”

Keeping Quiet

Contributing to a sexual harassment problem in fundraising is the fact that many development professionals avoid reporting it. “Each incident was very uncomfortable,” confided a woman with more than 20 years of fundraising experience, who described three harassment incidents. Like all but two survey respondents, she withheld her name.

“I felt embarrassed, ashamed,” she wrote. “But, like so many others, I didn't say anything for fear of losing respect, leadership, credibility.”

Another female fundraiser with nearly two decades in the field, including jobs in higher education, described why she never complained about numerous unwanted advances from donors and faculty members. “There was a sense that ‘boys will be boys,’ so it would be fruitless to complain,” she wrote.

Fundraisers who reported sexual harassment at their organizations described indifference or negative repercussions for their careers. One woman with a decade of fundraising experience said that she was harassed by a direct supervisor who said her career path would be improved if she accepted his overtures. After reporting the incident, she asked to be transferred to another supervisor, but that person, another man, was “very hostile,” she recalled, prompting her to resign. The organization never took action against her first supervisor, she said, and both men were promoted after she left.

Another woman with a quarter-century of fundraising experience said she tried to help a younger colleague report a male staffer who sent her a disturbing, sexually explicit comic book. “Nothing was done,” the fundraiser wrote. “The male staffer,” she added, “kept his job and was promoted two or three years later.”

A board chairman refused to listen to a third fundraiser who resigned after reporting to no avail that her chief executive, a married ordained minister, propositioned her and inappropriately touched her under the conference table during a meeting. Two other fundraisers, one a young professional and the other a seasoned consultant, said their co-workers laughed and made jokes when they reported inappropriate sexual overtures by donors and senior colleagues.

While unwanted comments and groping are the most common experiences among fundraisers reporting harassment, others are offended by how donors and trustees publicly view their colleagues. One young fundraiser in the field for eight years described a generous donor who told her that a female director at the organization “was basically a whore.” The charity’s executive director, she added, “made a joke out of it.”

Unaccountable Donors and Board Members

One reason charities look the other way when wealthy donors and trustees harass fundraising staff is doubtless the money and influence such people wield, critical support that organizations stand to lose in correcting problematic behavior. 

A fundraiser in the field for nearly 15 years said she complained to two superiors, both men, when a board member called her “hot” in a meeting with another donor, repeatedly inappropriately touched her, and made sexually charged jokes in her presence.  “After months of this cycle of complaining and nothing being done, I left the organization,” she wrote.

Months later, another board member complained about a young relative who was sexually harassed by the same man, who was finally asked to leave the board, the fundraiser said. “It took another board member raising a stink for my bosses to take it seriously,” she wrote. “They only cared about the bottom line. The staff was replaceable, but the money was not.” 

Another fundraising consultant with 25 years in the field described what she said is a common harassment experience. “A donor suggested he would give more money if I had sex with him,” she said. Others say that fundraising events fueled by alcohol are where harassment occurs in the form of wandering hands, unwelcome kisses and inappropriate comments.

A Power Imbalance

Sexual harassment is pervasive in fundraising, respondents said, because young women are increasingly hired to ask older and wealthier men for money, and charity leaders exploit the women’s appeal in order to raise money. One senior fundraiser in the field for nearly 20 years recalled being told that a candidate for a fundraising opening “may not be good looking enough for the job.” 

Only three years after taking her first fundraising job, another fundraiser wrote, “I can think of several instances where wealthy men decided to flirt with me upon learning I work in fundraising... Once it was established that they have something (funds) I might want, they felt more at liberty to be flirtatious, expecting I would not shut down their behavior.”

Another problem cited by the same young woman: older fundraising professionals who take advantage of wealthy donors’ sexual appetites. “I have always felt uncomfortable seeing how some of my superiors (female development directors or executive directors) use flirtatiousness and their dating lives as ways of drawing in donors,” she wrote. “I’m uncomfortable with what feels like a habit of normalizing a sexual dynamic in women who seek money from wealthy men.”

Whatever the reasons behind sexual harassment, some fundraisers hope that in this watershed moment when people are speaking up, such behavior will finally stop.

“We have to teach donors and colleagues that this is unacceptable,” said Gross, the consultant. “You don’t have to tolerate this. We can’t fix the past, we can only fix it going forward.”