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Sexual harassment is a common workplace hazard for nonprofit fundraisers. fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus

3 in 4 fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment on the job – often because of inappropriate behavior from donors

While the #MeToo movement that raised public awareness of sexual harassment is making fewer headlines than it did in 2017 and 2018, this problem hasn’t gone away. It’s still an especially big problem for nonprofit fundraisers, the professionals responsible for developing relationships with charitable donors.

We are nonprofit scholars who have been researching sexual harassment in fundraising for several years. We’ve found that about 76% of fundraisers report experiencing some form of work-based sexual harassment in their careers. That’s partly because fundraisers interact with large numbers of donors, board members and volunteers.

It’s the fundraiser’s job to keep these stakeholders happy so that they donate their money and time, which makes it hard for fundraisers to push back when their harassers behave in inappropriate ways.

A persistent problem

In addition to studying the extent of sexual harassment over the course of fundraisers’ careers, we asked about more recent experiences. We found that 42% of fundraisers said they had experienced behaviors defined as sexually harassing in the two years before the summer of 2020. This rate, which includes harassment by colleagues, donors and others not employed by the fundraisers’ organizations, is high by any standard.

For example, the rate of sexual harassment in the federal workplace was at 14% over the two years before 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 sexual harassment. We found that in the two years before the summer of 2020, 18% of fundraisers had been sexually harassed by co-workers, 10% had been harassed by donors or someone outside the organization, and an additional 14% had been harassed by both.

Almost 79,000 people work in fundraising in the U.S., most of whom are white women. These professionals raise money for nonprofit organizations like hospitals, universities, food banks and environmental groups.

“A lot of the men in these situations are just powerful,” explained “Matilda,” which is not her real name because we are protecting the privacy of the people we interviewed.

They are “men who get what they want, you know, and a lot of times that means being able to take advantage of a young woman, or any woman, and getting away with it,” continued Matilda, a fundraiser who said she had been harassed by a donor. “All of the situations I’ve told you about was men [that] haven’t experienced any consequences. And so they continue to do it.”

Some fundraisers face more risk than others

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

The worst form of sexual harassment is sexual coercion, which includes pressure for sexual favors or dates, stalking 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 straight white peers.

Sexual harassment of fundraisers of color can also constitute harassment on the basis of race. “Angela,” who identifies as African American and female, told us in an interview that she heard comments from donors like “I’ve never had a Black woman.”

‘Whatever it takes’

Fundraisers’ performance is generally assessed in terms of the amount of money they bring in. Fundraisers also feel pressure to generate a lot of donations because that funding can determine whether layoffs are necessary and how many clients an organization can serve.

To understand how this can create pressure to put up with sexual harassment, imagine a fundraiser who works for a small health clinic. A potential donor shows interest in giving a large sum of money. However, he keeps asking the fundraiser to meet him for drinks in the late evening, kissing them on each cheek as a greeting and eventually propositioning them in an inappropriate, sexual text message.

Does the fundraiser endure this behavior to secure a donation that could keep the organization fully staffed and serving uninsured patients? The fundraisers we interviewed all had their own responses to this question.

Many, including “Victoria,” shrugged their shoulders and said they do “whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Some confront their harasser, but more use avoidance by making excuses for why they can’t meet in person. We also heard from fundraisers who told us they quit their job after being sexually harassed at work. Some of those left the profession for good.

A female office worker carries the contents of her desk in a cardboard box after leaving her office.
Some fundraisers who get sexually harassed at work quit their jobs. Jackyenjoyphotography/Moment via Getty Images

Sexual exploitation

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

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

The boss had her try on dresses that were “very fitted and very tight” and that she didn’t feel comfortable in. The boss insisted on lavish makeup and high heels.

“Carrie” told us she was encouraged to meet with a donor braless because he was going to “love it.”

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

Fighting the fight

Only 15% of fundraisers experiencing harassment by a colleague and 27% experiencing sexual harassment by a donor or another external stakeholder chose to report these instances, we found.

Reporting of sexual harassment is generally low in all workplaces, and research points to reasons the reluctance is justified. People who report sexual harassment often suffer negative consequences. When an incident goes unreported, though, it’s hard to do anything about it.

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

Having studied and shared many ways that nonprofit leaders can prevent sexual harassment, we believe that it shouldn’t just be up to fundraisers to resolve this problem.

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

Nonprofits can reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment by following the best practices we included in a toolkit informed by our research 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 at those trainings.

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

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