Protecting Fundraisers from Sexual Harassment by Donors

By Timothy Sandoval

Early in her career as a fundraiser, Sarah Beaulieu faced a challenge. A male donor refused to make his second pledge payment unless she had dinner with him.

Ms. Beaulieu thought the donor, who was much older than she, was “creepy.” He would leer at her and compliment her on her physical appearance.

“It was uncomfortable,” Ms. Beaulieu says.

Still, Ms. Beaulieu’s manager encouraged her to dine with him, despite her reservations: “It’s only dinner,” said the supervisor, who was a woman, adding, “He’s harmless.”

Ms. Beaulieu joined the donor for dinner. She got the sense that the donor wanted the meeting to be a date – and she was glad when she left.

The situation has stuck with her.

“My regret is that I wasn’t able to have a more in-depth conversation at a management level [where] I felt like I was being heard,” says Ms. Beaulieu, now a fundraising consultant who has since founded the Uncomfortable Conversation, an organization dedicated to helping people talk about sexual harassment and abuse.

Ms. Beaulieu’s experience is more prevalent than many nonprofit managers realize, experts say. To be sure, nonprofit leaders have gotten in trouble – NPR’s news chief resigned Wednesday after allegations surfaced that he harassed employees at that job and a previous one. In recent weeks, as prominent men have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, many people have joined the #MeToo movement, in which people share stories online of sexual harassment and abuse – including at the hands of managers and superiors.

In the nonprofit world, what has often been less discussed publicly is the challenge fundraisers have faced from donors. “You would have a lot of people who could have a ‘me too’ story as it relates to their role in fundraising,” says David Chow, a fundraiser at UW Medicine focusing on support for obstetrics, gynecology, and behavioral health. After hearing stories of abuse in the workplace from two colleagues who said they faced problems, he decided to write a research paper last year on the sexual abuse of fundraisers for his master’s degree in nonprofit leadership.

Mr. Chow and other experts say it’s important for nonprofit leaders and board members to take steps to protect fundraisers and others involved in seeking gifts – a situation in which a power imbalance often puts fundraisers in difficult spots.

The Chronicle asked him, Ms. Beaulieu, and Arminda Lathrop, a fundraising consultant who conducted an informal 2016 survey on women fundraisers’ relationships with donors, about what they think organizations should do to help their employees prepare for and navigate difficult situations. Here’s what they said:

Executives, managers, and trustees must take the lead.

Combating sexual harassment and assault starts at the top, and it requires a “full-blown culture change,” Ms. Beaulieu says. Supervisors and board members need to ask themselves whether they understand the nature of sexual harassment and assault. Then they need to assess whether they have clear processes for dealing with such cases as they arise, she says.

Building a “culture of safety and respect” is similar to building a culture of philanthropy, she says: It “requires engagement and partnership among the board, the chief executive, and the head of advancement.”

Help is available for nonprofit leaders who do not know where to start, she says. Many local rape-crisis centers and women-focused nonprofits offer free resources and training workshops. Groups like National Sexual Violence Resource Center have advice and information available online, too.

The goal should be to make conversations about sexual harassment part of routine conversations between managers and employees, so that it is not taboo to bring it up, she says. Supervisors need to make it clear they can be approached about any problems. “My message to managers is, don’t assume that people in your organizations think you’re going to believe” their abuse stories, she says.

Take it seriously.

Too often fundraisers and their managers make light of donors’ troubling comments and behavior. “In a lot of shops that I’ve worked, it’s treated as kind of a joke,” says Ms. Lathrop, who has worked as a college and nonprofit fundraiser. At first glance, it may seem funny or cute that an 80-year-old supporter has a crush on a young fundraiser – but it’s not acceptable for that fundraiser to keep working with that donor, she says: “No gift is worth feeling uncomfortable with anybody.”

Know who is at risk.

Nonprofit leaders also should recognize that young fundraisers may be targets, says Ms. Lathrop. That’s because younger employees are less likely to know what is considered “normal” behavior by donors and might feel pressured to get results fast. “They are trying to prove themselves, and it’s all about landing that big gift,” Ms. Lathrop says.

Fundraisers at small organizations may be more vulnerable, too, because…READ MORE