Unfortunately, sexual harassment is not limited to the commercial workplace. It is very much alive and well in the non-profit sector and in major gifts work creating, for many good MGOs, a hostile and uncomfortable work environment.
Last year we had an MGO write us about an encounter she had with a male donor who used suggestive language and inappropriate touching to try to “persuade” her that a “nice dinner and some private time afterwards” might be a “good thing.” It seemed it was partially a joke, the MGO said, but it made her very uncomfortable.
This kind of behavior happens far more than you think. But it goes unreported because some MGOs feel uncomfortable talking about it, fearing that management may choose the donor’s side because “his giving is so generous. We would not want to offend him.” Jeff and I have heard this twisted logic before, where the money outweighs the offense and life just goes on.
This dynamic is present in any sales situation where a female employee feels she must endure the advances of a customer or donor in order to get the sale or the donation. Another MGO wrote us about a donor complimenting her on her appearance and talking about how beautiful she was. All of this was just a lead-in to other suggestions and actions.
So what should you do if you are in this situation? There are two categories our suggestions fall into. One is organizational; the other is personal. Let’s start first with the organization’s responsibilities in this area. I will be quoting extensively from the writings of Ronald Hube in his October 2005 article on “Tips for Crafting a Sexual-Harassment Policy to Protect Nonprofit Workers in the Trenches in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Read that article for more detail.
First, make sure your organization has a clear definition of what sexual harassment is. Surprisingly, a lot of people do not know what constitutes sexual harassment. So there should be a written definition in your organization that clearly spells it out. Any policy should list prohibited behavior and include spoken statements, sexual touching, and pornography in the workplace. Sexual harassment is about anything anyone does that makes the other person uncomfortable from touching, stares and looking, words, display of photos that are suggestive, authority figures asking for or suggesting a date with a subordinate, etc. The policy of the organization needs to be clear, so there is no question about what sexual harassment is.
And the policy needs to include what sexual harassment is NOT as well. “Lots of people feel that they’re harassed when they’re told to do their job in a way they don’t agree with,” says Richard J. Reibstein, a lawyer in New York who specializes in labor and employment cases. When he writes policies for his clients, he says, “I specifically include a provision that says something to the effect of, ‘It is not considered harassment for a supervisor or manager to require employees to meet performance or conduct standards.'”
Make it easy to report incidents. Quoting Ronald Hube’s article: The sexual-harassment policy “needs to be posted where everyone can see it,” says Debra Smith [a lawyer at Equal Rights Advocates, a women’s equality organization that has represented people suing their employers for sexual harassment]. It must include not only the primary contact person for reporting harassment, but an alternate as well. “Sometimes that person whose number is listed is the harasser,” she says.
For employees to feel comfortable reporting harassment, they must be allowed to do so in spoken conversation, says Melanie L. Herman, executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. “Some employees would be very reluctant to type up a memo,” she says. And, she adds, nonprofit employers should accept complaints by phone from staff members who work away from a charity’s headquarters: “It’s common for nonprofits to send people out into the field where people live and need services, and so allowing them to report something by phone” is necessary.
Prohibitions against retaliation are also important. “A large number of the cases that come to court are by virtue of plaintiffs who claim, ‘I brought this claim against my supervisor, and I was immediately terminated or harassed or retaliated against,'” Mr. Reibstein says. “Unfortunately, retaliation is a common human reaction, and you need a strong policy prohibiting retaliation in order to ensure that those who bring claims are comfortable that the complaint procedure is effective.”
Enforce rules fairly. Nonprofit organizations must be careful to apply rules regarding sexual harassment to everyone who either works at the organization or comes in contact with employees. A harasser, Ms. Herman notes, “could be a volunteer, it could be a donor, it could be someone walking in off the street to buy a raffle ticket.” At her organization, she says, “we have a statement in our policy that says staff who are bothered by the behavior of any individual they encounter at the office, at our functions, or while traveling on behalf of the organization have a responsibility to report the matter.”
Judith Stotland (an associate director of development who was once an executive director) reminds charity managers to remember to include trustees when enforcing a harassment policy. “Every staff member in every nonprofit I ever worked at was taught, ‘You give very good treatment to your board members – they own the shop,'” she says. But no special treatment should extend to a board member accused of harassment, she says. Board members and other volunteers, she notes, “aren’t necessarily people who are in the work force at the time, and they may not have the consciousness of what’s now acceptable conduct.”
While volunteers must be subject to rules against sexual harassment, says Ms. Herman, a charity’s policy should also extend protections to them. Although she notes that most courts have ruled that volunteers have no legal right to sue organizations over harassment issues, if a volunteer receives a stipend or is hired later, a court might decide differently if a dispute ever makes it to a judge or jury.
Then there is the second category – the personal one. What should you do if you find yourself in a sexual harassment situation? Here is what we suggest:

  1. Set a boundary the second a donor, board member, authority figure or anyone “crosses the line” with you. And I mean the second – like right now. For example, you may be with a donor and he compliments you on your looks, or your dress or your style. If you feel these comments are approaching the line (and you will know if they are), you need to say something like: “Thank you, DONOR NAME, for your comments. I know you mean to compliment me, but it makes me uncomfortable. May I ask that we keep our relationship on a professional level?” I know that someone reading this may say this is too much or too strict. I understand. But I am saying the MGO needs to draw the line when he or she feels it is appropriate. And only that MGO can decide when that is. Immediate boundary-setting is important. By the way, we have seen situations where a male MGO working with a female donor encounters some of the same situations I have described in this blog. But I need to add this qualifier when I talk about this kind of situation happening with men. A situation like this may be uncomfortable for a man and need boundaries. But the difference for female MGOs is the fear of physical sexual assault and of being overpowered. There is a substantial difference in the balance of power and size and strength of most men in relation to most women. So this whole subject of sexual harassment is materially a different thing for women. MGOs are alone in donors’ homes, which leaves them extremely vulnerable. So if you (as a female MGO) ever feel unsafe going into a donor’s home or place of business, you should not go, or not go alone – EVER! You need to listen to your intuition and gut feeling… even if the donor has not said or done anything inappropriate.
  2. Report the incident up line. Your boss or manager should know immediately what has happened and what you have done. Do not go silent at this point. You need to report this immediately. If your boss downplays your concern, escalate it to his or her boss and/or HR. You cannot just let it sit.
  3. Understand that there may be a consequence. The donor may get upset. He or she may threaten not to give. There can be any number of reactions to your boundary-setting. Do not panic. Instead, embrace the fact that this may happen. It has nothing to do with you. Nothing. You have to remember that. Lost money is a far less important value than lost self-respect or shaming or loss of safety. You matter. And you are right to demand respect and fair treatment.
  4. Move the donor or the relationship to another MGO. We have seen this work in a number of situations. If you have a male donor who is actively harassing a female MGO, move the donor to a male MGO, explaining to the donor that as a result of shifting priorities and workloads the donor will now be working with this MGO rather than that one. You should also do this with male MGOs who feel uncomfortable in their relationship with female donors.
  5. Do not take this all too personally. This is easy for me to say, I know. Because it IS personal. But what I am saying is that this whole sexual harassment thing is a bad behavior that starts with the other person, NOT with you. This is about them and their journey through life. This is not personally about you. A person that is involved in sexual harassment is not only doing that with you – they are actively engaging in this behavior most everywhere they go. So this is their problem. You do not need to take this on as your problem or something that you have done wrong.

This journey, about fulfilling a donor’s interests and passions, is mostly a positive one. It is filled with joy, hope, a life saved, a place protected and a new start. But every once in a while, darkness comes in. Remember, no amount of money is worth allowing that darkness to affect you. So take steps to protect yourself. And remember, there is nothing wrong with you.