Many development leaders are, for the first time, thinking deeply about how to address sexual harassment at nonprofit organizations, universities, museums and hospitals. For too long, sexual harassment was, at best, rarely discussed and, at worst, accepted by organizations as a part of the job.

Now, that is changing, thanks to #MeToo, the campus sexual violence movement and other public conversations. Yet as a culture, we are both unskilled and inexperienced at talking about sexual harassment and violence. It’s hard to know what data you need to collect, how to frame the conversations with employees, board and colleagues, and how to best approach prevention and response.

When tackling a taboo or uncomfortable topic, it’s sometimes hard to see the ways in which the discomfort impacts the way individuals and organizations respond. For example, imagine the following scenario:

A fundraiser off-handedly shares that a donor or prospect stole their wallet during a meeting or event. Five of her colleagues saw the theft take place, but none of them reported it. After some internal discussion, you realize this wasn’t an isolated incident. Nearly half of your employees have experienced theft on the job, and a significant number of them had personal belongings stolen by a donor or prospect.

Adding to this, you learn, historically, the response to theft has been the following:

  • Blaming, directly or indirectly, the fundraiser for bring a purse to the meeting
  • Suggesting the fundraiser ought to “work it out” with the donor since it’s really just a problem with them communicating about the ownership of the money
  • Laughing it off with comments like “Oh, it’s just a little harmless theft – he only took $10.”
  • Re-assigning the prospect to a fundraiser who doesn’t have a wallet
  • Asking the fundraiser not to make a big deal out of it since it might jeopardize the donor’s gift to the organization

In the case of sexual harassment, it’s not personal belongings that are being stolen – it’s a person’s dignity. When considering a more comfortable crime, like theft, it’s easy to understand that the problem is bigger than the individual incident between two people. It’s an organizational problem. If half of your employees experience theft at work, it’s a work problem. It’s your problem. And if even more employees don’t know that they should speak up when someone is stealing, it’s a training problem.

Think Beyond Harassment Policy

In the scenario above, it’s also easy to recognize that amending the policy on stealing represents only a small part of potential solution. Many organizations respond to reports of sexual harassment by reviewing their sexual harassment policies, and re-sharing them within the organization in a zero-tolerance context. This is a great start, but won’t actually solve the problem alone.

The main challenges is that policies don’t implement themselves. While many organizations do have policies outlining acceptable and unacceptable behavior, this is not the same as ongoing training and education on how to recognize the ways harassment plays out, how to respond as a colleague or manager, and how to ensure all employees – especially those who have experienced sexual harassment or violence previously – feel safe at work.

In the case of the development profession, however, there is an additional challenge. Few sexual harassment policies explicitly cover fundraiser interactions with donors or prospects, which presents challenges around reporting and enforcement. How do organizations ensure their employees are safe at work when work requires interactions with external parties?

Understanding Sexual Harassment in Fundraising

For most fundraisers, it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up an image of Harvey Weinstein in a fundraising context. He was, after all, a major donor to numerous nonprofits and a political donor as well. It’s sometimes easier to imagine ways to address perpetrators like Harvey Weinstein, who physically and sexually assault multiple people. What we often fail to realize, however, is how acceptance of a broad range of inappropriate and troubling behaviors sets the stage for violent perpetrators to act with impunity and harm multiple victims without being held accountable. When we are silent about other forms of harassment, we send signals to perpetrators that their behaviors are acceptable and to victims that they won’t be believed or taken seriously.

In fundraising and development, sexual harassment and the behaviors that set the stage for it show up frequently. A few conversations with seasoned fundraisers and development professionals will turn up a host of stories ranging from boundary pushing to explicit harassment.

For example:

  • You meet a donor at one location and s/he wants to drive you to another location.
  • Your donor offers to buy you another drink. You’ve had enough. The donor gets angry and insists.
  • An alumni volunteer continually hugs or kisses you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • A colleague always gives you backrubs to “help you relax”
  • Your colleagues – and even your boss – describe a particular volunteer as a “kisser.”
  • An older donor says, “If I were 20 years younger….”
  • A donor insists on meeting you in a secluded or intimate location (a hotel room, private club, his/her home)
  • A donor tells you how attractive you are, and how much they enjoy spending time with you.
  • A donor invites you on a vacation or other trip with his/her friends or family
  • A prospect tells you that they would probably make a big gift if you slept with them
  • A prospect sends you flowers or another gift after a meeting or for your birthday.
  • A prospect asks you out on a date.
  • You receive a lot of late night, suggestive text messages from a colleague or alumni volunteer

And while we do teach fundraisers to make an ask or inquire about estate planning, we don’t frequently teach them how to navigate these uncomfortable conversations – or teach their managers how to identify prospects or donors who may be perpetrating harassment. These details and scenarios are important to understand, as they shape the way organizations ought to think about prevention and training, which is less about the definitions and more about recognizing and responding appropriately before, during and after an incident that takes place.

Sensitivity to Survivors

As organizations initiate discussions about sexual harassment within their organizations, it’s important to do so with sensitivity towards the 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men who are already carrying the trauma of being sexually abused or assaulted. By creating space and transparency to address sexual harassment, organizations can also play a role in supporting survivors.

While some donors and prospects may be perpetrators of sexual harassment, many more – male and female – are likely to be survivors of sexual violence. Everyone benefits from approaches that take survivors’ needs and experiences into consideration.

A few tactical suggestions to consider:

  • Share healing resources like the National Sexual Assault Hotline or local rape crisis center in your physical office space and as a part of any discussion about sexual harassment or violence.
  • Encourage self-care for survivors during discussions about sexual violence or harassment.
  • Provide opportunities to volunteer with local rape crisis centers or other survivor-focused organizations
  • Partner with survivor advocacy organizations focused on the workplace, like Project #HereForYou

Focus on Skills

In order to effectively prevent sexual harassment, organizations must change the culture that allows harassment to take place. This requires everyone to change, not just victims or perpetrators. Culture change sometimes feels like a massive challenge, but it’s really just the things that people do or say on a regular basis.

Key skills in organizations that prioritize safety and respect include:

The ability to talk about uncomfortable things at work. You can’t talk about this issue without feeling uncomfortable. But the discomfort doesn’t need to be a reason to avoid the conversation. Lots of people avoid things that are uncomfortable, but can learn how to face them head on with practice. First time conversations about sexual harassment should not take place in the context of a disclosure by an employee or a public statement in response to an incident. Organizations that teach this skill are also better equipped to tackle lots of different uncomfortable topics that may inhibit their success.

Practical examples:

  • A manager reviews a recent trip itinerary with an employee, and asks about whether s/he felt safe at all the meetings.
  • A development leader opens up a discussion about experiences of harassment at an all-staff meeting, encouraging employees to come forward directly to them if they experienced anything
  • A board member calls a donor to tell them their behavior made a fundraiser uncomfortable

How to identify troubling behaviors – and the strategies to intervene. “Bystander intervention” often evokes the image of a direct, physical confrontation with a perpetrator. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Intervention in the context of sexual harassment and violence means knowing how to strike up a conversation with someone who is being victimized, skill around deflection, and how to engage more powerful allies to assist. Bystander intervention training is a quick and effective win for any development staff member who participates in external meetings or fundraising events.

Practical examples:

  • A young donor appears intoxicated at an event, and is being led around by someone unfamiliar to staff. A fundraiser engages a prospect with whom he has a close relationship to check in on her safety, and ensure she has a safe way home.
  • A colleague is cornered by a drunken donor at an event and appears uncomfortable. A colleague notices this interaction, and approaches the colleague telling him, “I think your boss was looking for you.”
  • A board member hugs young female staff members, but not others in the organization. A male board member points out his behavior, “Hey so why don’t you every hug the guys?”

Boundary-setting with self and others. Policies are ways that organizations set boundaries as a means to identify people who are at risk of perpetrating sexual harassment. Individuals can also learn how to set boundaries, which both provide individual safety or comfort and also help with early identification of individuals don’t respect boundaries. You can see here what happens when this doesn’t go well.

Practical examples:

  • One fundraiser told me that she always sits in front when a donor offers her a ride in a taxi or private car. This wasn’t an organizational policy – it was her own. This simple action serves a couple of purposes. It physically separates her from a donor, which makes her feel safer in the car. Second, it’s a chance for her to see how the donor responds to a boundary. Does the donor insist? Get angry? Make a sarcastic joke?
  • A manager knows that an employee is uncomfortable with hugging – because they’ve talked about it. A hug-prone donor approaches, arms out, and the manager says, “[Employee] is a handshake person, but come give me a hug!” In this case, the manager is setting the boundary in partnership with the employee. Hugging isn’t wrong. But hugging after a boundary is set is problematic.

Respond compassionately to a disclosure, whether or not a mandated reporter. When a person discloses sexual harassment or violence, managers can respond both legally and compassionately. A positive disclosure experience can set a survivor on a path to healing – and a negative one can create additional shame and trauma compounded by the experience of assault or harassment. By believing the victim, establishing safety, expressing safety and empowering them through a reporting process, even mandated reporters can have a positive impact on the survivor and on the culture..

Practical examples:

  • An employee discloses an incident of harassment to a manager, who is a mandated reporter. The manager offers the employee several options for reporting, including the manager speaking to HR, meeting with HR together, or sending an email jointly.
  • A prospect discloses a past MeToo experience to a fundraiser, who says, “Thank you for sharing that with me. Have you been able to get the help and support you need to work through that?”

An understanding of power and privilege, and the ways it plays out in organizations and relationships. Power and privilege are invisible, and oftentimes, the more you have, the harder it is to see. However, it is those people with power and privilege that are best positioned to address troubling behaviors and challenge attitudes that lead to sexual harassment and assault. Power can be based on size, strength, financial resources, education/access, what you look like, control over another person’s career, and many other elements. Unconscious bias training typically offers insight into ways that power plays out across groups, and is also a practical way to teach people how to recognize and overcome unhelpful assumptions about others.

Practical examples:

  • A manager who hasn’t experienced harassment may be less likely to believe someone who reports it.
  • A victim isn’t believed because his perpetrator is a “good guy” and doesn’t “seem like someone who would do that.”

The good news is that all of these skills will make your employees better fundraisers – and better humans.


Conversations about sexual harassment in fundraising are uncomfortable, but the discomfort is paving way to creating cultures of safety and respect for all people. As your development office embarks on training and discussion sexual harassment and violence, please share your experience here in the comments!