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Buying Silence: Donor Sexual Assault at Nonprofit Organizations

Victims face additional peril when donor dollars are on the line.

The sexual assault I most remember is the one I least expected.

I was 29 years old, and alone with a stranger in his apartment. As a nonprofit fundraiser, the circumstance was not unusual. I met lots of donors, often alone in their homes, to update them on our efforts and ask for their support. As a queer man meeting queer donors, sometimes things got flirty, but I seldom, if ever, felt violated. Even if I had, years of experience in sleazy gay bars taught me how to play off an unwelcome advance. Or so I thought.

But this was different. This donor was not just heterosexual, he was a notorious ladies’ man. He attended our events in the company of various women, members of what he called “his stable.” He divorced his wife, he said, because he couldn’t be tied down. I expected dinner in the home of an unrepentant womanizer. Instead, once we were alone, his hands were all over me.

I’ve seldom shared this story. I never told my boss, or anyone else at the office. It wasn’t that I feared reprisal, it was more that I didn’t want to out a 70-something man. After I refused his advances, I stayed for dinner. We talked about his secret relationships with men he met online or at the gym, and how he kept up appearances out of respect for his ex-wife and fear that his peers would ostracize him. We wound up becoming friends, after a fashion. Oh, and he made a donation.

After seventeen years in the nonprofit sector, I know my story is not unusual. Most fundraisers have a story like this one, if not several. Mazarine Treyz, founder of Wild Woman Fundraising, shared two stories on her site: One in which she was harassed as a staff member, and one as a prospective board member.

Nearly 14.5 million Americans are employed in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits must protect these employees from sexual harassment by staff, just like every other employer, but face an additional challenge with board members and donors. These are frequently individuals of significant wealth and influence, who may think their charitable support entitles them to more than a thank-you letter and a plate at the benefit gala.

One-on-one interactions with donors put fundraisers on the front line, but any staff may be at risk, including interns and volunteers. Benefits, open houses, behind-the-scenes tours, and even daily operations can bring staff members, some mere teenagers in their first job, into contact with board members and major donors. While supporters may not supervise individual employees, the power imbalance created by wealth, influence, and fame can be, and too often is, exploited.

In one of my first jobs, I saw board members (wealthy men in their 50s and 60s) unabashedly flirt with high school students who worked the registers at our admissions window. At our annual benefit dinner, some of these young women sold raffle tickets. A dollar bought one ticket, five dollars bought an arm’s length, and ten dollars bought a strip as long as the donor’s height. The men who spent ten dollars, almost to a one, said they’d prefer to use the teenagers’ height — then held the tickets against the young women to “measure.”

This was the early 2000’s. I was 22, and I didn’t know much about sexual assault and power dynamics. The practice made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to question my boss. Today, I would refuse to take part in providing an excuse for wealthy men to put their hands on a teenager.

Years later, as an older and more established professional, I learned that a board member at a large nonprofit was cornering young women at our events. His reputation and his preferences were well-known — when he visited the office, young female staff with East Asian features would find a reason to step away. New staffers who fit that description were warned about him. At events, however, staff weren’t free to leave when they chose. He found an administrative employee, dressed in cocktail attire as instructed, and placed his hands on her bare back and arms as he cornered her.

I brought it to the attention of our leadership, and mentioned it to HR. No action was taken, to my knowledge, and I found myself among the whisper network that raised an alarm when the offender paid a visit. It was the best I could do in my role.

Such failure from staff leadership is inexcusable, but also common. While harassment claims among staff can be resolved through standard HR channels, conflicts with board and major donors are harder to address. Not only are they not employees, they wield significant financial power and authority over the organization. Pitched against the word of a single staff member — or even multiple staff members — that power may be more than executive leadership have the will to challenge.

Even where such will exists, the channels and protocol to address such a problem may be unclear, or nonexistent.

Every nonprofit should have a clear policy for addressing harassment, not only by staff but also by donors and board members. Board governance documents and employee handbooks should lay out a process for receiving and addressing reports of impropriety — including a whistle-blower policy that allows staff to come forward in confidence. Staff should understand, explicitly, that they are not expected to tolerate unwelcome advances from anyone, no matter how powerful. Board members should understand that such advances will carry consequences, including removal from the board.

Donors must know that financial support does not entitle them to sexually harass staff, and that their money will never take precedence over the dignity of employees or the integrity of the organization. Every nonprofit should have a written Gift Acceptance Policy that includes this language. Enforcing such a policy can be frightening, especially when the offending donor gives at an especially high level. This is where executive leadership must demonstrate the will to put integrity ahead of financial concerns, even when those financial concerns may be dire. The greater risk is the reputation of the organization.

At its best, a nonprofit unites passionate staff and passionate donors who share a vision for public good. In 17 years, the vast majority of interactions I’ve shared with donors and board members have been respectful and positive. There are those, however, who use their money and influence as leverage to exploit and abuse people with less power.

Surrendering to such abuse should not be the price nonprofit employees pay in pursuit of their mission.


Coins-in-hands image from TaxCredits.net,used under Creative Commons 2.0