Are Donors the Hidden Enemies of Charities?

Donors are not usually the enemies of nonprofit organizations. Instead, they are the friends who provide much needed resources allowing charities to save lives and enhance the quality of those lives.

However, some donors at some times do become the enemy of the good. They behave in ways that humiliate and, at times, even endanger those with less power. That’s one of the disturbing findings of a new survey report sponsored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and The Chronicle of Philanthropy and produced by Harris Polling.

Among nonprofit professionals surveyed, 25 percent of women and 7 percent of men say they have been sexually harassed. Of the harassment incidents cited, 65 percent of the perpetrators were donors with the balance being colleagues, work supervisors, and organization executives. Harassers are most often men (96 percent). The median number of sexual harassment occurrences personally experienced by survey respondents is three (which is why some of the statistics in the report add up the way they do).

“Harassment is always about power, so the results here might indicate that the real power in these organizations rests with the donors,” Jerry Carbo, a professor at Shippensburg University who served on a federal committee studying harassment in the workplace in 2015 and 2016, told The Chronicle. “I would normally expect to see a much higher response rate for supervisors.”

The most common types of sexual harassment experienced in the fundraising profession include: inappropriate comments of a sexual nature (80 percent), unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favors (62 percent), and unwanted touching or physical contact (55 percent).

Mike Geiger, MBA, CPA, President and CEO of AFP, commented on the alarming findings:

The number of cases involving donors is eye-opening and points to a unique and very troubling situation within the profession. As we look at how to proceed with the data from the survey and begin developing anti-harassment education and training for fundraisers and others in the charitable sector, we will have a special focus on the all-important donor-fundraiser relationship. We know most donors have only the best interest of the cause at heart, but our message will be clear: no donation and no donor is worth taking away an individual’s respect and self-worth and turning a blind eye to harassment.”

Sadly, many nonprofit organizations fail to take appropriate action when they receive reports of sexual harassment, regardless of whether the perpetrators were donors or fellow staff. Consider the following:

  • 58 percent of survey respondents who reported harassment directly to their organizations were unhappy with the way they were dealt with.
  • 45 percent said the organization took no action after they reported the incident.
  • 13 percent said their allegations were minimized.

Clearly, there is more that nonprofit organizations can do to minimize the risk to individuals. And, when victims report incidents, there are more effective ways nonprofit organizations can respond.

There are some who suggest that the sexual harassment problem is not unique to the nonprofit sector. While certainly true, that should not serve as an excuse for inaction. As a sector, we need to take steps to protect individuals from sexual harassment, regardless of the source. Furthermore, because we’ll never be able to completely eliminate sexual harassment, we also need to take decisive action when cases are reported and support victims. We also need to be very clear that:

No donation is worth mental or physical harm to staff or volunteers.

Here are some essential things every nonprofit organization should do immediately:

1.  Have the organization’s board adopt a sexual harassment policy. If a policy already exists, it should be reviewed with an eye toward improving it. The policy should define sexual harassment (regardless of the source), map the reporting process, and explain the consequences of harassment. The policy should also make it clear that no donation is worth mental or physical harm to staff or volunteers; people should be clearly valued more than money.

2.  The senior management team or board of the organizations should set policies regarding meetings with prospects and donors. The policy should include answers to several questions including:

  • Where is it appropriate to meet with a prospect or donor?
  • When should more than one person from the organization meet with a prospect or donor at the same time?
  • When dining out with a prospect or donor, who should pick-up the check?
  • What prospect or donor behaviors should not be tolerated?
  • How should misbehavior be treated in the moment and following an incident?

3.  Procedures should be adopted for providing feedback to prospects or donors who misbehave so that they understand that their missteps are inappropriate and unacceptable. 

4.  Staff and volunteers (including board members) should be provided with the policies and trained to ensure they understand all of the provisions of the policies.

5.  As part of training, make all staff and volunteers aware of the problem. For example, share the Harris Polling report with them along with a printed copy of the organization’s sexual harassment policies.

6.  Re-assure staff and volunteers that they will be fully supported, and that they will not be penalized or lose their jobs for filing a legitimate complaint.

Here are some additional resources to help you become better informed about this issue:

“Sexual Harassment Is Widespread Problem for Fundraisers, Survey Shows” by Timothy Sandoval at The Chronicle of Philanthropy

“Professional Harassment Survey: Prepared for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Association of Fundraising Professionals” by Harris Polling

“One-Quarter of All Female Fundraisers Report Sexual Harassment” by The Association of Fundraising Professionals (This is a summary of the Harris findings along with commentary from AFP officials.)

The Association of Fundraising Professionals Women’s Impact Initiative, an 18-month initiative to assess, address, and highlight the specific issues and challenges that women in the fundraising profession face.

“#MeToo Moment for Fundraisers” by Roger Craver at The Agitator

“Rethink Donor Meetings” by Ann Rosenfield, MBA, CFRE at Hilborn: Charity eNews

“Unacceptable Behaviour by Donors, Condoned by Charities. Things Must Change.” by Giles Pegram, CBE at UKFundraising

The nonprofit sector has a problem. What are we going to do about it? What is your organization doing to deal with the problem? Share your thoughts, insights, and suggestions below.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?


3 Responses to “Are Donors the Hidden Enemies of Charities?”

  1. Seriously? No one has commented on this yet?
    This is an excellent debrief on the pervasiveness of the problem and specific steps we can all take to address it. Probably policies alone won’t change culture, but it is a necessary first step.
    We at Keystone Accountability have started offering a facilitated process to go deeper inside organizations and help the leadership identify specific problems, causes, and dialogue on solutions — explained here:

    • Marc, thank you for being the first to comment. I appreciate your thoughts. While workplace sexual harassment is a serious issue, people tend to ignore it until it’s too late. But, the fact is, we all need to be part of the solution, preferably before people get hurt.


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