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. 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 they have fewer donor prospects, Mr. Chow says. If an organization is dependent on a donor who behaves badly, it may feel trapped into working with that person, Mr. Chow explains.
Still, it’s never worth it to protect an abusive donor, he says. The nonprofit will only lose good employees who no longer want to work with the donors, and if the situation becomes public, it could be risking a lot more.
Talk about sexual harassment often.
From the day fundraisers are hired, supervisors should communicate with them that the organization has zero tolerance for sexual harassment — including abuse coming from donors, Mr. Chow says. Fundraisers should know that donors can be reassigned to another colleague. The institution also should make it clear that it is prepared to end relationships with donors who are abusive, he says.
To gain the confidence of employees, "the organization has to tell [them] in a number of different ways, in a number of different venues, continuously, that we’re here for you — to protect you, to assist, and to help you thrive as a philanthropic adviser," Mr. Chow says.
He recommends that supervisors ask fundraisers in one-on-one meetings if they’ve had recent interactions with donors who have been problematic. That question doesn’t necessarily have to relate to sexual harassment, he says — but it might be an invitation to speak about any incidents of abuse.
Ensure evaluations are based on more than money raised.
Mr. Chow recommends that organizations focus personnel evaluations on more than just dollars a person has raised — that way. fundraisers won’t feel that they need to close gifts at all costs. "If your bottom line is dollars raised, then your mentality may be to do whatever it takes to secure those dollars," he said.
For example, the University of Washington health system evaluates fundraisers on the number of contacts they’ve made with big donors, the number of gift proposals submitted, and the amounts they’ve requested — rather than just money coming in the door.
Ms. Beaulieu agrees: "If your evaluation is about how much money you raised, where in that conversation is [the question]: ‘at what cost to yourself and to your safety?’ "