Building a Culture of Safety at Work in Charitable Organizations – A Practitioner Perspective on the Dialogue About Sexual Harassment in and Around Nonprofits

Photo by Yan Krukov on

By Liz LeClair, CFRE. Chair, Women’s Impact Initiative (Association of Fundraising Professionals)

I am a fundraising practitioner with more than 15 years of experience in the charitable sector in Canada.   I am also a survivor of workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault by donors.  I have been a vocal advocate for safe workplace training as women in the fundraising sector are routinely placed in extremely vulnerable situations to do their jobs.  Sexual harassment, bullying, and other inappropriate behaviours against front-line fundraising staff is a serious issue that must be addressed.

I first wrote about my personal experience being sexually assaulted and harassed by donors in January 2019 for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC).  Over the last two years I fought my former employers, and a major corporation, to hold an individual accountable for sexually harassing me over a period of four-and-a-half years.  In a follow up piece in May 2021, the CBC did an extensive report on how my former employers, and the human rights system, failed. 

As a vocal advocate and activist on this issue in the fundraising sector , I know first-hand that the majority of organizations are not doing an adequate job of protecting their staff.  Since January 2021 I have given a series of sexual harassment presentations and workshops using the data from Dr. Beaton and Dr. LePere-Schloop’s research.   In each session we polled the participants about whether they personally experienced sexual harassment, or if they witnessed sexual harassment of a colleague in the workplace.  Every time we do, the poll results match the survey results done by LePere-Schloop and Beaton.  Every time we ask them if they feel their employers or professional associations provide them with adequate sexual harassment training,  the answer is no. 

When I work with these organizations, I focus on what it takes to build a culture of safety at work and in particular, on four key factors that I believe need to be in place for employees to feel safe at work:   invested and engaged leadership; strong policies and procedures; a strong and secure third-party reporting system; and finally, teams that are empowered to report and react (also known as by-stander intervention training).

The biggest barriers for most nonprofits or charities is capacity.  Larger institutions (like universities or colleges) have policies and procedures in place, but smaller organizations need support to develop these templates.  And while policies and procedures are  a critical first step, I have found that board and leadership training around this topic is often missing.  Without invested and properly trained leaders, policies and procedures cannot be properly implemented.

Another significant barrier for small organizations is the resources for independent third-party reporting tools.  In the UK there are national programs like Tell Jane, but they come with a cost.  In Canada, some new programs like #AfterMeToo’s We Are Rosa and Vest SIT are available, or if the organization can afford, the Grant Thornton reporting hotline can be used.

Most small organizations are not equipped or properly resourced to handle sexual harassment complaints well.  Creating a psychologically safe workplace requires investment and discipline from the organization’s leadership and board, including regular training (ideally annually).  It also requires by-stander intervention training for all team members.  And most importantly it requires a workplace culture that is committed to open, honest, and compassionate communications. 

Without continued research on this topic we will not be able to fully grasp the impact that sexual harassment of fundraisers on our sector.  We know that the sector is highly feminized (80% of fundraisers identify as female).  We have research on how donor-dominance negatively impacts organizations and decision-making.  We know that fundraisers are highly vulnerable when working with donors, board members, and volunteers.  We know that when we put a list of inappropriate behaviours in front of fundraisers, the number of people who self-identify as experiencing sexual harassment triples

If we want to fund the resources and supports needed to make this sector safer, we need the continued work of researchers like LePere-Schloop and Beaton.  I am grateful they are providing concrete numbers and data to validate the anecdotes we have heard for years.   Sexual harassment of our staff is the worst kept secret in the sector. Now we have the data to prove it and some of the practices known to quell it.

One thought on “Building a Culture of Safety at Work in Charitable Organizations – A Practitioner Perspective on the Dialogue About Sexual Harassment in and Around Nonprofits”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: