Starting a Dialogue About Sexual Harassment in and Around Nonprofits

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By Erynn E. Beaton and Megan LePere-Schloop, Ohio State University.

We might not expect nonprofit organizations to be sites of sexual harassment – after all, they exist to do good.  However, several high profile examples surfaced during the #MeToo movement, and surveys and polls suggest sexual harassment is widespread. For instance, our own research suggests that 75.8% of fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment ever in their career and 42.1% have experienced it in the past two years. Another survey suggests 55% of female humanitarian workers endure persistent sexual advances by a male colleague. The question is: What can nonprofits do to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in their midst?

To answer this question, you might run a quick Google search and spend hours reading about what the best practices are. Well, we’ve done that for you – and we compare the recommendations you would find to the research so that only validated practices are included. What we found is a set of seven overarching best practices, which we summarise below. Each of these best practices are undergirded by several specific measures that can be taken (see full article).

Demonstrate a commitment to equality and inclusion

This is the most ambiguous recommendation, but it’s also the most important. It doesn’t matter what other practices an organization implements to prevent sexual harassment if the organizational culture treats harassment as acceptable. There is a strong relationship between organizational diversity and sexual harassment prevention. Thus, a diverse leadership team is needed, and that team must send a clear message (in word and deed) of zero tolerance for uninclusive behavior by stakeholders in (and around) the organization.

Follow or exceed federal and state laws

In many countries there are national and regional laws to prevent sexual harassment. Know those laws and try to exceed their expectations. For instance, did you know that in the state of California nonprofits are required to protect staff and volunteers from sexual harassment?

Write a clear anti-harassment policy

This one seems obvious, but too few nonprofits have sexual harassment policies – only about 50% of the nonprofits in the state of Ohio. There are many important pieces of information to include in an anti-harassment policy. The other thing we’ve noticed is that many policies do not cover sexual harassment by or of external stakeholders like donors and volunteers.

Educate stakeholders on sexual harassment

Again, training is an obvious best practice that has been occurring for some time. However, many nonprofits still do not provide training, especially if it is not required by law. Further, trainings that are provided may be ineffective. Good sexual harassment training is customized to the audience (type of organization and role) and requires active participation.

Encourage stakeholders to report sexual harassment

Nonprofit leaders should want stakeholders to report sexual harassment when it occurs, otherwise it cannot be addressed, and a culture of exclusion will ensue. Though a policy and training are a good starting point, they are not enough. It must be easy and feel safe to submit a sexual harassment complaint. This means thinking deeply about the process through which stakeholders are asked to report their complaints. For instance, it can be helpful to give people some choices about how their complaint will be addressed so that they have more control over a situation that might leave them feeling powerless. It is also important to designate multiple people to whom harassment can be reported (e.g., boss or HR) in case the harasser is in one of those roles. You might also consider an anonymous reporting system.

Properly investigate complaints

We hear of far too many organizations that do not take complaints seriously – either by shrugging off the incident or not investigating it thoroughly. As stakeholders share and hear these stories, they are disincentivized from reporting in the future. A thorough investigation requires that the organization develop an investigative plan and follow it by collecting information from all involved. Each investigation should have a determination that is appropriately communicated

Take appropriate action on sexual harassment complaints

Again, many organizations do not properly follow up on their complaints and investigations. Nonprofits should be prepared to terminate their relationship with a stakeholder who broke the law and to take disciplinary action for anyone that may not have broken the law, but whose behavior was inappropriate. Allowing harassers to remain without discipline or allowing them to resign silently (and maybe even providing a reference to a future employer) should be unacceptable in the field. Remember that when appropriate action is not taken (or seen being taken) then stakeholders are less likely to report experiences in the future and it will normalize an organizational culture of exclusion.

We do not suggest that these practices are easy to comply with, but we hope it is helpful to have them in one place. Our paper makes calls for additional research that will support practitioners in living up to the altruistic expectations of the nonprofit sector by preventing sexual harassment. We know that there are many practitioners out there whose experience – with sexual harassment itself and with implementing prevention policies – would add greatly to this discussion. We also know there are many working hard to change the organizational practices and national policies surrounding sexual harassment. We have asked one such practitioner to comment. Liz LeClair has prepared a response to this research, sharing her own experiences. Liz is an experienced fundraiser in Canada and serves as the Association for Fundraising Professional’s Women’s Impact Initiative Chair. Drawing from her experiences with sexual harassment, organizational training, and national activism, Liz reinforces the case for action, including more research. We would love to hear from you too.

Click here to access the full NVSQ research article: Beaton, E.E., LePere-Schloop, M. & Smith, R. (2021). A Review of Sexual Harassment Prevention Practices: Toward a Nonprofit Research Agenda, Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, https://doi.org/10.1177/08997640211008979.


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