When donors cross the line: Charitable sector grapples with sexual harassment

As Carly Butler got ready to attend another big gala for her job as a major gifts fundraiser, she put on a special dress she’d often wear on such occasions.

But for this particular event at a high-end Nova Scotia resort, she took an extra precaution, placing a safety pin at the neckline to be prudent.

She’d heard there had been “bad behaviour” at the event in the past.

As she and her co-workers arrived at the resort, one charity staffer joked to the crew, “OK, ladies, lock up your vaginas!” Soon after, Butler had an experience she would later describe as “a general disrespect of my professionalism.”

Her job as a fundraiser for the IWK Foundation — the charitable organization that supports the women and children’s hospital in Halifax — required her to drum up $1.5 million in donations the year she was employed there.

During the event, a potential donor asked her to meet him outside in 10 minutes so they could drive his luxury car down a nearby private runway, even though he was drunk. When she said no, he told her she could drive — that there were no police around, and what happened at the resort would stay at the resort.

She didn’t get in the car that day nearly five years ago. But she worries that younger or more vulnerable women starting out their fundraising career may have.

The IWK Foundation supports the IWK Health Centre, a women’s and children’s hospital that serves the Maritimes. (Robert Short/CBC)

As the #MeToo movement continues to sweep across industry after industry, some in the fundraising sector say it’s time for their profession to step up efforts to tackle and prevent sexual harassment.

Workers in some fundraising roles can be particularly vulnerable to harassment due to the deep power imbalance between fundraisers — who are often young women, and whose jobs depend on meeting donation targets — and donors, who are often wealthy older men.

And events like golf tournaments, galas or auction evenings — especially where alcohol is involved — are ripe for abuse of that inequality, say industry insiders.

CBC News spoke with nearly a dozen women across the country who work in the non-profit sector. Nearly all had experiences of being harassed by donors or other employees, either with unwanted touching, sexual innuendo or inappropriate propositions.

One spoke of a former premier grabbing her butt at an event, another of an older donor putting his hand on her knee and offering to “treat” her to a night at the iconic Ottawa hotel Chateau Laurier, while another woman told of a men’s group of potential donors leaving a photo of a naked woman on the podium where she was about to speak.

‘Watch out for this one’

Jacquie Stoyek, who worked in marketing at the IWK Foundation for about five years until leaving in 2017, attended the same fundraiser as Butler.

She recalled seeing a businessman — already intoxicated first thing in the morning — making comments about a foundation staff member and pretending behind her back to grab her butt.

Stoyek said a senior foundation staff member saw that and “kind of gave me the eyes of, like, ‘Watch out for this one,’ sort of thing, and it became this ongoing joke.”

The IWK Foundation declined to answer any questions about the fundraising event, saying in a two-sentence statement it is “unable to provide comment on the specific circumstances” of Butler and Stoyek’s allegations.

But at the time — after Butler reported the luxury car incident to her peers and superiors — she was told not to go future meetings with that donor by herself. Butler said the man cancelled a followup meeting with her when he learned she would not be alone.

The IWK Foundation said in a statement: “With respect to the issue of harassment, it is a very important topic in every sector and we continue to work within our organization to foster a culture of openness, respect and safety.”

The foundation would not comment on whether the event is still taking place.

A survey on sexual harassment conducted in 2018 by the Harris Poll for the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that a quarter of female respondents and seven per cent of male respondents had experienced sexual harassment in the field.

The survey involved about 1,000 fundraisers, including about 900 people living in the U.S. and 100 living in Canada.

In nearly two-thirds of the incidents, a donor was the perpetrator.

But less than half of those who were harassed told their organization about the incident.

Harassment often goes unreported

Beth Ann Locke, who until recently served as the chief philanthropy officer for the B.C. Women’s Health Foundation, said women are worried about the questions that will be asked — “What did you do to make him do that? Did you flirt with him?”

They are also concerned that reporting the incident will hurt their career, say many in the industry. If they no longer work with a major donor who has harassed them, they may not get invited to events, be asked to take on large accounts or meet their donation targets for the year.

We don’t stand up for ourselves and we kind of allow this to happen in our own profession.– Beth Ann Locke

At small organizations, there often isn’t another staffer who can take over an account involving a harasser.

Fundraisers are also passionate about the organizations and causes they work for, and are reluctant to do anything that could harm them, say several of the women interviewed by the CBC.

Locke is one of the co-founders of Ms. Rupt, a group that aims to spark conversation and action on challenges facing female fundraisers.

“What drives me crazy is that all of us as fundraisers work to help people who have no voice — so whether that’s the Amazon rainforest or, you know, dogs in Halifax or people with dementia, right?

“And yet we don’t stand up for ourselves and we kind of allow this to happen in our own profession.”

Sexual harassment often comes in the form of unwanted touching, sexual innuendo or inappropriate propositions. (Eleanor Hannon, for CBC)

Locke said she has experienced several incidents of harassment over the course of her career, including someone asking her to be their “mistress,” someone stroking her arm and commenting on her skin and an uninvited hand on her knee under the table.

She said the most severe instance of harassment occurred years ago while she was working in the U.S., when a superior grabbed her wrist — which she promptly wrenched away — and then held his erect penis through his clothes, saying, “This is what you do to me.”

Locke said she reported the incident to human resources, which forced the man to take three days off without pay and lectured both parties about “this kind of stuff going on in our office.” 

“It was like a dressing-down you’d get from your parents,” Locke said.

How some organizations respond to allegations

That type of lacklustre response does not appear to be unusual, according to the Harris Poll survey.

Of the respondents who had experienced sexual harassment and told their organization about it, 71 per cent said no action had been taken against the perpetrator.

Thirty-five per cent of respondents who took steps to deal with the harassment said they experienced a negative impact on their career after reporting it.

Locke said organizations within the non-profit sector need to take allegations more seriously.

She said she’s heard stories of organizations giving donors or other perpetrators a “pass” for harassing behaviour: “‘He’s sweet.’ ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ Even kind of a ‘he doesn’t know what he’s doing’ thing.… Or ‘they’re from a different age when that was allowed.’ I’ve heard that one.”

Some smaller non-profits that run on a shoestring budget don’t have a separate human resources department to deal with complaints. 

In some cases, the human resource staff member may also be responsible for finances, Locke said, which can create a conflict of interest.

Lucy White, a Toronto consultant for the non-profit sector, said one of the barriers to change in the industry is that when people do file complaints about harassment, the cases are often settled out of court and out of the public eye, often with non-disclosure agreements that forbid them from discussing details.

“So the real problem is no one ever admits publicly that they did anything wrong and we never find out any of the facts,” White said. “We’re left in the dark about how often this kind of thing happens.”

That silence also means other organizations and those who sit on their board of directors never learn what kind of financial repercussions can stem from findings of harrassment, and the liabilities their own charities could face if allegations emerge.

“What happens is they think it’s not a big deal, right?” White said.

Work underway to address issue

There is some movement afoot to help prevent sexual harassment in the fundraising sector.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), an organization that has 3,500 members across Canada and over 30,000 internationally, has formed the Women’s Impact Initiative to address challenges facing women in the sector.

The AFP, which helped commission the Harris Poll survey, is following up on the results by interviewing fundraisers about their experiences of job-related harassment.

The association already has a donor bill of rights that outlines what donors are entitled to as a result of their donations, but it is now considering developing a similar document outlining a donor’s responsibilities when working with fundraisers.

The real problem is no one ever admits publicly that they did anything wrong and we never find out any of the facts.– Lucy White

Some in the profession say non-profits should take other concrete steps, including implementing and enforcing clear anti-harassment policies, overtly encouraging employees and bystanders to come forward with complaints and improving diversity on boards of directors.

But money is often the bottom line for charitable and non-profit organizations.

Perhaps accepting donations from harassers is where the buck must stop, said Caroline Riseboro, the president of AFP Toronto, the largest chapter in the world.

“If targets are missed, boards tend to get nervous. But, you know, boards need to understand if targets are missed because of a harassment issue, then that’s OK. Better to keep employees safe than to meet the target or the goal.”

Riseboro said she believes most boards do take action when they know about instances of harassment, but board members often don’t realize the behaviour is going on.

For some in the fundraising sector, any impending cultural change has come too late. 

Butler, the fundraiser who worked for the IWK Foundation, left the profession, saying despite the enjoyable aspects of the job, “there’s a whole bunch of distasteful things about it” — including, sometimes, the dynamic between the people who work in fundraising and donors.

“It doesn’t feel great after a while.”

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