What We Can Learn from Harassment Claims at FitzGibbon

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The recent progressive media coverage of alleged widespread harassment at FitzGibbon, a public relations firm that serviced many charitable clients, came as a shock to many in the nonprofit sector. The firm had a positive reputation in the field and helped many mission-driven organizations operate more effectively. The founder of the firm allegedly harassed employees, potential employees, and employees at client organizations over a period of years until one woman blew the whistle. Within days, the firm dissolved.

There’s nothing really shocking about this story—even for the nonprofit sector. According to a 2011 ABC/Washington Post poll, 25 percent of women and 10 percent of men report sexual harassment in the workplace. Sadly, the nonprofit sector is not immune to sexual harassment and violence, and neither are its leaders. By not openly discussing sexual harassment in public forums or by privately labeling certain individuals as “creepy,” nonprofit professionals enable harassers to continue their behavior without consequence and leave their organizations open to both public relations and legal consequences.

Over the course of my fundraising and consulting career, I’ve heard dozens of stories and anecdotes from both male and female fundraisers about inappropriate (and often illegal) behavior involving prospective donors. Yet few managers, organizations, or professional associations address it directly. When they do, it’s framed as an “ethical” issue or a “sticky situation” but one that fundraisers are expected to encounter and address as a part of their chosen career path.

When I was in my twenties, I ran the 50th reunion fundraising campaign at my alma mater. I spent most of my time with major donors in their late sixties and seventies. I took them out to lunch or dinner. I socialized with them at alumni events and country clubs. I traveled to meet with them in their home. Sometimes we were alone. Sometimes alcohol was involved. My job was to assess their capacity to give, cultivate relationships with the university, and close gifts. And one of the most important lessons I learned was how to navigate the uncomfortable politics of sexual power.

Sometimes it was harmless: “If I were twenty years younger or you were twenty years older, I’d be chasing you around this table,” a donor once said to me with a smile.

But sometimes it was creepy. Another donor insisted that he would only make a gift if I dined with him “at the nicest restaurant in town.” I offered coffee. He was adamant about dinner. Just the two of us. I approached a manager for advice, expressing my discomfort.

“It’s just dinner,” she told me, “You’ll be in a public place.”

I wanted to please my boss, and advance my career. So I kept my mouth shut, and fended off this donor’s advances through dinner until I could escape home. Looking back, I wish that I had greater awareness and knowledge of how to handle these situations, and also what my legal rights were as an employee.

No charitable gift or promise of charitable gift is worth sacrificing another person’s dignity or humanity. Luckily, there are things that nonprofit leaders and board members, development managers, and fundraisers can do to prevent this from taking place:

  • Check your policies.While most organizations have sexual harassment policies that define standards of behavior among employees, third party sexual harassment—that is, sexual harassment by vendors, volunteers, or donors—is not typically addressed. In 2011, one law firm noted that third-party harassment was one of the top ten risks facing nonprofit organizations. Make it clear that any harassment against employees is not tolerated, and you want to know when it’s happening so you can have your team’s back.
  • Offer training and support.Ask the professional association you belong to—the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, Association of Fundraising Professionals, or a regional group—to develop trainings for frontline fundraisers and for development managers on how to handle harassment in the moment and how to develop effective organizational policies including third-party harassment. If we’re not talking about this topic, we’re not learning. As a field and a profession, we owe it to ourselves to bring sexual harassment and violence into the open and find solutions that move missions forward without enabling abusive behavior.
  • Speak up.I kept my mouth shut about inappropriate behavior because I didn’t want to rock the boat. That was wrong. You don’t need to laugh off bad behavior that makes you uncomfortable. If a donor or vendor sexually harasses you, it’s probably not the first—or the last—time it will happen. Think about the next person, and the person after that.

With the rising wave of attention on sexual violence, more and more men and women are coming forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault. Let the recent unraveling of FitzGibbon, a progressive public relations firm, be a lesson for all of us. Allowing this kind of offensive behavior to take place in your organization exposes management and board members to negative publicity, lawsuits, and a lifetime of moral regret. All of which puts your organization—and mission—at risk.

  • Danny Oberman

    Right on target. We recently wrote about volunteers who assist Non Profits. Israeli law does not differentiate between a volunteer or an employee of a Non Profit when it comes to sexual harassment. The Management & Board of the Non Profit are liable in both cases if proper procedures were not in place.
    http://www.ngobpc.com/blog6-sexual-harassment/

  • Richard Gelula

    Traditionally, volunteering and contributing were seen as a privilege governed only by common mores and manners. It is still not recognized how much training is required to create a disciplined nonprofit organization which generally have weak accountability. Harassment is widespread — bullying and coercion as much or more than sexual. Males are as victimized as females. Open sexual identities, a good thing, may have expanded the opportunities for conflict and harrassment in or around the nonprofit organization, or made them more visible, between volunteers, contributors and staff or within these groups.