The Dynamics of Sexual Harassment in Nonprofit Environments

Every nonprofit is different—but many face unique challenges when it comes to sexual assault. The combination of client, donor, employee and volunteer relationships can—if an organization isn’t careful—create an environment where inequities sometimes give rise to sexual harassment and bullying. 

Here’s an overview of the dynamics that bear close watching to protect against abuse.

Employee-to-client or volunteer-to-client relationships. Many nonprofits serve disadvantaged populations who are vulnerable to different forms of abuse to begin with.

In addition, depending on the type of organization, turnover at the nonprofit may be high. Organizations frequently face challenges in teaching and instilling proper workplace values in an employee base with high turnover. 

Frequent training on appropriate workplace behavior is essential—with ongoing reminders, especially for employee and volunteer populations with high turnover.

Relationships between employees and volunteers. The most commonly-reported type of harassment in nonprofit workplaces involves employees and volunteers facing inappropriate behavior from their peers.

This behavior can range from offensive jokes and comments to explicit demands for sexual favors in return for promotions or other preferential treatment. 

Donor-to- employee or donor-to-volunteer relationships. According to the Journal of Philanthropy, one in three instances of nonprofit sexual harassment involved a donor. And this type of harassment is disproportionately experienced by women—only 7% of male fundraisers reported it, while 25% of female fundraisers did.

There’s a clear power differential between wealthy donors and fundraisers who work for nonprofits—and some individuals take advantage. It’s essential for nonprofit managers to be aware of this, to make their employees and volunteers feel empowered to speak up, and to put their wellbeing ahead of an influential donor’s contribution if necessary. 

Cultural and age-related misunderstandings. Nonprofits with diverse populations among their employee, donor, volunteer, and client base need to be aware of how differing cultural norms and privilege can result in incidents that range in severity—from sincere misunderstandings to genuine harassment.  Appropriate sensitivity and diversity training is important.

Nonprofits face many of the same challenges for-profit businesses do when it comes to sexual assault—but they also have to deal with unique risks. It’s essential for nonprofit leaders and managers to be aware of the interpersonal dynamics that can give rise to uneven power differentials that provide fertile ground for problematic behavior. Being aware of these dynamics can help nonprofits set the training in place to prevent this behavior.