Sexual Harassment and Physical Boundaries in the NGO space

trigger warning: The links attached to this article contain explicit stories of sexual violation in the context of NGO work.

By Liz Hensler
July 12, 2020

This weekend, I watched “Bombshell” for the first time – the movie about the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News and the women who came forward (as an aside, Charlize Theron! Wow!). This is a subject I feel personally attached to, and in the wake of #MeToo, we have a duty to root out predators across all sectors. The movie had me thinking, as I often do, about the ways sexual harassment and violation of physical and emotional boundaries shows up in the non-profit sector. I have been fortunate enough to have had wonderful bosses and coworkers, coming across few fellow employees who are predatory. However, less discussed is the role of predatory external actors on non-profit employees.

When I was 22 years old, I was rounding out my first AmeriCorps term as a Volunteer Coordinator. This role, as with many of my subsequent ones, required me to act as a face of the organization. Being 22, I was enthusiastic and hungry for the success of our program. In this work, I spent time talking to older adults, most with more money and power than I, who expressed interest in supporting the organization either financially or with their time. For the most part, people who express interest in supporting your organization wish to do exactly that – but not always.

For our big fundraiser of the year, I had spent the day setting up, lugging booze and pamphlets from our Midtown office to the venue, and practicing my talking points. A guest of one of our benefactors took a liking to me and I ran through my pitch for giving to the organization. He got physically too close for my comfort and misread my enthusiasm for the work as enthusiasm for him. After some back and forth and a subtle “save me” look to one of my team members, I was able to extricate myself from the situation. A few days later, I received multiple emails to both my work and personal email addresses – information I had not given – asking me to dinner or to come to his apartment. These emails continued for some weeks after.

Now, this situation was the first of many uncomfortable situations I have been in based on my roles in non-profit organizations, and only one of many stories I’ve heard from members of the NGO community. Sexual harassment is rooted in power dynamics, which can be seen clearly in relationships between NGO employees and donors, volunteers or partners. According to the Journal of Philanthropy, “one in three instances of non-profit sexual harassment involved a donor”.

People sometimes assume that they don’t have to be careful about my boundaries about my body and it’s stressful. It’s really routine with funders for physical boundaries to be crossed without consent and sexual solicitation without acknowledgement of power dynamics.

Priscilla Hung – #MeToo & the Culture of Fundraising, Grassroots Fundraising Journal

Because our roles are service based, whether that is fundraising, volunteer management, program management, etc., we can fall prey to the idea that our discomfort or violation is a price to pay for the good that can come out of the predator’s contribution to the organization. This is a fallacy and one we should put to rest for good.

Sexual Harassment Is Widespread Problem for Fundraisers, Survey Shows. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, April 5, 2018

This harassment can take many forms, from physical violation, to explicit requests for sexual acts, to “dirty jokes”. All of which are a violation of the boundaries set by the relationship implied by your respective roles. As a white woman, I have experienced a share of this violation and do not want to speak for others, but I would be grossly remiss if I did not discuss the prevalence of this among staff members identifying with marginalized communities – predominantly people who identify as LGBTQ+, POC, and women-identifying people across those intersections. Women of color experience both racial and sexual harassment – including racial fetishization, compounded by the additional power dynamic inherent in their NGO job descriptions.

The unequal power dynamics that get created when you put a fundraiser and a donor in the same room are markedly exacerbated when you add significant class, gender, race, and age differences.

Christopher Keetly – Buying Silence: Donor Sexual Assault at Nonprofit Organizations, Nov 21, 2017

So, what do we do?:

First and foremost, organizations need to have clear reporting mechanisms and a no tolerance policy for offenders within their internal and external power structures. Period. Creating an environment of no retaliation for people who report is key.

For those frequently interacting with external stakeholders and at risk, it can be trickier. I wish I could promise a foolproof method to rid our NGO community of sexual predators, but unfortunately, this is an insidious and deeply rooted pathology set within inherent power dynamics. I do, however, have some techniques that have worked for organizations and coworkers to protect our staff, volunteers, and clients.

  • Volunteer background screening and training flagging process: For volunteer-based programs, the initial intake of potential volunteers is a key step to preventing predators from entering your organization. In some cases, volunteers also become donors, so this is important across a number of departments. Some organizations require government mandated fingerprinting in background checks, disqualifying volunteers who have committed violent crimes or raising flags for lower level offenses to be assessed internally.

    The facilitator of volunteer trainings should, in addition to delivering quality training, be assessing the behavior of individuals in the room. In my experience, flagging individuals who have made inappropriate comments or made sexual advances towards other volunteers or staff in that initial orientation session goes a long way toward preventing on-going harassment or assault in the longer term.

  • Team signals and coordination: Your team is your best defense. Having preemptive conversations about how to handle boundary violation within your team structure is important to ensuring everyone’s safety. In a previous role, I had a volunteer/community partner who made me deeply uncomfortable – both in what was said and in his behavior. Through conversation with by supervisor, we devised a meeting system that ensured that no member of the team would take meetings with this individual alone and decided that if any hard lines were crossed, we would cut ties.

    Additionally, within your team, having signals to step in during events or within enclosed spaces is a small, but helpful tool. This could include a “Have you met X? Let me introduce you to…” and leading to a group conversation. Ideally, if you identify as a female, bring in a male coworker/ally; if you identify as a POC, bring in a White coworker/ally; if you identify as LGBTQ+, bring in a heterosexual coworker/ally – this helps to disrupt the power dynamic and will allow your coworker to use their privilege to create a barrier against potential or further harassment.

Because we come to this work trying to serve others, we can feel that the work is bigger than our discomfort or our violation. It can feel that you have to put up with sexual harassment because the money will fund projects that serve your community or because your program needs the volunteers this partner will provide. This is not true. Your safety matters as much as the work you are doing – there will always a different avenue for funding or for community building partnerships, one that doesn’t require you to sacrifice your boundaries. There will always be a better volunteer or a better partner. To be a humanitarian means that you are also entitled to your safety and your own bodily rights.

Liz Hensler, MPA (she/her/hers) is the founder of Do Good, Better. She works in philanthropy in the humanitarian aid sector and has a background in NGO program management, corporate and community engagement, volunteer management, and communications. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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