Nonprofits Face The Me-Too Era

Autumn is the busiest season for nonprofit fundraising, during which many nonprofits are preparing year-end reports, planning fundraising events, and crafting impact-focused requests for donations. The majority of these activities are the responsibility of the nonprofits’ fundraisers. Whether they are salaried staff, paid consultants, or volunteers, many of these fundraisers are women, persons of color, or members of other groups that are often marginalized, even within their own organizations.

In ideal situations, nonprofit fundraisers’ efforts complement those of the organizations’ executive directors and board members, to generate contributions that support the organizations’ mission, vision and values. Very few Vermont nonprofits, however, would use the word “ideal” to describe their fundraising plans, implementation, and outcomes.

In many nonprofits, board members expect the development director (or department, or consultant) to be the sole creator, driver and implementer of the organization’s fundraising activities — placing unreasonable demands on them. While most board members have good intentions, there are others who neglect to develop and guide the fulfillment of their organizations’ strategic plans. In other situations, board members disrespect boundaries, and attempt to micromanage the executive director — dictating their schedule, style of leadership and hiring decisions, among other operational functions.

In a recent article, The Chronicle of Philanthropy stated, “Factors that demotivate fundraisers include feeling that their work is undervalued; not feeling supported by senior management or the board; feeling their voice has not been heard as a professional; lack of autonomy; and unrealistic expectations of senior management by the board.”

Over the past few years that the “me-too” movement has created awareness of egregious behavior by leaders in the private sector, nonprofit fundraisers are reporting cases of outright abuse as well — bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination — from their organization’s leaders, board members, colleagues, and major donors.

A 2022 report from the Association of Fundraising Professionals — which defined sexual harassment as gender hostility, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion — revealed that 76% of fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment in their career, while 42% have experienced sexual harassment over the past two years.

Having worked in the nonprofit sector for over 20 years, in various roles that included fundraising, I have dealt with similar behavior, so it’s not surprising to me that 90% of all nonprofit job openings are for fundraisers. The average tenure for fundraisers these days is slightly over a year, hardly enough time to plan, implement and achieve success for any organization, let alone one that has serious challenges.

To be sure, aberrant behavior toward fundraisers is more prevalent when an organization’s finances are precarious; in which case, some nonprofit CEOs are unsympathetic to fundraisers’ reports of harassment, whether the abuse is sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic, ableist or discriminatory in other ways. Cliched advice to those who are abused — to do yoga, seek therapy, or find another job — puts the onus on those who have been violated, rather than on the perpetrators and the leaders who enable them.

The tide is turning, albeit slowly, as there are several initiatives underway to guide nonprofit leaders and board members to establish and abide by empathetic, respectful and collaborative principles and practices inside their organizations. Most nonprofits profess altruism in their mission, vision, and values statements, but authentic altruism must begin within the enterprise — i.e., exemplifying the truism that charity begins at home.

Among these strategic initiatives here in Vermont is an emphasis on attracting a more diverse team of workers and creating a culture of allyship — where staff and leaders alike are more conscientious about supporting the needs of marginalized workers, for example. 

Hundreds of organizational development experts, specialists and thought leaders, including those on Governor Phil Scott’s staff, are helping our nonprofits — which number close to 7,000 — adopt best practices in treating their workers with the empathy, kindness, and respect they deserve. 

In addition, there are collaborative professional development activities sponsored by corporations, to help nonprofits cultivate, onboard and orient board members who demonstrate the competence, commitment, connections and confidence to fundraise for their organizations.

The sector is also considering the creation and mobilization of a donor code of ethics. In some organizations, such a code is already in place to protect staff from sexual harassment, and consequences of whistleblowing. The growing sentiment is that a donor code of ethics for nonprofits must include an explicit commitment to a zero-tolerance policy regarding abuse of any kind, throughout the organization.

The more any business, whether nonprofit or for-profit, tolerates boorish behavior, the higher the costs to society. Toxic workplace behavior in nonprofits is particularly pernicious; excessive turnover leads to dilution of services to those in desperate need and causes irreparable damage to the organization’s mission and vision. Today’s nonprofit workers are braver: beyond exposing their organizations’ malfeasance to legacy media, they also blitz social media. No longer will such behavior be tucked away in a dubious “internal affairs” file.

Next month and throughout the fall, nonprofits around the state will fill Vermonters’ mailboxes, email queues, and social media feeds, with information designed to elicit support for their mission — information produced by thousands of fundraisers. Despite being paid well below what they could be earning in the private sector, fundraisers do this work because they love it and are good at it. They provide an essential service, not just to the organizations they care about, but to all of Vermont. Let’s hope their organizations practice authentic altruism from within, demonstrating for certain that charity does begin at home.  

Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann Consulting, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions:

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Liz DiMarco Weinmann

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