Point of View

Sexual harassment runs rampant in non-profits — and it's time for our #MeToo moment

Like most women in the fundraising sector, I have often compromised my dignity and my personal safety so as not to risk donations to the causes I serve. But I can't stay silent any longer.

Sector employs many young women seeking donations from older men, which can leave them vulnerable

Elizabeth LeClair has worked in the fundraising sector for much of her career. During that time, she says she's been sexually harassed and assaulted while trying to do her job. (Robert Short/CBC)

It should have been a business dinner where I could connect with high-profile donors for the charitable organization I represented.

Instead, I was sexually assaulted in my seat.

An executive at a multi-national corporation put his hand up my skirt — not just on my thigh but between my legs, where his fingers touched my underwear.

We were sitting at a table of his peers.

Discreetly, I tried to remove his hand. I crossed my legs to ensure he could not touch me there again. In the weeks to come, he would send me emails that included both a proposition and the promise of a substantial donation.

Like some of the powerful men I work with, he mistook my professional interest in him as a sign that I was "open for business."

And like most women in the fundraising sector, I have often compromised my dignity and my personal safety so as not to risk donations to the causes I serve.

But I can't stay silent any longer.

I want to stop pretending that sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual violence in the charitable sector is acceptable. In my experience, our industry often turns a blind eye to behaviour that ranges from predatory to criminal if it involves a wealthy donor. And that behaviour needs to be exposed.

Our time for #MeToo

The Me Too movement has swept the entertainment industry and, slowly, the private sector. But it has yet to create substantive change in the 170,000 non-profits and charities registered in Canada.

Weeks ago at the Association of Fundraising Professionals congress, the keynote speaker asked us this: What we can do change the way women are treated in the non-profit sector?

To understand the heart of this issue, you need only look at the demographics of an industry that generates $151 billion each year.

Like the entertainment industry, many of these young women are forced into situations where, in order to succeed, they have to work with someone who has hurt them.

About 70 per cent of professional fundraisers in Canada identify as female. Many of these are young, idealistic, and passionate women. We want to make a difference in the world.

But most of our executives are male. And the vast majority of high net-worth donors are older, influential men

This creates a terrible power dynamic. Like the entertainment industry, many of these young women are forced into situations where, in order to succeed, they have to work with someone who has hurt them. But unlike the entertainment industry, they are not doing so solely in the pursuit of their own advancement — they are driven to secure money for vulnerable people and social causes.

There are many men who seek to take advantage of this dynamic, judging by my own experience, those of my colleagues and the many women from across North America who shared nearly identical stories at the congress.

Liz LeClair shares her story about sexual harassment and assault in the not-for-profit sector. 9:11

A force for change

The question remains: what can be done about this? At the congress, some suggested the creation of a charter of rights that would protect members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Others suggested starting a legal fund to give young, vulnerable women in this sector access to the resources they may not be able to afford.

I would also suggest creating a Donor Code of Conduct, one that outlines what's both acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in terms of interactions between fundraising staff and donors.  

As an industry, we need to ask ourselves why we are accepting donations and lauding donors if there is reason for us to question their motives.

LeClair wants others who have experienced sexual harassment or assault to report it, both at work and to police. (Robert Short/CBC)

And to those working in the non-profit sector who have experienced assault from a donor, please do what I did not — please report what happened to you. Report it to your organization, report it to the police and report it to your board of directors.

If you are a manager, a director or an executive at a charitable organization, let your staff know that you are willing and able to listen to and act on these issues.  If you sit on a board of directors of a non-profit organization, create guidelines for reporting sexual assault and sexual violence by donors.

It's time that those working in the non-profit sector felt confident in coming forward, just as it's time to reject donations from those who violate the safety of staff supporting these causes every day.

We cannot claim to be a sector that brings about change — that transforms the world — if we are encouraging a dynamic that continues to compromise women.

Editor's note: Anyone wishing to share a similar story, can contact Frances Willick at frances.willick@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Elizabeth LeClair

Elizabeth LeClair has spent more than a decade in the non-profit sector, with a focus on fundraising and development.