KNOWLEDGE: Gender Issues in Fundraising – Sexual harassment and violence

Caoileann Appleby looks at the prevalence of sexual harassment in society and whether this is reflected in the fundraising profession.


Content note: this post discusses gender-based and sexual violence.

This blog is part of the Gender Issues In Fundraising Project run by Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank.

It would be difficult to have a productive discussion about gender in the fundraising profession without examining the context in which we find ourselves. The most extreme way in which gender impacts on our profession is through sexual harassment and sexual violence – and while it’s not unique to our profession, neither are we exempt from it. In fact, if there’s anything we’d like you to take away from this series, it’s that even though we work to solve these issues, the fundraising sector is by no means immune to them.

Show me the numbers…

Those of us who have worked within the gender sector may know some of the statistics on sexual violence, but they bear repeating:

People with household incomes of less than $7,500 reported a victimization rate of 4.8 incidents per 1,000 persons age 12 or older, which is 12 times the rate reported by those with household incomes greater than $75,000 (0.4 per 1,000).

  • One 2018 study in the US found that lesbian and bisexual women are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual assault compared to straight women (48 per cent to 25 per cent) and a similar ratio exists for women with disabilities (40 per cent vs 23 per cent) (depressingly, it didn’t find statistically significant differences for other demographic groups, because “sexual harassment and assault is so common for women”).

If you are lucky enough to be surprised by the above figures, bear in mind there are very good reasons for why you may have been unaware of just how prevalent an issue this is. There is a large gap between incidence and reporting, and another between reporting and prosecution. For example, in England and Wales:

  • 79 per cent of rapes are not reported to police (this is approximately 77 per cent in the US)
  • 82 per cent of reported rapes don’t get to trial
  • Of those that do get to trial: 24 per cent of cases are discontinued, and 34 per cent are found not guilty. Only 40 per cent are actually convicted.

So even if you report rape to the police in England and Wales, your chances of seeing your attacker behind bars are approximately seven per cent.  Given this, and the fact that 92 per cent of these rapists were known to the victim beforehand (most often partner, ex-partner, family member or acquaintance), it’s not surprising that many survivors do not report. These statistics relate to just the most serious types of sexual violence in one jurisdiction: other forms of violence and harassment are, of course, more common.

The #MeToo and #Timesup movements have helped make it clear just how prevalent these are. Since the original use of the former term by activist Tarana Burke, then popularised by Alyssa Milano in 2017, hundreds of thousands of women (and men) have shared their experiences of sexual harassment and violence in their industries. People in entertainment to sports to medicine to religion – and yes, fundraising. And for every person who feels safe enough to speak out – many more will keep silent.

“If wealthy, highly visible women in news and entertainment are sexually harassed, assaulted and raped – what do we think is happening to women in retail, food service and domestic work?” –

Political strategist and community leader Charlene Carruthers

The plural of anecdote is not data, of course, but aggregate research data backs this up too:

Here are 100 young women. How many do you think will be sexually harassed [at work] by the age of 31?

… At least 46 per cent.

This figure comes from the Youth Development Study, a longitudinal study that followed more than 1,000 people from one US city over decades, and included questions about sexual harassment in the workplace (that 46 per cent figure only covers sexual harassment in the previous year, not over their lifetime, so the true figure is certainly higher).

And who’s doing the harassing? Most often in this sample, it’s a co-worker, followed by a customer or client, then a supervisor. And it’s much more likely to be a repeated issue rather than a once-off, as Heather McLaughlin writes in a Harvard Business Review report on the Youth Development Study:

“The regularity of these incidents makes it evident that a larger culture of harassment exists; it’s not just a few bad apples who are abusing their power. The data from the survey of respondents at age 30 to 31 shows that more targets endured multiple instances of harassing behaviors than experienced a single incident. This was true across every type of harassment.”

Like more serious types of sexual crime, women under-report. The most common person a woman tells when she experiences sexual harassment? Nobody. This is echoed in Trades Union Congress study from the UK, with 52 per cent of women having experienced some form of sexual harassment (the vast majority from male colleagues); and four out of five never reporting it.

There is continuum of gender violence from sexist language, to street harassment, to sexual assault, ‘domestic’ violence, and rape. You may know a rapist, and they are listening too, according to a New York Times article summarising latest research:

“These men begin early, studies find. They may associate with others who also commit sexual violence. They usually deny that they have raped women even as they admit to nonconsensual sex…

“Heavy drinking, perceived pressure to have sex, a belief in “rape myths” — such as the idea that no means yes — are all risk factors among men who have committed sexual assault. A peer group that uses hostile language to describe women is another one.”

What these numbers make clear is that you need to remember that even if you aren’t a survivor of sexual violence yourself, you almost definitely know one: whether donors, beneficiaries, or colleagues. You just may not know that you know one.

What about in fundraising?

It’s not difficult to see the parallels between the situation fundraiser Beth Upton describes, and the details of Harvey Weinstein cases (it was this blog of Beth Upton’s on UK Fundraising that provided the impetus for this whole Rogare project):

Beth Upton

“A couple of young female fundraisers I was working with met a potential major donor at his hotel lobby one evening for a drink to discuss some queries about his company’s fundraising for their charity… He invited them up to his room to continue the conversation. He suggested that a significant personal gift would be forthcoming on top of the corporate support if they carried on talking. The two fundraisers said no, that the lobby bar was plenty private enough. He withdrew his company’s support shortly afterwards.”

In the US, yet another example recently hit the New York Times, where multiple women working for different organisations over a period of decades report the same pattern of sexual harassment from philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, for example in these three stories from separate women:

  • He repeatedly asked if she would have sex with the “king of Israel,” which he had told her was his preferred title for the video. He then directly asked her to have sex with him, she said. When she turned him down, he brought in two male employees and offered a million dollars if she were to marry one of them, she said.
  • She was 27 years old, and it was the first time she had met Mr. Steinhardt. He harangued her about being unmarried and said she should put her vagina and womb “to work,” Rabbi Sabath said…. When an associate of Mr. Steinhardt’s walked into the office, Mr. Steinhardt told Rabbi Sabath she should consider having sex with him, she said. Then Mr. Steinhardt proposed that she should become his own concubine.
  • During a meeting at his office to make a pitch for funding, Mr. Steinhardt suggested that they all take a bath together, in what he called a “ménage à trois.” One of the women, the executive director of the organization, asked that her identity be withheld because she feared that people on her board would pull their donations if she spoke publicly. Her former colleague asked that her identity be withheld to protect the executive director.

It’s notable that even those quoted in this article as defending Mr Steinhardt don’t dispute the verbal harassment, but insist that his comments were only meant as a joke. However:

 “…when people harass women verbally instead of physically, we are asked to accept that this is the price we have to pay for the philanthropic resources to support our work.”

Shifra Bronznick, non-profit consultant, quoted in the New York Times.

The Presidents’ Club scandal – in which young women were harassed and assaulted at a men-only charity event – is another example of power dynamics of the major donor-fundraiser relationship leaving our staff vulnerable. It’s also not difficult to imagine how sexual violence might be a particular issue for other types of fundraising, such as face-to-face and door-to-door (both for the fundraisers and potential donors).

And we don’t have to just imagine. A recent survey among fundraisers by The Chronicle of Philanthropy suggests that 25 per cent of female fundraisers have faced sexual harassment while doing their job, and 96 per cent of these harassers were men (donors or prospective donors, board members, managers or colleagues). Ruby Bayley-Pratt’s recent article in Civil Society in the UK has also made it clear this is an urgent issue needing to be tackled:

Ruby Bayley-Pratt

“What nobody in the charity sector seems to be talking about is how these barriers play out when you are a fundraiser. Standing up for yourself can compromise a relationship or partnership and thus donations. It has the potential to mean we don’t reach our targets, bringing repercussions for our careers and the charity we care so much about.

“It is common knowledge that several of the “forefathers of fundraising” – men to whom we give guru status – can get “a little bit handsy”. And yes, we warn each other about you.”

There are many more examples we could give. It’s not happening elsewhere to other people. It’s happening in our sector, in our boardrooms, at our events and conferences, it’s happening both to people like you and by people you know.

What to do next?

Make no mistake – this is an issue for our sector. And while the same Chronicle of Philanthropy survey suggests that 93 per cent of us want a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, when more than half of those who reported say they weren’t satisfied with how their complaint was handled, we still have some way to go to really expose and combat this issue.

We will be digging further into this as an issue for the profession; how it manifests in our workplaces, at conferences; with donors; throughout our careers – and what we can do about it – in more depth later in the series. For now, you can:

  • Read more: the links above are a good place to start, and bookmark this blog series! Take a look at Rogare’s Donor Dominance series too and take part in our ongoing survey.
  • Take the issue seriously: bear in mind that you cannot assume how much personal experience those you are talking to have of these issues.
  • Speak up when you hear others minimising sexual harassment, sexual violence or survivors (especially if you’re a man).

Caoileann Appleby is strategy director at Ask Direct based in Dublin, Ireland, and a volunteer and former trustee with UK charity Abortion Support Network. She is the Task Group leader for Rogare’s Gender Issues in Fundraising project.

Further reading

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