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Nonprofits: It's Time to Protect Your Employees Over Your Bottom Line

Nonprofits: It's Time to Protect Your Employees Over Your Bottom Line

Like too many young fundraisers coming up in the nonprofit field, I have experienced some form of assault or sexual harassment in every position I’ve held. A table was flipped and thrown at me by a sponsor who was upset at an event. Men have waited for me at my car after I left a late-night meeting alone. Sexually explicit things have been said to me while staffing a table…too many times to count. And just last year, I was touched inappropriately after presenting about our organization at a formal event.

Almost all of these instances were completely ignored or laughed off by my employer. In all of these instances, I felt the only concern was saving the relationship with the donor. I was silenced for fear we would not be invited back to a profitable event. After that, I was gone within a month.

These experiences are far more widespread than we may realize, and play a huge role in the health and wellness of our employees. As leaders in the community, it is our responsibility to show what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Our leadership will create a norm for how we treat each other both in and outside of professional spaces.

A recent study conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that one in four female fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment on the job, and 65% of occurrences involved a donor or board member. Among those women, 77% reported the incident to their organizations, and over half were unsatisfied with their response.

By prioritizing employees’ safety, we show that we respect and value them. This has been proven to have a direct effect on increasing performance and attendance and decreasing turnover. It’s important for us to change our mindset to understand that by protecting our employees, we are ultimately protecting the bottom line. Yes, you may lose that donor, but you will keep your development team member engaged and productive, which may lead to ten new donors.

While it is impossible to prevent all instances of harassment or assault, there are proactive steps we can take to help prevent and care for our employees who do experience it.

[Related: Navigating Mentorship in an Era of #MeToo]

1) Create a culture that values employees.

An organization that practices and values respect, trust, and inclusion often finds its employees feel appreciated and more committed to the organization.

This mustn’t just be performative. Having a healthy work culture will provide endless benefits and help employees feel safer to report inappropriate behavior and to trust that it is being dealt with appropriately.

2) Prioritize safety.

Many development events require after-hours meetings which employees attend alone. Consider whether it’s an option to double up on staff or have a volunteer attend so nobody needs to worry about being alone late at night.

Also, make it a habit when scheduling to inquire with the venue who will be on the grounds after hours. If an employee is not comfortable, it is important to take those concerns seriously and accommodate when necessary.

As leaders, we need to remember that there are things we do not know about an employee’s past. There could be past trauma that makes them uncomfortable with a particular situation. Do not assume they are being difficult or are unable to do their assigned duties. It’s an opportunity for your organization to show leadership and care for your employees.

[Related: Changing Company Culture: How I Learned the Hard Way]

3) Include upstander training in training/policies.

An upstander witnesses a behavior that could lead to something high-risk or harmful and makes the choice to intervene to make things better.

It can be an uncomfortable topic, but it’s important to address. Providing upstander training that offers simple steps to call out or remove someone from an inappropriate situation is necessary to prevent more serious events. This goes for both staff and employees.

4) Consider your reporting process.

When something does happen, it’s important we have a reporting process that prioritizes an employee’s comfort and safety. I have heard horror stories from someone forced to sit alone with a CEO they’ve never met before.

There should be several people to whom an employee can file an initial complaint to ensure they can speak with someone they are comfortable with. These people should also be varied in gender and seniority.

At the breakfast, while the man’s hand laid between my legs, I internally debated - What do I do? Would I jeopardize our reputation in front of 200+ potential donors if I said something? I'd like to think if I was supported and respected in my past experiences, my reaction would have been to care for myself first. We all deserve to feel safe and respected in our positions.

It’s time we do something. It’s time we start protecting ourselves and prioritizing the safety of our employees over our bottom line. We as nonprofits exist to make the world a better place. But so often we get lost in our missions and forget about the people making sacrifices every day to keep our mission alive.

If we take the time to slap safety precautions all over our offices, why would we ignore this serious threat to our employees’ physical and mental health? As leaders in our communities, we can begin to set a standard for society at large.

[Related: Why Inclusion Means Getting Comfortable With Discomfort]


Becca Tankersley is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Lion's Heart - Teen Volunteers and Leaders. She has over fifteen years of experience in the nonprofit field.

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