INSIGHT: Why nonprofits are so vulnerable to sexual harassment

Scandals rocking the Humane Society and the Red Cross are the highest-profile examples so far of how the #MeToo movement is bringing sexual harassment and abuse at U.S. nonprofits to light. More are probably on the way.

While you might presume that this problem would be rare at organizations that exist only to do good, unfortunately it is commonplace and often goes unpunished.

Even though the federal government sets clear guidelines for recognizing and avoiding sexual harassment and misconduct in all workplaces, nonprofits often fail to adequately train their employees and volunteers to root it out, and they then botch the job of disciplining abusers.

As nonprofit management professors, we believe that hiring more and better qualified human resources professionals and following best practices that go above and beyond what labor laws require will help these organizations avoid #MeToo problems.

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Do-gooders doing bad things

This wave of scandals began in early December. That was when news broke that John Hockenberry, who had stopped hosting the “The Takeaway” in August, stepped aside after allegedly bullying and harassing his female co-hosts of the WNYC public radio show. Despite ample on-air soul-searching, critics — including some of Hockenberry’s former colleagues — charge that the listener-supported station was taking too long to get to the bottom of what happened and hold its management accountable.

More recently, it came to light that Gerald Anderson, after being forced from his executive position at the Red Cross due to accusations he allegedly sexually harassed one subordinate and sexually assaulted another, landed a new prominent nonprofit job at Save the Children. Despite no allegations of misconduct at his new employer, Save the Children placed Anderson on administrative leave pending an investigation.

The American Red Cross looks especially bad because it furnished Anderson with glowing references.

And then Wayne Pacelle resigned in early February from his job as the Humane Society’s top executive under pressure from board members and donors amid allegations that he had sexually abused former employees, including an intern.

We believe that some cultural and structural characteristics make nonprofits both vulnerable to this kind of problem and slow to crack down on abusers.

Overhead obsessions

Nonprofits usually depend on the funds they raise from individual donors and foundations for most of their budgets – with government contracts and grants providing a third of their revenue on average.

And many of their donors are obsessed with keeping overhead – money spent on management, fund-raising and administrative expenses – low.

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This approach, which many experts consider outmoded, can distort nonprofit management practices.

Scrimping on administrative personnel can interfere with hiring the HR professionals nonprofits need or even keeping the ones they have on board.

That can prove counterproductive when nonprofits fail to root out sexual harassment. In a sign that its #MeToo scandal will hurt its fund-raising, major donors are threatening to stop supporting the Humane Society.

Poor policing

Nonprofits are often bad at policing in-house abuses. Most are small and can’t afford to employ their own full-time human resource personnel. Even at the larger nonprofits, like the Red Cross and the Humane Society, inadequate staffing hinders the ability to train employees, investigate difficulties and impose sanctions.

And while most nonprofits do have official policies on sexual harassment, they don’t necessarily follow them. Few ensure that their volunteers are properly trained and supervised. When accusations arise, they are commonly handled internally.

Just like in the private sector, nonprofits tend to discipline low-ranking employees and to look the other way at misconduct by star staffers – or cover it up with nondisclosure agreements.

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That appears to have happened at the Humane Society. In addition to allegedly tolerating Pacelle’s abuse, the group reportedly failed to discipline Paul Shapiro, one of its most prominent animal rights advocates, following multiple incidents in which he allegedly harassed co-workers.

Given the Red Cross case’s severity, its HR department may not have been able to disclose the allegations to Anderson’s new employer out of privacy concerns. However, the organization could have notified local authorities regarding a suspected rape.

Had the police investigated, Save the Children might have picked this up on a background check. That brings up another shortcoming: Nonprofits rarely do background checks. And when they do, they are often limited in scope.

Demographic challenges

Demographics may also play a role.

Three out of four Americans employed by nonprofits are women, compared with less than half of the total workforce. And 72 percent of nonprofit chief executives are women, as are nearly half of nonprofit board members.

But being in the majority doesn’t make women at nonprofits immune from work-related sexual harassment and abuse or toxic cultures. For in the nonprofit world, big donors can exert real power over management. And frequently, the very biggest donors are white men.

That asymmetrical power dynamic can foster a culture where women get sexually harassed not by their co-workers but by funders, thanks to the socializing that loosening those purse strings can require.

Fixing it

Maintaining codes of conduct and making training regarding proper (and inproper) workplace behavior at a minimum ensures that all employees are aware of the organization’s disciplinary process.

Fortunately, any organization can easily find help to fill these gaps. Groups like the Society for Human Resources offer free online toolkits with model policies, complaint forms, training guidance and tips for investigating sexual harassment complaints. They also conduct low-cost training sessions.

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All do-good groups should enforce the zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies most have on their books and ensure these rules apply to their unpaid interns, board members and volunteers, as well as paid staff. They need to spend the time and money it takes to give their entire organization the training they need and the supervision required.

As with all workplaces, clearly defining sexual harassment – which includes in-person and digital interactions – is key. So is establishing a clear and confidential process that spurs prompt investigations and swift action following complaints.

Otherwise, incidents like those at WNYC, the Red Cross and the Humane Society will keep happening.

The authors are with the University of Dallas, where Battaglio and Goodmen are professsors of economy and political science. Sabharwal is an associate professor of public and nonprofit management. 

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