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Have donors become too dominant?

08 Apr 2019 In-depth

New research suggests that abuse of the donor/fundraiser power dynamic is commonplace, says Heather Hill.

When the Presidents Club dinner scandal broke last year, many were shocked that such bad behaviour was tolerated simply because the attendees of the event were giving to charity. Yet we really shouldn’t have been surprised.

Many female fundraisers could have told you that these kinds of behaviours and attitudes from donors are a serious problem. Anecdotal reports from fundraisers around the world show that sexual harassment is a regular part of a female fundraiser’s professional experience, from being used “as bait” for older wealthy men to allegations that some nonprofits specifically hire young women to “steward” male major donor relationships. I myself have spoken out about “donor dominance”. But it just feels that no one has been listening.

But this isn’t just anecdotal; the research backs up our experiences. A survey conducted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Chronicle of Philanthropy in the US found that of the three-quarters of female fundraisers who had experienced sexual harassment at work, two-thirds of them said that at least one offender was a donor.

The #metoo movement has brought attention to sexual harassment that occurs in a variety of settings. The philanthropic sector is now engaging in this conversation. But sexual harassment is not the only type of inappropriate behaviour by donors and so the conversations we have in the nonprofit sector need to go beyond the #metoo parameters. Donor dominance is not just about sexual harassment, and it most certainly should not simply be accepted as the “cost of doing business”.

What is donor dominance?

Donor dominance is best described as an imbalance of power wherein the donor exhibits controlling behaviour that compromises the mission of an organisation and/or its ability to serve its beneficiaries.

Given that the purpose of a charity is to serve its beneficiaries, donor dominance by definition creates a barrier to doing the work a charity was created to do.

This phenomenon was first identified as an issue by American academic William Clohesy in his 2003 paper Fundraising and the articulation of common goods. In it, he wrote: “Donors, certainly, should not be harmed or manipulated, but the purpose of the organisation, and of the donation, is the association’s mission. If anything comes first, should it not be the mission?”

In a sector where we are repeatedly told to be donor-centric and put the donor first, how is a fundraiser to discern when a donor is asking too much in exchange for a gift? Where is the line drawn between stewarding a donor relationship and compromising organisational values or mission? When does being “donor-centric” cross over into permitting donor dominance? This is something we have been exploring in our research at the fundraising think tank Rogare.

Three identified forms

We theorised that donor dominance manifests in three primary ways:

  1. Direction – The donor leverages the gift being made to influence an organisation’s governance, policy or administration. This might be something such as wanting a seat on the board, threatening to withhold or rescind a gift unless a particular staff member is fired, or dictating what programmes the organisation should be running.
  2. Relationships – This type of dominance may include a donor wanting direct access to organisation staff unrelated to the gift, taking undue staff time for personal reasons, or using peer relationships as a lever to get special treatment.
  3. Behaviour – Behavioural dominance occurs in a number of forms. The donor requires special treatment, such as extra seats at a special event or free use of organisation space or resources. Direct engagement with beneficiaries (when this is not the norm) may be expected or beneficiaries may be spoken of in disparaging terms and by using stereotypes with no correction or consequence. Using the public sphere as a platform to either laud or criticise the organisation is also dominant behaviour. In its worst form, this may manifest as sexual harassment of a fundraiser, with the donation seen as an entitlement.

Day-to-day experience

So, do these things manifest in the day-to-day life of a professional fundraiser? Part of the project has been to survey fundraisers around the world about their experiences of donor dominance.

At the point of this analysis, 245 fundraisers had taken part. And they tell us that donor dominance is an issue that many fundraisers come up against regularly.

However, a caveat about this research: this is a self-selecting, non-random sample, so we can’t use this to say reliably that any given percentage of fundraisers have experiences of these issues. But we can use the data to build a picture of what donor dominance looks like.

We asked if fundraisers had ever encountered a situation where donors had tried to get benefits they weren’t entitled to. Three-quarters of our respondents had been in this situation, with some of the main issues being donors demanding disproportionate amount of staff time or attention, extra places at events for friends, family or colleagues, naming and recognition and behind the scenes access to events. This type of situation was mostly related to companies and major donors. But board members – in their capacities as donors – also figure prominently.

So our research tells us that fundraisers do perceive a problem with some donors trying to engineer benefits that their level of support of the organisation doesn’t really warrant. But you might argue that this is a minor form of dominance.

At a more serious level, around two-thirds of respondents had encountered instances where donors had tried to influence how their donation would be used in a way that was not in line with the nonprofit’s mission or objectives.

For a small minority, this had caused them serious problems. Again, the main culprits were major donors, companies and board members.

We also asked whether fundraisers had ever been in a situation where a donor told them they would not make or would withdraw a gift if they didn’t get what they wanted, whatever that may be. This question was answered by 202 fundraisers and 123 said they had been in this situation. Examples include: donors only wanting to fund a programme they had thought of; wanting tickets to sold-out events; and using charity resources for their own events. One response reads: “A board member and donor had a cheque ready to write and he looked at me and said, ‘What will this get me with you?’”

I’m willing to bet there is barely a single fundraiser reading this who isn’t thinking “yes, I’ve been there”.

Sexually inappropriate behaviour

The survey also asked whether fundraisers had experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour by donors. Fifty per cent of female respondents (111) reported they had encountered such behaviour – mostly innuendo, “banter”, or unwanted comments. A total of 29 per cent of male respondents said the same. Thirty-four female fundraisers said they had been subjected to unwanted touching or other physical contact and 22 had been recipients of an improper proposition. One fundraiser reported that she had been sexually assaulted.

So we know we have a problem; now we have to decide what we do about it.

It appears that our “donor-centrist” way of thinking is a big barrier that we need to overcome. If our professional ethics tell us we should always put the donor at the heart of everything we do, we encounter an ethical impasse when those same donors behave in ways that are clearly inappropriate.

The survey also suggests that we have a tendency to ignore this type of behaviour, with 34 respondents saying that it had been explicitly or implicitly suggested to them that they should keep quiet about inappropriate behaviour by donors. We can no longer brush these types of behaviours under the carpet because we are scared the donor will stop giving if we make a fuss; it’s our duty to make a fuss.

Heather Hill is a nonprofit professional and Rogare board chair @HeatherRHill1


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