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Isobel Michael: 'Time to end sexual harassment in the charity sector once and for all'

05 Dec 2019 In-depth

This year marked a watershed moment for awareness of sexual harassment in fundraising. Now let’s stamp it out for good, says Isobel Michael.

This year was the year when the fundraising sector finally started to take sexual harassment of fundraisers seriously. Women such as Ruby Bayley-Pratt shone a light on the issue through articles speaking out about the sexual harassment experienced by (predominantly female) fundraisers. Since then, many more fundraisers have shared instances of inappropriate behaviour and harassment that they have witnessed or experienced personally.

We also heard from fundraisers who had tried to report or raise these issues and had felt their experiences were dismissed with no action being taken.

Fundraising should be a safe and secure environment for all. We should expect it, challenge the power dynamics and help to create the culture change needed. Sector leaders and the Institute of Fundraising have a responsibility to ensure that staff and volunteers are protected from potential sexual harassment. Anyone who is affected should be able to report the behaviour without fear of how it might impact their career or funding for their charity. And they need to be fully supported by their peers, managers and the sector as a whole.

Donor dominance is a key issue in the sector and, historically, has been overlooked in pursuit of fundraising targets and belief in the greater good. Fundraising thinktank Rogare’s research on donor dominance by Heather Hill has found numerous examples of experiences of improper donor demands and sexual harassment. The initial results of Hill’s survey found that 50 per cent of female fundraisers had encountered sexually inappropriate behaviour by a donor.

The philanthropic sector has also been looking at power dynamics between funders and grantees, and the need to change culture and cede power to communities. This is a critical time for the whole sector to focus on rebalancing power and being more equitable, diverse and inclusive.

Like most fundraisers, I have witnessed, experienced and heard about inappropriate behaviour throughout my career. The most recent example was a corporate golf day where clear sexual harassment of a colleague was dismissed as just “drunken banter”. We were told that no action could be taken because the men worked for one of the sponsors and it could risk their company’s ongoing support of the event. We should have insisted that action was taken to address this power imbalance and poor culture.

But this behaviour stops now. I feel that we each have a responsibility to challenge donor dominance by putting the safety of fundraisers above targets and building relationships and partnerships based on equity and mutual respect.

We need to intervene to change a culture that tolerates sexual harassment. The sector needs to work together to build a culture of safety where this behaviour would be unthinkable, and action would be taken immediately to protect and support the fundraiser.

From this month, a new Tell Jane helpline will open, which will offer a confidential and independent platform to report concerns about sexual harassment witnessed or experienced by IoF members or at IoF events. I hope this will help to build trust in the reporting process and encourage fundraisers who have experienced sexual harassment to feel that they can report concerns, both now and in the future.

It is now up to all of us to take responsibility for stamping out sexual harassment altogether. Lead by example, call out any inappropriate behaviour you witness and ensure you are contributing to a positive, safe and inclusive culture.

Contact Tell Jane, encourage your colleagues to seek advice from the helpline and support them in taking forward their complaints using the IoF’s Code of Conduct and complaints policy.

As a trustee and co-chair of the task group on sexual harassment in fundraising, I have been working with the IoF and the sector to push for the strengthened policy and to enable confidential reporting for anyone who has experienced sexual harassment by a member of the institute. If anyone has concerns, please contact the Tell Jane helpline – by calling 0800 689 0843. 

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