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Kirsty Weakley: Women will not feel safe until words become actions

06 Jul 2021 Voices

Sexism, sexual harassment and abuse have blighted fundraising, and the wider charity sector, for as long as many people can remember. No one thinks it should be this way, but progress is slow and painful.  

Right now, the focus is on the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CIoF), and whether it has delivered on its promises to make the sector a safe place to work. 

Pressure intensified earlier this year when frustrations about how quickly the body was making progress, and how it was communicating with members, led some people to step away from their involvement with the organisation.

In an update at yesterday’s annual general meeting, the CIoF said that the conclusions of an ongoing investigation have now been delayed due to new evidence, and it avoided further questioning about historical cases of harassment. This is unlikely to have provided many with the reassurance they have been seeking. 

Getting to the root of the problem

The tragic death of Sarah Everard last spring sparked discussions about women’s safety and a fresh wave of pressure from fundraisers who were frustrated by the lack of progress. But to understand the roots of this problem we have to look further back into how the sector handles cases of sexual harassment.

There is a toxic mix of older, more powerful men, who are either philanthropists or senior leaders within charities, working closely with younger women in an industry that is all about building relationships. This can lead to boundaries being overstepped. However, harassment can be difficult to challenge, or prove, meaning incidents go undealt with and perpetrators continue to behave badly.

For too long, women have found it hard, or impossible, to speak out directly, or formally, in a way that seeks redress or accountability. But they speak to each other and warn colleagues about the culture. Even on the fringe of the sector as a new reporter, the friendly advice from those more experienced than me was to watch out for the men. 

The result is that women in the sector have lived with the reality that they must always be on their guard or avoid situations that might be dangerous. This makes it harder to focus on the job and to progress in the sector. No wonder charities gets notably more male as you rise through the ranks.

Prevalence of sexual harassment was not a well-kept secret

As difficult as it has been to speak out or hold people to account, the issues have not been kept hidden from the sector’s leaders, including its representative body the Institute of Fundraising (CIoF), which gained chartered status in 2020.

When Fundraising Magazine, published by Civil Society Media, surveyed its readers five years ago, nearly two-fifths of female respondents told us they have been subjected to sexual harassment while working at their charity. 

It’s worth noting that some men said they had also experienced the same problem, with 15% reporting sexual harassment.

Then in March 2019, an article in Fundraising Magazine by fundraiser Ruby Bayley galvanised women in the sector to anonymously share their experiences.  

This included examples of inappropriate questions, unwanted sexual advances and initiating contact outside of working hours using social media. 

2019: Promised action 

The CIoF was forced to confront the reality that this was, and is, a systemic and cultural problem, and that it was necessary to step up and lead. It set up a taskforce, led by two of its trustees, Claire Rowney and Isobel Michael, to look at what more should be done.  

CIoF’s then chair, Amanda Bringans, promised: “We will work to clamp down on unacceptable behaviour and ensure our fundraising community is a safe space for everyone.” 

Ahead of CIOF's 2019 annual conference, the organisation updated its code of conduct, emphasised everyone’s right to safety and changed its complaints policy to enable it to look into anonymous complaints. 

Meanwhile, Fundraising Magazine kept up the spotlight in its July 2019 issue, with a feature looking in more detail at why women in the sector were not being protected

By the end of the year, the CIoF began working with Tell Jane, an HR consultancy, to provide a free phone line for people looking for confidential support and advice about safeguarding issues they have witnessed or experienced around safeguarding.

2020: New year, same problem

However, work remained to be done. In February 2020, the CIoF admitted that it had received what it described as “a small number of complaints” about sexual harassment, although it said it was unable to give any details about exactly how many complaints it had received and whether any disciplinary action has been taken.

So far, it had said some positive things, and taken some actions to address the problem, but almost a year on from Bayley’s article, no one had been held publicly accountable, and dissatisfaction remained within the fundraising community.

Then the pandemic hit and a lot things were put on hold. 

March 2021: More promises

Two years on from the first commitments, the national focus shifted squarely onto women’s safety in the aftermath of the killing of Sarah Everard. 

This proved a catalyst for fundraisers to again tweet their frustrations about the lack of protection for women in the sector. Mandy Johnson, a former chair of the representative body’s London committee, accused the CIoF of ignoring an allegation. 

Claire Warner, a wellbeing consultant, resigned from the CIoF’s standards advisory board in protest at how the umbrella body was handling sexual misconduct allegations. Meanwhile, chairs of special interest and regional committees sent the national body a formal letter expressing concerns. 

The CIoF strenuously denied ignoring any allegations, but was forced to issue a further statement apologising for the tone of its initial response. 

Later that month, it released further details about progress it was making. It said it had investigated eight complaints regarding allegations of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment. It added that sanctions had been imposed in “the majority” of the eight cases. This included formal apologies to victims of harassment and temporarily banning people from membership. 

This statement also revealed that the CIoF would only publish the outcome of an investigation where it believes it is “in the public interest” for it to do so and that Tell Jane had been working on a review of the CIoF’s complaints procedure. 

CIoF accepted all 18 of the recommendations in Tell Jane's review, and committed £50,000 to implementing an action plan over the coming months

The key parts of the plan were: to set up a taskforce to recruit a new safeguarding manager; to create a professional standards panel to review the CIoF's governance; a commitment to publish an annual review of its work;  and finally a review of historical complaints. 

June 2021: Communication mistakes 

Tensions remained high when the CIoF announced that following an investigation, its former chief executive Peter Lewis had been cleared of wrongdoing in relation to whether he had failed to act on a past allegation. Lewis denied ever being told of any complaint and stressed that the issue of sexual harassment had been taken seriously under his leadership.

However, some people felt Tell Jane had a conflict of interest in leading this investigation as it was already paid by the CIoF to provide the helpline.  

Furthermore, fundraisers were furious that CIoF members, and more importantly people who had been involved with the investigation, had not been warned that the statement was coming out. Beth Upton, a fundraising consultant and former regional committee chair, was alarmed to be told she had not been included as a witness, despite giving evidence to the investigation. 

Two more resignations followed: Sarah Goddard, chair of the CIoF's Community Fundraising Special Interest Group, quit, saying she was “disgusted” with the body’s behaviour. Damian Chapman also tweeted that he was resigning from his involvement at the CIoF saying he “cannot continue to support a body that fails its members”. 

Other senior figures, such as Ruth Davison and Lucy Caldicott, said they would be staying at the CIoF to ensure there are representatives in the Institute who unconditionally believe women who have complained of sexual misconduct.

While the CIoF and its chair offered a full and clear apology for their mistakes, it was clear that rebuilding trust with members will take some time. 

July 2021: Frustrations at the AGM

Back in the present, and there was a lot riding on yesterday’s AGM. Admittance to the Zoom webinar was tightly controlled – your Zoom account needed to match the email address on the CIoF’s file – which meant things got off to rocky start as members complained that some people were unable to join. 

Again, Rowney apologised: “I know very well that many of you feel angry, disappointed and let down by the Institute, and I'd like to take this opportunity to say how very sorry I am.”

However, she also announced that an expected update relating to another investigation relating to sexual harassment has been delayed. 

Rowney said: “We were originally expecting to get the report [into the ongoing investigation] this week, but there has been some additional evidence put into that investigation. 

“We expect to get it by the end of it by the end of this week and once the investigations committee has had an opportunity to read it and an opportunity to make recommendations to the board, we will then share the findings with the people involved before making the findings public.” 

Meanwhile, the interim chief executive, Dhyvia O’Connor, said the organisation was still in the process of implementing the action plan that was announced in March, with recruitment underway for key roles.  

“We remain focused on the delivery of our action plans to tackle harassment, discrimination and abuse in the fundraising community, and are continuing to recruit to our safeguarding task group and our professional conduct committee, and these groups will be supported by a new head of safeguarding and complaints and we start recruitment to that post next week,” she said. 

Some fundraisers were not satisfied with what they heard at the AGM. 

Discussion in the Q&A function on the Zoom webinar suggested a desire for more detailed answers from the leadership. And following the meeting there were complaints on Twitter that it had ended early, with issues unresolved. CIoF initially said that unanswered questions would be addressed in a newsletter later this month, and has since announced a follow-up zoom session next week. 

Sanctioning perpetrators 

Throughout this period, it has become clear that the CIoF lacks the expertise and the power to meaningfully hold perpetrators to account. 

Although a change agreed at yesterday’s AGM does make it possible to investigate once people have left the CIoF club, there are still limits when it comes to imposing and publicising its actions. 

In terms of sanctions, the toughest action the CIoF is able to take is stripping people of membership and honours, and excluding them from CIoF-organised events.

It cannot prevent anyone from calling themselves a fundraiser or moving to another industry and starting over. 

And even going public about any punishment that it has imposed on individuals places it at risk of being sued for defamation. 

What next? 

For as long as the debate remains rooted in process and procedure, as well as tightly focused on a small number of incidents, everyone loses. 

The bigger challenge is culture reform. For too long we all accepted that sexual harassment was a feature of being involved in the fundraising community. Over two years’ ago everyone agreed enough was enough, and little has happened that offers the reassurance that sexual harassment really has been stamped out for good. 

Women who have been assaulted cannot hope to get any closure while trapped in an endless cycle of reviews and task forces. 

Meanwhile all women will remain nervous about attending fundraising conferences in the future until they can trust that their safety is a priority. A clear precedent that the CIoF will take action against perpetrators should the worst happen would help to bolster confidence about their safety.  

However, the CIoF is currently in a state of limbo. It has both an interim chief executive and interim chair. Members listening yesterday were explicitly told that the new leaders would need time get to grips with their roles. 

Rowney did make the valid point yesterday that a new leadership team would be well placed to rebuild trust with the community.

She said: “I do believe that fresh leadership, both on the executive team and board of trustees, will enable the organisation to move forward and ensure it properly safeguards and respects members and fundraisers across our community.” 

For fundraisers, it is important that the new leadership does not repeat the mistakes of the last five years. Whoever they may be, they need to avoid the temptation to get bogged down in setting up further taskforces or reviews, and should always communicate clearly and honestly with members. 

The time for platitudes about zero tolerance is over; real progress requires meaningful action before it is too late. 

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