Leadership on Point

It’s Time to Act: Ending Sexual Harassment in Nonprofit Organizations

By Richard J. Levin and Sara E. Miller

“That’s simply the way he is. Just don’t find yourself alone in an elevator with him!”

We heard this from the CEO of a nonprofit organization who was given advice about a key donor during her first day on the job. She was receiving “the talk” so many nonprofit professionals have heard before, as if to explain away predatory behavior as the cost of doing business.

In listening to clients and confidants, we have learned that inappropriate sexual behaviors and repugnant power dynamics are playing out not only in Hollywood and government, but in the nonprofit space as well.

What have we heard? The floodgates are open—and most times we didn’t even have to ask.

  • – Organizations are recruiting female development professionals primarily on the basis of their looks and attractiveness to funders
  • – Philanthropists spreading malicious rumors about women who won’t yield to their advances, attend meetings while positioning their hands on women’s thighs, or proposition sexual favors in exchange for donations
  • – Organizational leaders describing their employees in inappropriate ways to funding partners, such as ascribing value to younger, female employees based on how “presentable” the person is (as a euphemism for “attractive”)
  • – Inappropriate comments from donors being met with the excuse from professional leadership that “He’s just an old man, he’s from a different generation” or “He’s from another country, it’s a different culture,” which not only diminishes /negates the woman’s experience, but dismisses the behavior as acceptable
  • – Representatives of national organizations saying inappropriate things when running trainings for professionals locally
  • – Donors, when meeting front-line program staff, converting a handshake to a kiss on the cheek, saying “I’ll never turn down a kiss from a pretty lady”
  • – Inviting attractive young women to meet with a “gentleman’s club” of donors to talk about how impactful their gifts have been where some of the “gentlemen” think it’s OK to be “over friendly.” Many of these young women may not yet know how to assert boundaries, nor do they feel like they have the power to do so.

We have heard these stories firsthand — within the past year alone. In truth, we know nonprofit professionals and Board members have heard this for years. A colleague of ours conducted a brief informal survey of 10 women nonprofit CEOs, of whom 6 reported they’d experienced sexual harassment on the job. Enough! It’s time to stop this abhorrent and unacceptable behavior, as well as organizational cultures that allow it to persist.

To those who have been put into compromising positions, the survivors: we hear you. We believe you.

OUR CALL TO LEADERSHIP, to Board Chairs and CEOs: Listen to your staff. Believe them. We know you have the capacity to be bold and do the right thing. We know that many of you have sexual harassment policies in place in your organizations. While a great first step, this is not enough. You cannot hide behind policies that have no teeth. Employees need to know what policies are on the books – and what specific safeguards are in place. They need to feel empowered to report harassment to supervisors, human resources professionals, or ombudspeople. They need to know that your organization has a culture where inappropriate behavior is NOT tolerated, where there will be no backlash for reporting, and where they are assured that they will not encounter the same situation again.

We know that in many cases, such as those described above, the perpetrator may be a volunteer, someone who is not employed by the organization, which potentially bypasses even the most comprehensive workplace sexual harassment policies. As leaders, you still have the power to:

  • – Call it out, name it, and declare it indefensible when you see it.
  • – Have the courage to refuse gifts. And say why.
  • – Write and enforce covenants of appropriate behavior between donors and organizations. This goes both ways: if a funder hears something about a grantee, will they say something? If a grantee hears something about a funder, will they act?
  • – We know that if an organization has an unsupportive culture, employees are much less likely to feel safe in their work or in reporting inappropriate behavior. Are you doing all you can to ensure that our nonprofit institutions are great places to work? Do your team members feel you have their backs when they need to take action?

It’s time to act.


Richard Levin, Ed.D., and Sara Miller, MA/MBA, represent Richard Levin & Associates, a leadership development firm with significant experience in the nonprofit space. They are dedicated to making the nonprofit community a safer place to work. 

A modified version of this piece originally appeared in eJP.