Sexual harassment happens in nonprofits, too

Written by Julia Spann

Nearly everyone who works for a nonprofit is guided by a desire to help others and improve the world around them.

Occasionally, predators are drawn to our work, too. At SAFE and other human service organizations, we are in close contact with particularly vulnerable groups. Tragically, some people see that as an opportunity.

Nonprofits are as vulnerable as – and at times more vulnerable than – the general population because of the people we often serve, the scarcity of resources, and the cult of personality that surrounds many nonprofits. We owe it to ourselves and the people in our care to be hyper vigilant.

From my experience at SAFE and other nonprofits, while we are not culturally infused to be places where people who abuse power and treat others disrespectfully are drawn to work, we are not exempt from the norms, expectations, and experiences of our larger culture.

Employees at SAFE have been victims, used their power inappropriately, used violence, and been confused about consent. We educate ourselves about the cycle of violence, however, we are not exempt from the power struggles that breed abuse.

A constant concern

My mind is rotating through the scenarios we have dealt with at SAFE in my 20 years here: Child molesters drawn to work with vulnerable children, a staff person using their position to take advantage of people who don’t speak the dominant language, supervisors using their positions to sexually harass supervisees (yep – we’ve had it happen), major donors using their positions to sexually harass staff (has happened to me more than once).

Nonprofits, as well as governmental agencies, run the risk of attracting employees who perpetrate abuse against vulnerable people because we serve vulnerable people. That is what people who abuse others do – they find the vulnerabilities and the opportunities and insidiously insert themselves.

Those of us who hold the important role of teaching, housing, advocating, and supporting vulnerable people have a duty to be extra careful to protect the people we serve.

And then there is the nature of leadership in nonprofits. Oftentimes a charismatic leader or founder is highly admired by the staff and the community. The whole organization is focused on this person and there are no clear structures in place, especially in small organizations.

If sexual harassment occurs, especially if perpetrated by the leader, it can be extremely difficult for victims to come forward. The perpetrator has the admiration of the team. Speaking out could mean not being believed. Or if action is taken, what if that dismantles the organization? Will people lose their jobs? How will the lives of clients be affected?

Nonprofits set the standard

We also have to ensure that we are not leaning on a false belief that we are better than others. We too are products of our national, state and local culture; we too are bombarded daily by behaviors, attitudes, and norms that hold all the isms intact.

Most of us in nonprofits work diligently and successfully for good, but we’re not flawless. It is incumbent and ethical for us to be wary and humble, to examine, educate, and improve ourselves – this includes agency leaders and front line workers.

Finally, nonprofits have a special opportunity. We are considered the social conscious of the business world, and we can and should be setting the best standards in the hopes that others will follow.