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Rethinking donor meetings

publication date: Apr 9, 2018
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author/source: Ann Rosenfield, MBA, CFRE

When I was in charge of fundraising at an HIV/AIDS organization, we did a risk assessment of all our work. Their surprising finding? The biggest structural risk to the charity was the planned giving person. Meeting alone with vulnerable donors in their home and talking about bequests, the auditors noted that our planned giving person was in a position to inappropriately influence donors to leave him a generous bequest in their will. Thankfully, my planned giving employee was honest but it is exactly this risk of undue influence that inspired the Association of Fundraising Professionals to include safeguards for donors in their ethical code.

While it is important to worry about donors, results from last week's results by The Harris Poll, sponsored jointly by the Association of Fundraising Professionals  and the Chronicle of Philanthropy suggest we also need to pay attention to ourselves. The research found that almost 1 in 5 (19%) of Canadian fundraisers had been sexually harassed at work. The Canadian and American results were similar.

What was of great concern in the research findings was that 65% of the harassers were donors. This is combined with the study finding that just over a quarter of respondents believed that donors are prioritized. Of concern, the numbers increase for those who have personally experienced sexual harassment, witnessed or been told about another’s experiences. 

Bear in mind that 70% of fundraisers are women and note that the survey results identified 96% of the harassers are men. This means we have an epic systems problem for charities and fundraisers. While we need to worry about donor's wellbeing, we also need to worry about our own safety. In fact, this issue is the mirror image of that one noted in my planned giving story above. When you only have two people in a meeting, it can lead to unintended problems.

It's time to rethink private, one-on-one meetings with donors.

In finance, you would never have one person handle cash. You always have two people. The reason why finance procedures often involve more than one person is to limit risk. Sending a fundraiser alone into an unequal power dynamic is to send them into risk. In major gifts and planned giving, we  fundraisers often meet privately with a donor at the donor's home. We often meet with a donor in our office in a private office behind a closed door.

What are some alternatives?

  • We can meet with a donor in our office with the door open a few inches. This preserves privacy but allows for activity to be seen and heard.
  • We can only meet with donors in public places. This will not eliminate verbal harassment but should reduce it
  • We can go back to the convention of always meeting with donors in a pair.

Fundraisers are not children. But if we don't have our finance people work alone, why do we ask our fundraisers to? And if we are worried about the risk of fundraisers with donors, why do we not have equal concern the other way around?

Over the next months, we need to have more conversations about sexual harassment in our sector. As part of those conversations, we also need to change how we do our work. I have proposed some ideas. Please add your ideas below.

Ann Rosenfield is Editor of Hilborn Charity eNews. She had experience with a skeezy colleague in a different sector who said something inappropriate early in her career. When reported to her boss, the boss said "oh, that's just Alex being Alex."



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