5 Ways to Combat Sexual Harassment at Nonprofits

The moment has come for nonprofits to reckon with the sexual harassment that until all too recently has been swept under the carpet. In recent weeks, allegations of repulsive behavior have rippled through nonprofits, just as in government, tech, business, and elsewhere.

The American Red Cross made the dreadful misstep of unloading a senior executive accused of multiple harassment incidents by sending him on his way to Save the Children with a glowing recommendation. And the Humane Society of the United States saw seven board members step down over the organization’s handling of allegations of misconduct by the chief executive, who resigned a few hours after the board voted to keep him on the job. Arts and culture organizations and colleges and universities have also seen top leaders toppled by allegations of misconduct.

More revelations are almost certainly coming. Only the most naïve would believe that nonprofits exist in a rarified and exemplary world, immune from abusive behaviors. After all, the balance of power in the nonprofit workplace often leads to abuses of all kinds. And tolerance of sexual misconduct is exacerbated by the reality that men hold most of the positions of authority in the nonprofit world, with women in supportive and de facto more vulnerable roles.

That’s why executive directors and boards must establish far more effective approaches if they plan to deliver on the promise of zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies. What can boards and CEOs do to ensure that their actions prevent this abuse, and—when it happens—how can they respond in a way that will also leave their organizations stronger? Here are some key steps to take immediately.

Give boards a new mandate: Be stewards of the culture.

We’ve seen over the decades a widening of roles for nonprofit boards. Fiduciary responsibilities have taken overwhelming prominence, and, while this includes mitigation of risk factors (like lawsuits), boards focus on being the guardians of tangible assets.

Creating a strategic partnership with management has become as important. Two decades ago many boards became influenced by Harvard scholar Richard Chait’s advice to go beyond questions of strategy, staying high above the weeds. They begin asking larger "why" questions that are often not directly related to the present but offer insights on challenges and opportunities.

Although I believe strongly that all three roles are essential, I now advocate for a fourth.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced many smart, high-functioning boards assuming the role of cultural steward. They realize boards must ultimately be responsible for maintaining a performance-driven, talent-focused, and innovative culture so that the organization does not get swallowed up by disruptions that cause their donor or membership bases to flee, and they do not allow a mission to become obsolete.

They also understand that an obsessive focus on culture prevents aberrant behaviors. And while the CEO must be responsible for carrying out the processes required to wrangle a culture into alignment, an increasing number of boards hold themselves ultimately accountable for this.

To be clear: The board as cultural steward is not merely about risk management (though this becomes an advantageous benefit). It’s about creating a healthy and productive environment that stops or stems sexual harassment as well as providing a plethora of other payoffs when boards take on the mantle. Look deeply into many of the organizations where sexual harassment runs rampant, and you will find elements of a toxic culture.

Stop giving rainmakers a pass.

Many nonprofits have key individuals who play an essential role in their organization’s success.

At times, but certainly not always, this is the CEO. As The Washington Post and The New York Times reported recently, the board influence—and charisma—of the Humane Society’s CEO, Wayne Pacelle, is merely one case in point. He was a rainmaker, a dealmaker extraordinaire in creating mergers, affiliations, and corporate partnerships. His deal-making prowess may have endeared him so profoundly to his board that they may not have been able to accept allegations of his aberrant behaviors. They stopped the investigation on him midstream.

Rainmakers have inordinate talent and influence to generate revenue, or they are seen as essential to the mission. In their own ways, they are exceptional, groundbreaking, and often charismatic. But out of fear of alienating these rainmakers, nonprofits too often seem blind to the ways they give them free passes. Rainmakers can be exempt from accountability to the formal rules, policies, and codes of conduct required of everyone else. It remains an unspoken dynamic.

Take the dramatic example from the corporate world, where the term originated. Citibank’s former CEO, John Reed, made a daring move to rein in a dozen errant rainmakers, despite their power to bring hundred-million-dollar deals to the bank. The problem: Their behavior was abusive to anyone who worked with them. Reed gave them a stern warning and offered executive coaching. When their behavior did not change, he gave them a second warning. The rainmakers assumed that their value to the bank guaranteed their immunity, since nothing consequential had ever happened when they broke code-of-conduct rules.

As he had promised, Reed fired them all. The power of this action showed the lengths he was willing to go to in enforcing civil behavior and change the informal, get-out-of-jail-free passes that one element of the culture had allowed. Are your rainmakers models of the behavior you expect from everyone? If not, take strong action.

Rethink the role of HR.

Nonprofit leadership must question the process by which those who are aggrieved seek safety and recourse, since the HR function in far too many cases can no longer provide it. A regressive drift over the past two decades has taken too many HR departments back to the days of transactional "personnel" function. We seem to have forgotten that when "human resources" became the function’s new name, it also embraced a deep commitment to represent the needs of employees, balancing an advocacy role while finally becoming a key part of the leadership team.

Victims coming forward have voiced how HR aggravated their sense of victimization when they did not feel believed or no action was taken. A study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that "75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation."

The #MeToo moment has illuminated how HR is broken in too many nonprofits. Far from advocating for employees, HR leaders and their staff are increasingly ignoring, refusing to act, or inadequately addressing sexual harassment complaints. And this has led women in particular to stop trusting a department that ostensibly was established to protect them. Alternatives exist and are being adopted.

The first step to finding the best-fit solution is to acknowledge whether HR’s processes, reporting structure, and level of power are adequate to deal with this lightning-rod issue.

If not, consider truly independent and trustworthy resources outside the organization.

Question how much power you’re giving to external counsel.

Undeniably, sexual harassment is a legal-risk issue for any organization, with profound potential implications. But sending in the lawyers to investigate complaints or to conduct audits does not lead to a robust long-term organizational solution.

My respect for colleagues in the legal profession runs deep. But when their work steps over the line to conduct organizational assessments, requiring the mapping of power, influence, communications, and culture, the lens through which they look at these "soft" causes of bad behavior can be a limited one.

Organization development professionals engender deep trust in staff members and can quickly assess culture and culpability. They engage in far more solution-driven conversations with all parties to identify not only problem people but also problem processes and dynamics. When these professionals have dual-reporting accountability to the CEO and the board, while still maintaining a close relationship with HR, their insights can reshape troubled dynamics.

Find the levers that place pressure on men to speak out about the uncivil behaviors of other men.

When better codes of cultural conduct become part of everyday behavior, the men’s club will no longer protect the abuser. Time is up for leaving the burden solely on women to protect their female colleagues. Men must call out other men. If they know of egregious behaviors and do not act, there must be painful consequences.

With these fresh approaches to responsibility and transparency in the culture, nonprofit organizations can become not only irreproachable in the public eye, but also better and more empowering places to work. Let’s make 2018 the year to advance workplace equity, fairness, and safety.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on February 13, 2018.