No Place in Missions and Culture

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Nonprofits, by definition, are mission-driven organizations designed to serve a charitable purpose. Nowhere in those missions should sexual harassment, or other forms of discrimination, have a toehold. However, when leaders focus solely on the mission, they can sometimes be blind to cracks in their culture and values that can poison the organization from within.

Tiffany Gourley Carter, State Policy CounselI once was warned to never “appear available” or place myself in a position where harassment might occur. I wasn’t surprised by the advice; the culture of the position was well known. Months after accepting the job, I was saying my goodbyes at an after-hours event when a powerful man commented that I hadn’t danced with him yet. In that split second, I was concerned for my reputation should I make him look bad in front of his colleagues sitting at the table. I still wish one of them had stepped in. I still regret not leaving and telling him that his comment was grossly inappropriate. Even though he was reflecting the known and accepted culture of that workplace, I can’t excuse his lack of awareness. When I share this story to my colleagues, who are teachers, attorneys, coaches, doctors, accountants, entrepreneurs, and anything in between, unfortunately they can relate. They respond with their story of that unwanted squeeze, inappropriate side comment, forced awkward situation, horrific sexual assault, or unconscionable rape, and also the workplace culture that permits these acts to occur.

Preventing sexual and other forms of harassment in the workplace, at a nonprofit or elsewhere, starts with the culture and values of the organization. Leadership must identify and communicate how the culture and values of the organization drive the mission and articulate the types of values that discourage any improper behavior. Emphasis on a code of ethics or statement of values of trust, integrity, honesty, and respect – and adherence to those values by all – reduce opportunities for harassment to occur. Strong leadership that recognizes and quickly stops any break from these values on a small or large scale, whether microaggressions or unwelcome touching, maintains the focus on the mission in a safe work environment for everyone.

Board members and executives must consider the safety and well-being of their employees and how to protect them as valued members of the organization. Victims can be ashamed, confused, or embarrassed, not just by coming forward, but also by the feeling that they may have allowed the harassment to occur in the first place. If the harassment comes from a supervisor, then reporting may be nearly impossible if there are no other ways to raise the issue within the organization. Proper harassment reporting systems should be clearly identified for staff, volunteers, and board members, with multiple channels for persons to report to a supervisor, human resources, or other staff member. An anonymous reporting tool, outside human resources services, or neutral third-party contact are also great options for staff, volunteers, and board members. Clear guidelines and access to resources builds trust in an organization and workplace so victims, or potential victims, know they will be heard and action will take place should a problem arise. Regularly reviewing reporting guidelines also can serve as a positive deterrent by reminding everyone that there will be accountability, so don’t cross the lines. Supervisors should be extra vigilant to protect and listen to particularly vulnerable employees, such as younger staff working in the areas of policy or fundraising who are charged with building and maintaining relationships outside of the organization that often occur at after-hour meetings and events.

Nonprofit organizations are also called to be a part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that we hope will result in all employees and volunteers feeling safe and protected by their organizations and the leaders they trust. As mission-driven organizations we have a special obligation to adopt and portray values that will earn and maintain the public’s trust. Nonprofits can and should lead the way in our society to eliminate workplace cultures that foster harassment. Nonprofits must do this not just because it is what the public and donors expect, but because, frankly, nonprofits should expect it of themselves.


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