When you heard the first #MeToo stories, did it resonate with you? For me, I felt like a lot of us have been there. I know I certainly have. Reading Uma Thurman’s interview in the New York Times recently made me reflect on the importance of telling our stories, and being heard around the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault at work. Even powerful, rich women have #MeToo stories.  

It’s our dirty little secret, in fundraising, that sometimes our interest, our attention, our positivity, can be taken the wrong way by donors, board members, volunteers and other staff. Here’s my story.  This is why I decided that we needed a session on sexual harassment in our nonprofit workplace. 


Today I’m happy to introduce Maria Ramos-Chertok, an expert on workplace harassment. She has been a lawyer, crisis counselor, mediator, and more. Maria will be speaking at the Fundraising Career Conference this April on sexual harassment at work. Check out this interview if you want to learn more about what she’ll be covering in her session, AND get some tools that can help you or people you know. 


  1. When it comes to sexual harassment at work, what do you think makes people start doing it? 

Interesting question. I don’t think of it as people “starting” – I see it more as a response to social conditioning that objectifies women, thus making our bodies a commodity that is something to be procured, gained, taken, stolen, used and, abused.

This same conditioning gives males the privilege to assume they should have access to our bodies in various ways. All of this must be put into a larger context that spans millenniums, which folks often prefer to forget – which is that women have been considered property of men under the law. Chattel, essentially.

In terms of United States history, women were not allowed to vote, own property, access educational systems or sit on juries, for example. That reality is part of the fabric of what we are dealing with when we look at how it came to be that women’s bodies have been subject to abuse, largely by men. I can’t talk about sexual harassment in today’s society without considering the path of women’s journey to enter the workplace and gain access to economic resources.


  1. How people respond normally to the harassment? 

There are as many responses to harassment as there are people, but in my experience of over twenty years of working in the field, I’ve seen several patterns. It is difficult to speak up about harassment in the workplace out of a concern that there will be negative repercussion (being ostracized, being called derogatory names, not being believed or being told that you are “too sensitive,” to name a few). The worst fear is that reporting harassment may lead to being fired or retaliated against. The law is clear that firing and/or retaliation against someone for making a claim is illegal, but proving this in a court of law takes time, financial resources, emotional strength and some savvy. Many victims do a risk/reward analysis and decide it’s just now worth it to speak up. With the #metoo movement, that is changing somewhat, but for all the folks who have spoken up, there are still many whose voices we have yet to hear.


  1. Does most harassment go reported, or unreported? 

I think it’s hard to know due to the fact that many victims of sexual harassment don’t have access or don’t trust the current forums for reporting harassment. I’ll give you a few examples: undocumented workers are less likely to report abuse out of fear that speaking up can have serious consequences (losing a job, being reported to INS, being deported). There are victims of sexual trafficking whose life may be defined by harassment and abuse who don’t have the freedom to report. There are domestic workers whose workplaces are other people’s homes and the privacy that shrouds these employment sites are rife with abuse and opportunities for non-compliance with employment laws. These are only three examples of situations in which someone being harassed might not be able to speak up.


The numbers are hard to calculate due to the silence and often illegal nature of the “employment” relationship, so if you combine these instances with the cases of harassment that go unreported under the best of circumstances where someone does have access to an anti-harassment policy, a clear procedure, an unbiased investigation and an employer who takes harassment seriously – I’d imagine that more cases go unreported than reported.


  1. What could nonprofit organizations do to help people who are being harassed? 

At the most basic level, having an anti-harassment policy in place, taking it seriously, investigating all complaints, coming to a conclusion, communicating that conclusion and then working to educate managers on how to respond to complaints is critical. Regularly training your entire staff on anti-harassment is also a best practice.


  1. What do organizations stand to lose if they do not pay attention to this issue?

As we are all seeing in the media, there are serious repercussions for employers when they don’t respond to sexual harassment complaints. In addition to bad publicity and potentially plummeting donations and withdrawl of support by foundations, there is also legal liability, which could result in having to pay damages, not to mention legal fees and costs. That’s more the financial side.

What organizations stand to lose, more broadly, is the opportunity to have a workplace with high morale, where people feel they are treated fairly and with respect. I imagine everyone wants that for themselves, their children and their loved ones and should want that for each person who walks on this earth.


6. What will you be covering in your session? 

I’ll be discussing how sexual harassment is defined under the law and how to begin thinking about what “unwelcome conduct” looks like for you. I’ll offer some basic guidelines for how to report and respond to harassment and talk about how the world of fundraising puts a premium on being nice and what the implications are of that value.

Thank you so much Maria for your wise advice on this important, timely topic. Now, more than ever, we need to create safe spaces for people to work in. And with the right training and policies, we can start to make a better nonprofit sector, for everyone. 

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