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Connecting the Dots on Sexual Misconduct in the Philanthropic Sector

Leadership and Teams: Boards and Volunteers
Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Access (IDEA): Diversity and Inclusion (IDEA)
Career Development: Your Fundraising Career
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AFP Global Daily has been working on this in-depth article for a couple of months. Today we’re featuring Part One: When Women Speak Out. Part Two, The Response, consolidates the information about what is happening to promote change, will be published in the near future.

Part One: When Women Speak Out

In April 2015, Elise Maxwell (a pseudonym), a seasoned fundraiser, flew 2,500 kilometers to interview for a senior development job at a large Canadian charity with an international reputation. It was a big opportunity, and she would be spending the day in meetings with the department head and other prospective colleagues.

The morning interviews went well and after lunch, and more introductions, Maxwell was walking single-file down the stairs with the department head behind her on the higher step.

“As we were walking down, the department head put both his hands on my shoulders, squeezed them and said, ‘Elise is going to bring a suitcase of money with her when she comes’.”

Maxwell later told her husband about the department head squeezing her shoulders. She was surprised a man would do that in this day and age, in what was essentially part of the job interview.

“But this was a great opportunity,” she says. “And I was excited. It wasn’t just great for me. It was great for my family.” Maxwell’s husband was working on his Ph.D., and they had two sons, a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old.

And Maxwell says it wasn’t as though she hadn’t been exposed to sexual innuendo or harassment in her career. She says her first experience went back to the 1990s, and an incident at a donor dinner in the early 2000s stands out especially in her mind.

“A visibly intoxicated donor—a button-down lawyer—was calling out, ‘Where is Elise? I want to sit next to Elise,’ as he began putting his arm around me.”

She says she didn’t think of it as harassment back then, although it made her feel awful.

But her exposure to sexual misconduct—and the garden variety “more sexism than harassment” type of behaviour she encountered while working at other charities—did not prepare her for what she was about to experience.

And although she was moving into the zenith of her career, in other ways she was about to be at her most vulnerable. She just didn’t realize it at the time.

That awareness came later, after a debilitating experience that lasted for three years. And after many hours of counselling.


A survey released in April 2018 by the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Association of Fundraising Professionals began to quantify the amount of sexual misconduct experienced by people working in the philanthropy sector, revealing that:

  • 25% of female fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment in their careers;
  • 7% of male fundraisers have experienced harassment;
  • 96% of perpetrators were men;
  • 65% of people harassed said a donor was the culprit in at least one incident;
  • 39% of fundraisers said the offenders were co-workers, managers, executives, or board members;
  • More than half of the sexual harassment involved unwanted touching or physical contact.

Conducted online in February 2018 by the Harris Poll, the survey confirmed what many women in the sector have experienced for many years. Some are speaking out now—anonymously, for attribution or, quietly, among trusted friends and colleagues.


Working at the other end of the country from Elise Maxwell, Liz LeClair, CFRE, then a senior development professional for a prominent charity in Atlantic Canada, was navigating her own donor dinner.

“It should have been a business dinner where I could connect with high-profile donors for the charitable organization I represented,” she wrote in a Point of View piece for the CBC on January 2, 2019.

“Instead, I was sexually assaulted in my seat. An executive at a multi-national corporation put his hand up my skirt — not just on my thigh but between my legs, where his fingers touched my underwear.

“We were sitting at a table of his peers. Discreetly, I tried to remove his hand. I crossed my legs to ensure he could not touch me there again. In the weeks to come, he would send me emails that included both a proposition and the promise of a substantial donation. Like some of the powerful men I work with, he mistook my professional interest in him as a sign that I was ‘open for business’.”


Elise Maxwell was offered the job she interviewed for at the large Canadian charity with an international reputation. “It wasn’t only that they wanted to hire me. It was the pace at which they moved to do it,” she recalls.

On her first day of work in July 2015, the interim VP who had interviewed her picked her up at her hotel to give her a ride to work. When they got to the office, she was surprised the department head greeted the interim VP with a hug.  

Later that morning, Maxwell was receiving an orientation from a colleague, who said to her that the only issue with this department head was with him and women. “Did you notice him with the [interim VP] this morning?”  

A few days later, Maxwell says she was meeting with another new colleague in her office. The department head dropped by to say hello, and she says, “he stared at my breasts like he was lost in thought.”

“My antennae were up, for sure, but everybody loved him,” she continues. “And I could see it. He was charismatic, smart and had a strong presence. He was tall and fit, young, but distinguished. He was well known for his leadership skills and had moved up the administrative ladder quickly.”


Beth Ann Locke, a former member of the board of AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada, was inspired to tell her personal story in 2014—three years before the high profile revelations about Harvey Weinstein—as part of the #YesAllWomen campaign, a grassroots movement of women created in response to the #NotAllMen hashtag. That hashtag gained traction after six people were killed and 14 injured in Isla Vista, Calif., by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who also killed himself.

The Isla Vista killings are notable because the killer emailed a 141-page “autobiographical document” before the rampage to more than 20 people saying he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and punish sexually active men because he envied them. Elliot Rodger, thus, is viewed by an internet sub-culture of incels (involuntary celibates) as a martyr of some sort. On April 23, 2018 in Toronto, 25-year-old Alek Minassian used a rented van to kill 10 people and injure 16. Prior to the attack, he posted on Facebook, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger.”

It was in the context of those killings, and in an act of solidarity, Locke decided to reveal her experience of sexual misconduct in the philanthropic sector by tweeting: “#YesAllWomen B/c at 33, my office, a colleague grabbed my wrist & tried to put my hand on his erection. Supposed to be a ‘compliment’.”

“He said, ‘This is what you do to me,’ as he pulled my hand toward his crotch,” Locke recounted in her blog on May 27, 2014. “I was shocked and horrified. This did not feel like a compliment.”

“For me, my story happened a longer time ago, and it was egregious and became more all-encompassing,” Locke says today. “At the time I was a single parent and had no support system. And the reporting relationship I had was completely dysfunctional.”

Locke’s account was of sexual misconduct was published in an issue of Advancing Philanthropy in October 2017, just before the Harvey Weinstein story broke. She presented at the 2018 AFP Fundraising Conference in New Orleans: Sexual Harassment and Bullying – Is the Nonprofit Sector Safe for All?  


Elise Maxwell recalls that from the day she started work, her department head came to her office daily. He mentioned in passing that ensuring they connect daily was his commitment to ensuring a smooth orientation.

“But, as time went on, he continued to come to my office almost every day,” says Maxwell. “He mentioned once, during a meeting, that we should set aside an hour a week and just reflect on some of the common values, ideas and observations we share inside and outside the work context.

“His behaviour was more pronounced now that I see it in hindsight,” she continued, “I’d never had anyone show this much interest in me and my work. He asked thoughtful questions and complimented my work so much. And it’s occurred to me, this is not the first time. He’s done this before. I felt like I was being groomed. One day, in reference to a group meeting that had been held a month or so earlier with a donor about prospective investment opportunities, he told me that he was a ‘private dancer.’”

Maxwell mentioned the private dancer comment to her husband, who replied, “Where does he get all these lines? No one without practice has all these lines.” (A private dancer is usually considered to be a prostitute or a stripper who will perform sexual favours in a private setting.)

For the next two years, Maxwell’s work life was a roller coaster.  She was directing the development program premised on bringing forward new approaches in tandem with the department head. All the while, the department head cultivated a highly sexualized work environment and behaved in an emotional manner with her—sometimes tearing up—even as he supported her work professionally.

“I can pinpoint when it crossed the line,” she says.

“We had an administrative council meeting every two weeks with senior department representatives. Afterwards, I was behind my desk wearing a tunic with leggings. I didn’t realize it, but the tunic had a vee neck and as I was bent over my desk, a part of my right breast was exposed. He looked at my breast, down at his genital area, opened his palms, looked at my breast, back at his genital area again and went on talking.”

At the same time, donors and volunteers were behaving badly.

One day, Maxwell said she “had a volunteer coming at me at me “like he had a knife and fork,” I’m thinking I need to manage this, and I did. We ended up hugging and agreed that the customary French greeting of kissing on either cheek was acceptable.”

But the inappropriate behaviour had become commonplace.

Maxwell says that at a donor reception, a different volunteer introduced her as “his wife.” Then, after the reception, she asked the department head if he was happy with how things had gone. He said he was happy and would “demonstrate that physically” if I allowed him. “It took me a while to add this all up, and only over time I realized what a sexualized environment I was in,” she says.


Sarah Lyon, CFRE, who has been on the board of AFP Foundation for Philanthropy - Canada for the past two years and works out of Halifax, says she’s been concerned about what she sees happening to women in fundraising for some time.

“I was at a conference where a younger fundraiser asked what to do if you’re in a meeting with a CEO and you’re feeling a little intimidated,” she says. “The response was ‘you might have to bat your eyelashes a bit more’.”

Thinking the comment inappropriate, Lyon believes it feeds into a stereotype about women using their ‘sexual wiles’ to raise money. For her, the results of the AFP/Chronicle of Philanthropy survey were not a surprise.  She too has experienced a donor touching her inappropriately.

And she’s concerned about women who have experienced sexual misconduct but do not want to—or don’t feel they can—say anything about it because they believe it will harm their career and their charity.

“There are so many people out there who have experienced this,” Lyon says. “Almost every female fundraiser has talked about this. Some people have figured out strategies like ‘never be alone with a donor’ or ‘only go to a public spot.’ It’s so hard because people struggle without disclosing it. They don’t want to do anything to hurt their charity.”

Lyon wanted these issues to be talked about out in the open within AFP, so she talked to Sheena Greer, a writer and facilitator, who has worked in with the sector for many years. They came up with the idea of a Tough Topics track for the AFP Congress in Toronto in 2018, a series of talks about issues of particular interest to women. She approached the chair of the Congress, Ann Rosenfield.

Rosenfield recalls the request. “Sarah Lyon asked to bring a Tough Topics session to Congress and I said, that we can give you a safe space, but not a therapeutic space. We did make a point of having it in a room where nothing was booked afterward. My job was to say yes, and make sure the execution happened in a way that it needed to.”

One session, Fundraising, Feminism and Disruption: Stories, Conversations and Creating True Change Together, moderated by Beth Ann Locke, Jen Love, Beate Sorum and Mimosa Kabir, shook loose the pent-up stories of women’s experience.


Liz LeClair attended the Tough Topics session tracks at Congress in 2018 and called it the “genesis” of her decision to tell her story publicly.

“We discussed some really difficult topics at that session, and there was a lot of conversation around inappropriate behavior. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, yeah, this is not news to me. And that sounds crazy at 39. But all of a sudden, there was somehow this ‘aha’ moment'.”

It was after the Tough Topics session and hearing a plenary speaker at Congress talk about people with privilege needing to speak up that LeClair returned to Halifax with a mission. She contacted a friend who works at CBC about doing an op-ed piece on the sexual misconduct she’d experienced. She wrote about a number of things, but CBC decided to focus on the “particularly hideous” experience of being sexually assaulted by a donor at dinner, which was published in January 2019.

In addition to outlining the sexual assault she’d experienced in her CBC Point of View piece, Liz LeClair recently wrote about dealing with harassment that she received at the hands of a very significant prominent philanthropist in Halifax for roughly six years, including emails full of sexual innuendo and propositioning.

Speaking to an ethics panel entitled #MeToo? Yes, Charities Too on October 18, 2019, LeClair says that the donor “would write emails to tell me that he was at the physiotherapist in nothing but a towel. And how did I feel about that? He made a proposition for sex. At the end of the day, I've had senior leaders tell me that ‘we're doing what we can, but you really need to focus on moving on with your life and getting back to focusing on the right things, which is your job’.”

And after an investigation into the allegations, when she asked a board member if they were going to continue to work with this donor, the board member replied that, “his donations have done more good…than the harm he's done…and I can live with that decision.”


By the beginning of 2018, Elise Maxwell found that her anxiety around her work environment was turning into depression. She was crying on the way home from work and had to take medication in order to sleep.

In March 2018, she says she finally went to the appropriate office with concerns about sexual harassment by the department head. An investigator was appointed, who said he found the complaint credible. Maxwell agreed to write it all down.

On August 31, 2018, she received the outcome of the investigation. To her surprise, they decided there were no grounds for the claim due to lack of credible evidence. It was ‘he said she said,’ they said. In addition, his behaviour was deemed as non-sexual.

She was devastated by the complete about-face.

Eleven days later, Maxwell was fired without cause. The department head had been promoted and was now the second-in-command of the entire institution. The investigator ultimately reported to him.


“I’m hoping in Canada we can make strides in this,” says Lyon. “As an industry, we are mostly made up of women, but we are not in the c-suite.”

She feels the groundswell of conversation has to continue and there needs to be discussion about reporting or keeping the lights on in the charity. People are muzzled directly or indirectly, she says. They are asking if this is worth losing my job or hurting my charity?

“Before Tough Topics, we weren’t being mobilized,” says Lyon, but she believes “this has gone on too long. It affects our ability to be professional, results in turnover in the industry, and affects your view of the sector. But we also have the privilege of not letting this go for the people who cannot speak up. That’s the reason I didn’t say something sooner. I can only do this now because of the network of women I have to support me.”

Lyon says that leaders can’t wait for an incident to happen.

“It is already happening. It’s been happening for a very long time. Let’s protect people now. They may not come forward, but at least they will know they are protected.”

Gail Picco is a charity impact strategist, author and book blog editor.

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