Beyond Fundraising: What I’ve Learned as a Survivor of Sexual Harassment
In January 2019, I wrote an op-ed for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on my personal experience of sexual harassment as a nonprofit employee.1 I was inspired by my experience at the 2018 AFP Toronto Congress, where members spoke out about the need for protecting fundraisers against harassment. The message was clear—the time to speak up was now, and the responsibility for change did not just lie with those who have experienced harassment, but with those in positions of power and privilege.
My op-ed focused on one particularly hideous experience where I was sexually assaulted by a prospective donor during a dinner meeting. While it was disturbing, it was briefly lived, and I managed never to see that individual again.
What was not detailed in the article was my experience working with a significant donor, a revered local philanthropist in the Maritimes, who sexually harassed me both in person and through email over the course of four-and-a-half years. His advances ranged from quips and jokes by email to a full-blown proposition of an affair during a work trip in 2014.
This man, who still sits at the helm of a multimillion-dollar corporation in our region, wrote me lewd messages that included talking about being at the physiotherapist in “nothing but a towel.” During our working relationship I received dozens of emails, texts, and comments that are too embarrassing to write about in a professional publication.
After the CBC op-ed went public, I felt compelled to follow through on my own call-to-action. In an effort to hold this individual accountable, I decided to pursue legal action. I was buoyed by the positive response to my article, and naively thought that my experience was a relatively simple case of sexual harassment in the workplace.
What I learned (and undoubtedly others before me have also learned) was that the legislation for people who have experienced sexual harassment in Canada is limited and ineffectual. While I can only speak as someone who has pursued action in the province of Nova Scotia, the facts are that there are significant limitations for survivors of harassment across Canada.
Navigating the System—Sexual Harassment Legislation in Canada
My eyes were immediately opened to the limitations of our legal system in protecting people who have experienced harassment. In Canada, harassment of any kind—including sexual harassment—is governed by the Human Rights Act.
To seek justice, I would need to file a complaint against my former employer with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. This meant that in order to pursue action against the individual, I would need to file a complaint against my former employer. I would be holding my former employer accountable for an individual’s behavior, while that individual would likely face limited consequences. This would require me to ask an organization that I loved working for, and a cause I care about deeply, to answer for this individual’s recklessness. How is this considered fair?
According to Gail Gatchalian, a lawyer at Pink Larkin in Halifax and an authority on sexual harassment law, human rights tribunals have exclusive jurisdiction over all claims of discrimination. The tribunals also only cover certain “spheres of activity,” including employment, provision of services, and access to services or facilities.
Another significant challenge with the Canadian system is that the official window for filing a formal complaint is 12 months from the date of the last incident. It took me more than five years to come forward with my allegations against a donor. It can take decades for someone who has experienced sexualized violence to file a complaint. It can take years to grapple with a perpetrator’s conduct, and more often that not, they are someone you know and likely trusted at the time.2
I lived for years believing this kind of conduct was just part of the normal course of “doing business” in the nonprofit sector. I have been subjected to inappropriate comments at gala dinners, crude jokes at golf tournaments, and innuendos in meetings. I was psychologically conditioned to believe that this was the way some donors behaved and that it was best I not complain, lest I be seen as a troublemaker. Or, at worst, I could be seen as a liar and fired from my job.
It took me more than five years to come to terms with what happened and do something about it. Therefore, how can our legal system expect victims of harassment to file a formal complaint against someone in less than 12 months? As Gatchalian stated in an interview for this article, “By the time a Human Rights Commission even reviews a case, more often than not a victim has moved on to another place of employment.” This was the case with my situation. I did not report it within the 12-month window, and I had moved to another organization—where this individual was also a donor.
This is where I discovered another flaw in the system: complaints are limited to the conduct experienced under each employer. If you encounter harassment by the same donor, volunteer, or board member in different organizations. the complaint can only be filed around your tenure with each organization. This prevents a complainant from providing context—or demonstrating a pattern of behavior—in order to establish a history of harassment. Harassment does not fit within the confines of one organization, and the law inadequately reflects this reality.
Protecting Fundraisers from Harassment at Work—What Should Employers Do?
We are in an unprecedented time of change in the nonprofit sector. Employers are being forced to reckon with the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. More fundraisers and employees are sharing their experiences with harassment—sexual or otherwise. Most organizations—large or small—are ill-equipped to properly address these allegations. Larger nonprofits may have the policies and procedures in place, but senior leaders often lack the necessary training to navigate these difficult conversations with their employees.
Employees need to be empowered to come forward and file complaints, despite the consequences it may have on a relationship with a donor. And most importantly, we need to listen to the stories of people who have experienced sexual harassment from a place of compassion.
I was the first employee to file a formal complaint of sexual harassment by a third party in my employer’s history. Many of the men and women who bring allegations are also testing the capabilities of their employer’s policies and procedures, and forcing many organizations to realize they are wholly unprepared to deal with allegations of this nature. I can tell you from my personal experience it is hard enough to share your story of harassment; to have to share your story with an organization that is unprepared to act is even more intimidating and stressful.
We need to do everything we can to make reporting sexual harassment as straightforward as possible. As employment lawyer Sara Forte wrote in an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, “Sexual harassment complaints are good for business.”3 This may sound controversial, but controversial and radical conversations are what we need to move the needle on this issue.
As Forte states in her piece, “When sexual harassment takes place at work, and no complaint is made, what happens? Is the problem resolved? Absolutely not. The distress created is bottled up and builds pressure until it finds a way to escape.” As a sector we need to address this issue head on.
Creating a Safe Work Environment
Tackling an issue of this magnitude seems daunting and overwhelming. Over the past few months, many of the individuals I have spoken with want to help but don’t know where to begin. Like any significant societal issue, it takes time, commitment, and dedicated resources to effect change.
So what can you do as an employee, a leader, or a board member around the issue of harassment in the workplace?
A good place to start is to find out if your organization has a safe workplace policy that includes how to deal with allegations of sexual harassment. Like all employment lawyers, Gatchalian recommends organizations have a policy in place that defines what harassment is and that it is prohibited and unacceptable in the workplace, and it should cover all stakeholders that an employee might encounter—including donors.
The policy should also have a clear complaint and review process, and ideally provide an employee with an impartial third party to speak with about the issue. Confidentiality and impartiality are critical in encouraging victims to feel safe in sharing what has happened to them.
Gatchalian also points out that processes and procedures are not enough to ensure success. There should be proper training for staff and board members on sexualized violence in the workplace. Bystander training provides employees with the knowledge to identify sexual harassment in the moment, and the training to intervene when necessary. Creating allies in the workplace ensures a safer work environment for everyone.
Finally, it is crucial that senior leadership in organizations be properly trained to ensure policies are enforced quickly and compassionately. In my personal experience, a senior leader sat me down after my complaint was filed to tell me to “move on with my life” and find a way to “just get over” what happened to me with the donor. It is the responsibility of senior leadership to provide a process free of judgmental comments like these. It is not the responsibility of those brave enough to report to bear the burden of educating leaders how to act.
What Can the Industry Do?
AFP has been leading the charge on the issue of sexualized violence and harassment through the Women’s Impact Initiative (WII). This initiative was launched to address and highlight the specific issues and challenges that women in the fundraising profession face. This initiative has brought together an incredible network of women, men, industry leaders, and activists to advocate for change in our sector.
In addition to initiatives such as WII, industry associations must look to partner with other national entities to provide resources to employees. For instance:
- Draft and issue statements advocating for change to the laws around harassment in the workplace;
- Advocate on behalf of people who have experienced sexualized violence in the workplace at the national level;
- Assemble a pool of experts who can conduct investigations on behalf of small organizations;
- Pool resources and provide a place for support.
Nonprofit organizations and their boards need to have difficult conversations about the sensitive subject of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Employees need to be empowered to come forward and file complaints, despite the consequences it may have on a relationship with a donor. And most importantly, we need to listen to the stories of people who have experienced sexual harassment from a place of compassion.
Liz LeClair, CFRE, brings more than a decade of experience to her role as director of major gifts at QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation. Liz has extensive experience in managing and leading teams, the development of strategic business plans, and a genuine passion for raising funds for important causes in her community. Liz is a long-standing member of AFP, a past board member of AFP Vancouver Island, and currently a volunteer on the AFP Foundation’s National Scholarships Committee.