Member Story

Community Committed to Change: Creating Safe Supportive Workplaces

Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Access (IDEA): Diversity and Inclusion (IDEA)
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JWS Empowerment

Fundraising professionals are confronted with inappropriate behavior all the time, at every stage of their careers. According to research by Ohio State University professors, Erynn Beaton and Megan LePere-Schloop, 76% of fundraisers have experienced some form of work-based sexual harassment in their careers. 

It doesn't have to be that way.

When we, Jamie and Wesley, first embarked into the higher education fundraising sector, we assumed the best intentions from the donors, volunteers, board members, and fans with whom we interacted. The majority of our interactions were very positive, but there were still the handful of those "icky" gray moments that made us feel uncomfortable and unsafe. No one in our office or industry talked about these situations happening, nor was there an understanding that we could address (or even remove ourselves) from those situations. We were taught by our organizations that you had to develop thick skin if you wanted to advance in the industry, so we just assumed it was part of the role, and we would have to deal with being harassed. 

As luck would have it, we got the opportunity to work together on the same team and immediately bonded as friends and colleagues. The friendship deepened from a shared experience on a first-time joint lunch meeting with a very established and generous donor to the institution. The donor had misled us that he would be bringing his wife to the meeting (she did not join), and then suggested that each of us sit on either side of him. It seemed innocent, until he began physically groping both of us under the table at different points in the meeting, without us knowing it was happening to one another. He continued to make subtle comments about our physical appearances and used explicit racial slurs to describe members of the university administration. We were so uncomfortable and frustrated by his behavior, yet we were intimidated by his position of power as a major donor, so in the moment, we acted agreeably and did nothing. 

Following this shared experience, we got back in the car and exclaimed, “Can you believe that just happened!” and for the first time in our careers, we opened the dialogue about these inappropriate situations. This shared experience inspired us to exchange our personal stories with each other and begin building awareness among colleagues and industry leaders. 

We decided then and there to commit to being change agents in our industry and starting this very important dialogue, so we launched JWS Empowerment Solutions to confront this issue once and for all. 

At JWS, we help organizations prioritize safe, inclusive, and supportive workplaces through trainings, strategic council, and professional development for employees and team leaders interested in tackling the tough conversations. 

We realized when we broke the silence on this topic, that we had a community of colleagues who were ready to change the culture of our fundraising sector and help us create safe and supportive work environments. AFP has been a great partner in this initiative, providing fundraisers with resources such as the AFP Sexual Harassment Toolkit, and other programs available through the AFP Women’s Impact Initiative

Our hope for the industry is that through champions such as JWS, and AFP, we can empower organizations to address the challenge of harassment head on, so that everyone has the opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed.


Author Information

Jamie Hays Szelc and Wesley Ellison Stewart have over 20 years of executive leadership and frontline development experience that informs their hands-on, engaging training, and support of high-performing teams. Grounded in personal storytelling, paired with proven tools for progress, JWS Empowerment encourages stories to be shared so we can build awareness, foster community, and empower action.

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