When do-good nonprofits are bad at dealing with #MeToo moments

Scandals rocking the Humane Society and the Red Cross are the highest-profile examples so far of how the #MeToo movement is bringing sexual harassment and abuse at U.S. nonprofits to light. More are probably on the way.

While you might presume that this problem would be rare at organizations that exist only to do good, unfortunately it is commonplace and often goes unpunished.

Even though the federal government sets clear guidelines for recognizing and avoiding sexual harassment and misconduct in all workplaces, nonprofits often fail to adequately train their employees and volunteers to root it out, and they then botch the job of disciplining abusers.

As nonprofit management professors, we believe that hiring more and better qualified human resources professionals and following best practices that go above and beyond what labor laws require will help these organizations avoid #MeToo problems.

Do-gooders doing bad things

This wave of scandals began in early December. That was when news broke that John Hockenberry, who had stopped hosting the “The Takeaway” in August 2017, stepped aside after allegedly bullying and harassing his female co-hosts of the WNYC public radio show . Despite ample on-air soul-searching, critics (including some of Hockenberry’s former colleagues) charge that the listener-supported station was taking too long to get to the bottom of what happened and hold its management accountable.

More recently, it came to light that Gerald Anderson, after being forced from his executive position at the Red Cross due to accusations he allegedly sexually harassed one subordinate and sexually assaulted another, landed a new prominent nonprofit job at Save the Children. Despite no allegations of misconduct at his new employer, Save the Children placed Anderson on administrative leave pending an investigation.

The American Red Cross looks especially bad because it furnished Anderson with glowing references.

And then Wayne Pacelle resigned in early February from his job as the Humane Society’s top executive under pressure from board members and donors amid allegations that he had sexually abused former employees, including an intern.

We believe that some cultural and structural characteristics make nonprofits both vulnerable to this kind of problem and slow to crack down on abusers.

Overhead obsessions

Nonprofits usually depend on the funds they raise from individual donors and foundations for most of their budgets – with government contracts and grants providing a third of their revenue on average.

And many of their donors are obsessed with keeping overhead – money spent on management, fund-raising and administrative expenses – low.

This approach, which many experts consider outmoded, can distort nonprofit management practices.

Scrimping on administrative personnel can interfere with hiring the HR professionals nonprofits need or even keeping the ones they have on board.

That can prove counterproductive when nonprofits fail to root out sexual harassment. In a sign that its #MeToo scandal will hurt its fund-raising, major donors are threatening to stop supporting the Humane Society.

Poor policing

Nonprofits are often bad at policing in-house abuses. Most are small and can’t afford to employ their own full-time human resource personnel. Even at the larger nonprofits, like the Red Cross and the Humane Society, inadequate staffing hinders the ability to train employees, investigate difficulties and impose sanctions.