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About 10 years ago, when I was directing a national fundraising campaign, I met with a prospective donor at a posh tennis club. The weather was warm, the sun was shining and the table set with crisp white linens.

The conversation, however, was not nearly as sanitized as the surroundings. Every question I asked was met with a response full of sexual innuendo until finally, the man allowed that if I wanted serious answers to my questions, I could come to his place and we could talk over a couple of glasses of red wine.

Ewww, right?

When I reported the results of my meeting to the CEO of the charity, his response was immediate and short. “Well, I guess we can cross xxxx off our list.”

Charities, need I say, are often seen as places where only the well-meaning dwell. Yet, charities, need I also say, are full of the same kinds of people that populate humanity at large, the good, the bad and the downright offensive.

So, today, I’ll keep my advice short about what to do if a prospective donor is out of bounds. Cross him off your list. There’s plenty of other fish in the donor ocean that do not require sexual favours as part of their “cultivation” requirements.

But if the alleged transgressor is a high profile part of your charity, such as Albert Shultz, former artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto or Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, both of whom have recently resigned amidst widespread allegations of misconduct, the situation is rightly a bit more complicated.

According to the Washington Post, the Humane Society’s investigation of the allegations against Pacelle, “began on December 20 after the [charity] received an anonymous complaint about Pacelle’s behavior.”

Upon investigating the allegations, the board discovered, “several former high-ranking women had warned Pacelle … that his sexual relationships with subordinates, donors, and volunteers could hurt the charity.”

In Albert Schultz’s case, four women have brought civil lawsuits against him and the Soulpepper Theatre alleging “decades of sexual harassment and assault both on stage and off.”

In both cases, the allegations are said to cover incidents over a period of 10 years and been known inside the charity for years.

It’s a messy business.

And if you are faced with multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, as has happened to Oxfam, Save the Children and other international aid charities, your entire sector will be thrown into chaos.

But all these situations share one thing in common.  They all have a point at which someone first learned about it.

So what to do if someone comes to you with an allegation of misconduct?

#1 – The first thing to do is do something. Most people do not use civil lawsuits or leak confidential information to the media as their first act of reportage on sexual misconduct. Generally speaking, they take those extraordinary measures only after they have exhausted all other avenues. In the case of Soulpepper Theatre, the Humane Society of the United States and Oxfam, the allegations were purportedly known inside the charity for many years.

So when an allegation of sexual misconduct is brought to your attention, whether you are a director, CEO or board chair, you must make a decision to do something.  You must tell who you need to tell and then begin to gather the facts.  How many people are involved, who are they, what did they do, where did they do it, when did they do it and why did they think they could do it? How many victims are there? How have their lives been affected?  How are they now? You must gather as many of these facts as quickly as you can, professionally and effectively, keeping your eyes open to how your charity may have, wittingly or unwittingly, facilitated the misconduct. You want to know everything. All organizations make mistakes. People make mistakes. Not trying to seek out the facts, fix mistakes or cover them up is an entirely different thing and will only land you in a bigger mess.

#2 – Create a team inside the organization who can deal with processing the allegation and its fallout. One of the first rules of crisis management is to build a wall around the crisis so it doesn’t infect other aspects of your work. You must create a group of people to handle the problem, put the terms of reference in writing and give them the mandate to get to the bottom of things. Don’t make the actual work related to the processing of the allegations everyone’s job. It’s one of those times when leaders have to lead.

#3 – Bring in knowledgeable independent people who can advise you on what to do next. This kind of situation is something that’s tough to properly deal with if you don’t have qualified support including legal, human resources, communications and organizational management expertise, especially if the allegations cover a period of time and have been known within the organization. Getting experienced independent assistance will help ensure victims not further traumatized and that your and that your organization can do what needs to be done to prevent further incidences. Once again, being open with advisers about the ways in which your charity may have, wittingly or unwittingly, enabled the problem is important.

#4 – Ensure the work of the organization continues. If the person accused of misconduct is a high-profile leader in the organization, such as in the case of Soulpepper Theatre and Humane Society of the United States, or if it involves a number of people at the service delivery level such as Oxfam, try as best you can to ensure that the crisis doesn’t infect the entire operation’s service delivery. (See #2.) When you are a charity, lives may depend on your uninterrupted service. If top leadership has to go, the organization will need to have some controlled management change that includes addressing transparency, accountability and working conditions. If frontline people need to be fired, then it must be done and management changes will need to occur at that level too. This will play a vital part in ensuring the medium and long-term health of the organization, which will only evolve by dealing squarely with the allegations. It is difficult to overstate this

#5 – Communicate what you can. Personnel issues are hard. As an employer, you can’t get into too much detail. You can, however, reassure victims, staff, volunteers and, if the situation warrants it, funders, donors, and the media, that you are doing all you can to deal with the issues as they have arisen. Funders will raise questions. In the case of Soulpepper Theatre, the Canada Council for the Arts is reviewing its funding for the organization right now. The U.K. government is reviewing its funding to Oxfam. It is up to organizational leadership to reassure a funder they have a serious, actionable plan in place to deal with the allegations and their fallout. Of course, being able to communicate a plan means you have to have one. The people staffing these funding bodies are usually sophisticated administrators. They understand bad stuff happens. What they want to know is what you’re going to do about it.

If your situation involves the media, know they will be merciless and justifiably so. Be humble. Be accountable. And be transparent.

In a perfect world, of course, charity leadership helps create environments that prevent sexual misconduct.

Fortunately, in case you’ve not yet got that one done and dusted, watch for my colleague, Lucy White’s, companion blog to this one, Five Things You Can Do To Protect Against Allegations of Sexual Misconduct at your Charity, to help with that.

Making it your next read could save you—and potential victims—a world of heartache.


Gail Picco is an award-winning charity strategist and thought-leader widely recognized as one of Canada’s foremost experts on how to carve a path through the increasingly complex dynamics of the charitable sector. Civil Sector Press recently published her latest book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World. She works as a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and is Chair of the Regent Park Film Festival.