Unwanted Advances by Donors

Dear Kim,

I am a 26-year-old woman, and I hope I don’t sound arrogant, but I am fairly attractive. I am the development associate at my organization. My boss is the development director and we work closely with the director of communications. Recently we had a “donor appreciation” event and one of our largest donors and I had an interesting conversation about places we had traveled. Since then he has called and invited me to lunch, to a museum show, and now to dinner. I went to lunch alone but I asked the development director (a man in his 50s) to go to the museum with us. So, now for dinner, the donor says, “Let’s just have this be the two of us.” He hasn’t done anything inappropriate but I feel uncomfortable. I have managed to postpone the dinner until I am back from a work trip but I need a better strategy. The development director suggests telling him I have a boyfriend, but I don’t and I really don’t want to lie. I like this person well enough but I don’t want him to get the wrong idea. I don’t even know if I want to be friends with him. Plus I don’t want to do any damage to the organization’s relationship with him.

~Dinner Dilemma

Dear Dilemma,

The first rule of dealing with this kind of situation is to trust your gut. You feel uncomfortable with where this friendship is going. Don’t talk yourself out of that. Does your organization have an HR director? I would talk with that person who should have some training in dealing with these kinds of situations. Unwelcome sexual advances are not to be tolerated, no matter how much money this man has given. And even if the donor is innocent, you are not required to be friends with him unless you want to be. I would also ask people who have been around longer than you have if he has ever done something like this before. Often there is a pattern here and someone will know it. You can nip this in the bud just by saying that having dinner alone makes you uncomfortable and see what happens. If he presses you or makes fun of you, you will know your instinct is right. Talk also with your development director about the power differential between you and this donor and make sure the development director understands your position and supports you. Unfortunately I have seen older donors take advantage of younger staff and the best solution is to politely but firmly stop anything before it starts.

I will be thinking about you and hope you will let me know what happens. If any readers have experiences and suggestions on dealing with unwanted advances by donors, please feel free to share them. We will publish them here.