Two years ago, Leah Olm, chief fundraiser for the grassroots progressive group Wellstone, said she was in a one-on-one meeting with a donor when he “stepped extremely out of line.”
The incident rattled her badly, but in her line of work, refusing to meet with donors in private is not an option. So Olm found alternative solutions: She attended a self-defense class paid for by her employer and took advantage of Wellstone’s lack of a dress code to wear her Adidas running shoes to private meetings. That way, “I can get away fast if a bad situation arises in the future,” Olm said.
Her workarounds speak to the hard truths that scores of political fundraisers must deal with every day. In a profession dominated by young women, in which intimate meetings are the norm and powerful men direct a tidal wave of cash, enduring widespread sexual harassment has long been seen as just a cost of doing business. The options for recourse, many fundraisers told HuffPost, are limited. Fundraisers don’t share a common employer with the donors, and rebuking a benefactor in person risks losing access and money.
About half of fundraisers in all fields reported experiencing sexual harassment, mostly at the hands of donors, according to a March survey of more than 1,000 professional fundraisers, and 1 out of 5 people who responded to the survey described harassment in the industry as “rampant.” In politics, where fundraising is often combined with the pressure cooker conditions of election campaigns, the problem can be even more pronounced. The amount of money at stake is staggering. During the 2016 election, there were more than 45,000 donors who gave more than $10,000 to candidates, political action committees and political parties and more than 3,000 donors whose giving topped $100,000. Seventy percent of those generous donors were men, according to OpenSecrets.
Dealing with harassment can seem baked into the job of parting these donors from their cash.
“The whole environment is really built on a lot of danger factors,” said Linnea Hegarty, who raised money for the Democratic National Committee in the early 2000s. The best fundraising relationships rely not on mass mailers and phone calls but on sustained, friendly, face-to-face interactions. A fundraiser’s job is to make sure those interactions are always enjoyable and cater to a donor’s needs.
Compared with average voters, donors tend to be whiter, older and wealthier and are more likely to be men. Fundraisers, particularly those who handle event planning as well, tend to be young women.
“If you have a national portfolio like I do, you spend a lot of time on the road alone in strange cities, meeting with strangers at places of their choosing,” Olm said. “And organizations expect you to get the money, no matter what it costs you in personal integrity, discomfort and legit harassment.”
“There’s a major power imbalance,” said one Democratic fundraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it’s still her line of work. “Because here’s something that one party is giving you ― the more powerful and more experienced party ― and that something is money.”
Organizations expect you to get the money, no matter what it costs you in personal integrity, discomfort and legit harassment. Leah Olm, chief fundraiser for Wellstone
Olm, at least, had the support of her employer. After she reported the donor’s behavior to Wellstone, the group barred him from making future contributions or attending its events, and it gave Olm time off to recover. (Olm did not identify the donor to HuffPost.)
Not everyone is so lucky. Erin, a political fundraiser who works for state and congressional campaigns, felt she had few options when a powerful local donor grabbed her butt at a recent event. She whipped around and told him never to do that again. But she didn’t react any further.
“I can’t go to my brand-new boss and say, ‘Hey, this asshole just grabbed my ass and he’s a huge donor,’” Erin said. “There was literally nowhere I could go with this information without endangering the very purpose of my job, which is to fundraise. … I never said anything because I was in a place where there were no options for me.”
Erin spoke on the condition that HuffPost not print her last name because many of her clients still desire this donor’s support and she continues to invite him to political events. On one occasion, when he asked to speak with her alone, she pulled up a friend’s number on her cellphone and held her finger over the dial button in case she needed help.
“There’s risk involved in every interaction,” she said. “But I can’t say, ‘No, you’re a creeper.’ … This was tens of thousands of dollars.”
Especially in the past, political parties and organizations have put little thought into how to reduce the potential for abuse. Hegarty recalled how the DNC once arranged for her to stay in the guest bedroom of a single man who was one of the party’s prominent bundlers. Nothing inappropriate happened, she said, but she is shocked to look back on the arrangement. “Parties rely on donors,” Hegarty said. “And you’re dealing with wealthy white men who have a great sense of entitlement about that.”
I can’t say, ‘No, you’re a creeper.’ … This was tens of thousands of dollars. Erin, a political fundraiser
The threat of harassment is not limited to interactions with entitled donors. Fundraisers often serve as connectors for lawmakers and lobbyists with money to spend. Typically, they facilitate these relationships by creating intimate settings ― say, at a high-end restaurant or hotel ― where the lawmakers and influence peddlers feel catered to.
The anonymous Democratic fundraiser recalled how, at one of these events, a member of Congress got drunk and cornered a young female fundraiser, feeling her up and asking her to come back with him to his room. Other people had to intervene before he backed off. (The fundraiser did not want the congressman named in public, for fear that doing so would ultimately identify her and his target as well.)
That was one of the more extreme encounters the fundraiser said she’d witnessed. But inappropriate and sexual comments are a constant, she said.
“This job involves an endless stream of men with money, either because they’re lobbyists with a big company or a donor, who feel entitled, almost as if they are buying the right to talk to you however they want,” she said. Often, their comments come right as they’re handing her a check for several thousand dollars. “What does this buy me?” is a popular line; so is “Buy yourself something nice,” accompanied by a leering grin.
“It usually leaves you just feeling very gross, because you, of course, have to giggle and brush it off as best you can,” she said. “You can’t really make a big deal out of it. Your literal job is to please these people.”
“I 100 percent weigh how violated and uncomfortable I felt versus the benefit that relationship was bringing to the client or the firm,” she continued. “Which really sucks. … But until everything changes, there’s a definite amount of bullshit I’m probably willing to accept.”