One of my friends called me last week to discuss a rather delicate issue. Her boss, a married man, was having an affair with a junior member of their team. Moral issues aside, she was concerned that this was interfering with his work and therefore all of theirs! Now you may wonder what is so shocking about this? It happens in most organizations. True... But what is different here is that this was happening in an organization that is part of the nonprofit sector.
The nonprofit sector runs on funds donated for a specific cause. It employs a large number of professionals to manage these funds effectively and the degree of accountability in terms of trusteeship is very high. Misuse of funds in this context does not exactly mean embezzlement or fraud. It can also mean misusing time, romancing at work! Time, which is paid for by the public to reflect, analyze and work on development issues.
Well, the government is also funded by citizens you say. Don’t they waste their time and our money every day? But there is a small difference - the NGO sector is defined and driven by a set of values and principles. Unlike the government, they do something because they WANT to and not because they HAVE to!
But reality is rather different. As a person who has worked for nearly two decades in this sector I have seen and heard about a lot of such instances.
While extra marital affairs with colleagues is one side of the story, there is another more gory side to this. Something that happens very often in organizations that are closer to the grassroots. Many of these organizations, particularly those that work with women, employ a lot of local girls and women as field workers. Most of them have just a secondary or high school education, come from poor families and are often very dependent on their job Such girls and women become ideal targets for sexual exploitation by their bosses, who are usually the heads of these small organizations.
I have come across at least two such cases in my work with a micro finance institution. The organization that I was working for used to provide funds to smaller organizations to support micro finance programs for rural women. We provided a lot of training support to the staff of these small organizations so that they could run their programs more efficiently. Most of these training programs were run on very tight budgets so that the bulk of the money could go as loans for the rural women. It was during one such training program that I noticed something rather shocking. The training in question was being held at Bangalore at a modestly priced training centre. Accommodation was on a twin sharing basis. We had equal numbers of men and women participants and had already informed the training centre and participants about the room allotments. However, when I arrived there I found the manager of the training centre in a tizzy! Two of the participants, a man and a woman were sharing a room messing up the carefully planned room allotments. While logistics was the immediate issue to be tackled, what was worrying me seriously was something different. The couple who were sharing a room were from a small NGO in Tamil Nadu. The man was the head of the organization and the woman the micro finance program manager of his organization. I knew for a fact that she was not his wife. She was a long standing employee. A bright young woman, she had started out as a field worker and moved on to become a program manager. She was a single parent supporting her old father and two children. The job was obviously important to her.
I wanted to get her alone to ask her if she was being coerced into sharing her boss’s room (and probably his bed too). But both she and her boss were doing a very good job of avoiding me through the entire three days of our stay there. They also missed most of the sessions preferring to roam around Bangalore instead.
The second case was in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh. I was visiting the branch office of a grassroots level micro finance organization. After I had completed my review with the efficient young branch manager, she invited me for lunch to her house which was located just behind the office. This was my first visit to her home. As we entered the house her little daughter came running out to meet her mother. When I looked at the child I was taken aback! The child was an exact replica of her father – the head of the organization! I was a bit confused because I had met earlier what I thought was his family – his wife and two grown up sons. Well obviously, that was just one of his families... He told me later that he had also “married” this woman because the branch was so remotely located that it was not possible to “retain good staff”- a unique and innovative step I must say to tackle the issue of high staff turnover!
When I brought up these cases with the head of my organization, a lady who was always mouthing jargons around women’s rights, I was told to “leave it”. I was very disturbed because in the first instance even if the room sharing was consensual, it was a clear case of misuse of funds as the couple in question were not attending the training for which they were funded (travel, boarding and lodging being paid through bilateral aid given to our organization) while the second case was blatant sexual exploitation of a vulnerable young woman. I also realized the reason behind my boss’s refusal to do anything about it. Both these grassroots organizations were fairly good performers on the ground and their results reflected on our overall performance. They were crucial in helping us earn a good name with the donor which would set the stage for some more funding in the future…!!
However not all organizations react similarly to such issues. Another organization that I had worked with had a program for sex workers. One of the sex workers complained to us one day that a staff member wanted to utilize her professional services. The organization took swift action on this and sacked the man almost immediately, after an inquiry. This man was a medical doctor and it would have been difficult to hire another one with his qualifications on the modest salary that a nonprofit can pay. He was very indignant when questioned,saying that he had done nothing wrong by seeking the professional services of a sex worker – after all wasn’t that what they did for a living? And he had also offered to pay for her services! However it was explained to him at the time of his dismissal that while they may choose to earn their living by selling sex, as a person who was working for an organization that was committed to their development, it was ethically and morally incorrect for him to solicit their services. It amounted to misusing his power as a representative of an organization that was their support system.
Working in the nonprofit sector is a very challenging proposition. It is a world where the personal and professional selves cannot be kept part. You cannot work on an issue unless you feel strongly about it. It sometimes calls for setting an example in terms of being the change that you want to bring about. However opportunities for straying are also more in this context. It is easy for colleagues working in or traveling together to remote locations to get attracted to each other and enter into a relationship. It is also easy for a male boss / colleague to misuse power over a female employee/ colleague under those circumstances. After all, as woman, where would you go if he makes sexual advances at you when you are in a speeding vehicle going down a highway or spending the night in some hotel in a small town? Ofcourse one can take it up later but these organizations, I am sorry to say react exactly in the same way as other organizations do when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment at the work place. It is because of this that most women are hesitant to complain.
While there are strict financial audit systems to control mismanagement of funds, the sector does not have similar control systems with respect to the other problems. I sometimes feel, for many in the sector it is a case of the doctor getting infected with the virus that s/he sets out to treat. All these organizations work with very vulnerable groups and are extremely revered by the communities they work with. This often gives their representatives of a feeling of power. Power as we know takes on a life of its own making people believe that they can get away with anything. So they become the new group of exploiters in a community that is already facing various forms of exploitation. It starts with exploiting vulnerable staff members and sometimes goes out to exploit the people whose lives they are supposed to protect from exploitation!
While most of the non profits do have HR policies and systems to prevent such exploitation, the implementation leaves much to be desired. To be able to adhere to ethics or a value system, one has to often forego something. While in theory it seems good, in practice it is very difficult. It would mean losing efficient staff, good funding opportunities etc. So what many of them do, is try to hush up these issues or turn a blind eye to it hoping that it would die a natural death.
In my twenty odd years in the sector, I have often been surprised that while many of the NGOs take up issues relating to different forms of exploitation of women they rarely discuss the exploitation that goes on within their own circles. Unless they are able to put their own house in order they run the risk of losing credibility and being called hypocrites. It is this hypocrisy that is dangerous because it would ultimately work towards justifying anything .. exploitation included!