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!   


  1. Interesting read .. And yes it is so very true that power gets to the head of the people and their behavior changes tracks .You have aptly summarized it in the last line.. Do you have any ideas how it could be tackled? One thing that comes to my mind is strict HR policy being implemented...

  2. Well said .we see such hypocrisy everywhere.

  3. Wow, that was quite some post, giving us quite a detailed insight into workplace affairs and probable exploitation of women employees by men in the NGO sector. And like you say, the same NGO chiefs who give a lot of lip service to Womens' Rights etc turn a blind eye to all the goings on. Well, then it is quite obvious that end of day the NGO sector also wants to brush up all the dirty aspects under the carpet as it will direct impact their ability to get funding. It looks like this sector also has become just like any other corporate sector nowadays. Thanks a lot for having the guts to blog about this.

  4. Namaste:
    Unfortunately there is nothing that she should really not unless she is willing to face the consequence that will come as a result of her telling. Make no mistake there will be a consequence to her. Is it right, no. is it fun to bear witness to such duplicity, no, however in this case I'd say, "mind your business." If it’s absolutely abhorrent for her to bare then she can very quietly begin to job search for employment elsewhere though the chances of her encountering things she doesn't like or agree with morally is slim. We cannot tell people how to govern their lives even when what they are doing is distasteful and immoral.

    stay blessed.

  5. Interesting post. I am a very senior level executive for one of the large international corporations in USA. Married man having extramarital affair is a bad idea. But having the same affair in the office is a definite no no. As the famous American saying goes “You don’t sh*t where you eat”. This is called moral turpitude. I will immediate terminate the person (if moral turpitude is proved) immediately no matter how excellent he/she in his/her work. Most of the organization (for profit or non profit) will do the same thing in USA.

    Also, that is not good for the organization. Tomorrow, the lady may bring sexual harassment suit against her manager. In such a suit, the organization (and not the individual) is responsible for the damages. Therefore, organization will not tolerate such behavior.

    Want to end this with a funny real story. A manager had an affair with his subordinate. She sued the company for sexual harassment. Finally, we agreed to pay a huge compensation as settlement. Then we fired that manager. They both got married a few weeks later.

  6. I appreciate your concern about work efficiency. True, such things should be stopped for both professional and personal reasons.

  7. If two adults have consensual affair it should not matter so long as it is not at the expense of NGO's time,money and efficiency. NGO is no moral police of its employees or beneficiaries for what they do after office hours.It is for the affected parties,say spouse/parents,to take up the matter with appropriate authorities.
    But it is another thing to coerce vulnerable people who are subordinates or beneficiaries of NGO into submission and such things should be put down with a heavy hand.I am sure the rules of NGOs provide enough muscle to deal with such errant behaviour and action taken without mercy.
    You have brought out the widely prevalent malaise in the society and the need to eschew exploitation of the vulnerable sections.

  8. @ KP having an affair with a colleague is usually not allowed in professional NGOs. Infact if they decide to get married one of them has to leave.

    @ SG what a story!!! You know in India people are very lax about many professional ethics. Organizations that work in both India and the US may behave differently in dealing with a problem even if the rules are the same.

  9. @ Simple girl, HR systems exist but they extent to which they are implemented varies. In the smaller organizations the HR policies are sometimes non existent. They are all single person driven and what s/he says is the law.

    @ Mahabore it is people who populate organizations and therefore the same vices are seen everywhere I guess!

  10. Having a clear policy against sexual harassment / exploitation (SHE) is one thing; to be able to gather irrefutable evidence against a person on whom a complaint is lodged is quite another. Instances of SHE are, for want of a better word, clandestine. In an enquiry, evidence usually boils down to "A's word against B" and at best can be circumstantial. Whether a complaint is genuine or not would then depend on who the enquirer wants to believe. The best that can be done during an enquiry is to record statements as objectively as possible & look for any contradictions which may only suggest who is or isn't genuine. Since disciplinary actions in such cases and the collateral social damages are drastic, it becomes imperative that conclusions from an enquiry are based on concrete evidence and are devoid of subjectivity.

    Clear, transparent policies on recruitment, promotions, transfers etc can prevent instances of quid pro quo to a large extent, which are common in cases of SHE. Finally, building a trust between the management and staff can encourage a victimized person to raise the issue with the concerned management.

    This is one of the reasons why some of the funding organizations / INGOs insist that clear policies are in practice with NGOs before getting into a partnership with them. Does it work? I don't have the answer.

  11. Meera, let me begin my brief comment by saying that the post was revealing and thoughtful.
    I’m sure you have seen many a matter that can be made into beautiful and telling accounts, tales.
    I enjoyed reading the Post.
    As for the exploitation of women, doesn’t it happen everywhere non-profit or otherwise?

  12. Thanks Christopher you have brought out a very important point here. The ability to implement a policy objectively. While professionally managed NGOs might have better policies around this piece the grassroots organizations are really wanting in the area. There needs to be some way to ensure that these organizations, many of which are family fiefdoms implement these policies and also have some place where these women who are harrassed can take their case when their bosses refuse to believe them. (as they might themselves be the perpetrators )

  13. @Anil, yes, the exploitation of women happens every where but one would expect that NGOS would set an example as they deal with solving social problems.

  14. Such an interesting and insightful post with clear and interesting examples of how sexual harassment / exploitation is taking place in organizations. I found myself feeling shocked and somewhat outraged as I continued reading the post.

    In most organizations, everyone talks big about policy but just as you have cited here, the practical aspects don't necessarily support the so-called policy. This means that inquiry, if it is conducted in the first place, i.e. justice. In most organizations, the dilemma or the grey area is about determining whether a complaint is genuine or not. Even if the HR does record statements in a systematic way, the conclusions tend to be based on subjective experience of those involved in conducting the inquiry. Could this be due to vested interests or sheer ignorance of how to conduct disciplinary inquiry?


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