responding to assault allegations

Is your organization prepared to respond if a prominent staff member or volunteer is accused of assaulting someone in your community? Four nonprofits found themselves in that position this week. Their responses can help other organizations contemplate responding to assault allegations – and how to better prevent them in the first place.

Birder Aisha White shared a tweet on February 15th that she was raped by a popular birder and a link to a detailed blog post where she shared the story of her experience in November 2020. In that tweet, she did not name the person, but did tag four nonprofit organizations and one business that had ties to the individual. Within a few hours, his name was made public.

If birding isn’t your thing, perhaps you didn’t know the name Jason Ward. But within this space, he was a very big name. He helped promote the event #BlackBirdersWeek, creating more racial inclusivity in the wake of a viral video of a white woman harassing a black man for birding in Central Park. He was featured in a Nissan commercial recently. (Though you won’t find it now, Nissan removed it less than 24 hours after the allegations came out.)

Within 24 hours, each of the tagged nonprofits had issued statements and ended any professional relationship they had with Jason Ward. This swift and decisive action is a great example of what a response to such a serious and credible allegation should look like.

Here are their responses:

Georgia Audubon responded early the next morning:

“Georgia Audubon was stunned and horrified by the accusations made by a woman that she was sexually assaulted by a Georgia Audubon field trip leader after initially meeting at one of our monthly trips. We take this accusation very seriously. The accused is not now and has never been an employee of Georgia Audubon. We have taken immediate steps to terminate our contract with him and will be cancelling upcoming field trips led by this individual.”

Audubon Naturalist Society tweeted:

“Statement from Lisa Alexander, Executive Director of the Audubon Naturalist Society, and Caroline Brewer, Chairwoman of the Taking Nature Black Conference: Due to the serious and criminal allegations of sexual assault that have arisen against a birder and panelist for the upcoming Taking Nature Black Conference, the Audubon Naturalist Society has rescinded its invitation to him to participate in the conference.”

American Bird Conservancy tweeted:

“Jason Ward is no longer employed at American Bird Conservancy following serious allegations of misconduct that are completely incompatible with ABC’s values. Please direct any questions to ABC’s Director of Public Relations, Jordan Rutter.”

The National Audubon Society also made a statement in support of Aisha and declared they had ended their relationship with Jason Ward “immediately and permanently.”

There are some actions other nonprofits can take now, looking at this situation, to be better prepared in case they face something similar.

Review Organizational Values

This is a good time for your nonprofit to review what its values are, and make sure they are in writing. These shouldn’t just be a pretty statement for your website, but a living piece of your organization’s culture.

Update Harassment Policies

Do you have harassment and sexual assault policies for your staff as well as volunteers? Do you have a process for reviewing and responding to assault allegations? Are your staff, volunteers, and clients familiar with them?

Schedule Trainings

Training staff and volunteers to better understand harassment and assault can make your organization a safer place. Even better than responding to assault allegations and misconduct is creating an environment where staff, volunteers, and clients are safe from harm.

Make a Plan for Responding to Assault Allegations

If your organization was tagged today in a similar post, how would you respond? Identify the people who would need to be involved in making decisions and writing statements, and how you will decide when and where to share those statements. This should be a small group of people. If your team talks it through now, you will be more prepared later.

What happens if it’s a weekend or a holiday? (February 15th, when Aisha sent her first tweet, was a Federal Holiday in the United States.) Are you monitoring social media so you are aware of these conversations? Have you defined when and how you conduct business after hours if it is needed?

In 2021, let’s all agree that there will be zero tolerance for harassment and assault within our organizations, and that responding to assault allegations like this will be swift and decisive. These four organizations demonstrated what solidarity with a victim looks like. As long as these experiences are still happening, let’s talk about them, and let’s support survivors without hesitation.

If you’re ready to arm your organization with a fully developed crisis communication plan, but you’re not sure where to start, look no further. You can download a free nonprofit crisis communications plan template.

Sarah Willey
Sarah Willey, MA, CFRE, SMS is an experienced fundraising professional with a passion for learning, teaching, and building community. She works as a coach and consultant with nonprofits across the US and Canada to build sustainable individual giving programs and write great communications. A lifelong learner, she holds a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis as well as the CFRE certification and a social media strategist (SMS) certification from the National Institute for Social Media, and is now pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration at the University of Missouri - St. Louis and expects to complete her dissertation in 2023. Sarah can be reached at sarah@sarahwilleyllc.com
Sarah Willey