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We need to talk about Kevin (and others)

Worried woman

Assistant Director and Senior Learning & Development Consultant Yvette Gyles blogs on a particularly sensitive issue faced by some fundraising professionals.

Barely a day seems to go by where I don’t hear discussions about gender issues and relationship boundaries being overstepped in the work place. Staff in some charities and non-profits are being asked to do all sorts of things in order to secure funding. They are being made to feel like they should do the wrong thing in the name of doing the right thing – and this is just not acceptable[i] What is fortunate, is that people are now talking about these difficult topics and highlighting the problem.

Sometimes however, the discussions I hear on training courses are not about sinister behaviours or even unacceptable behaviours.  In fact, they are often more about getting side-tracked into personal areas of conversation, rather than focusing on the topic at hand.

For example, on one course I heard a participant talking about the difficulties she’d had with Kevin – and indeed Ashley, Sanjit and Helen too. The problem was that whenever she had a meeting with one of her very important corporate donors, they would overstep the mark. Now this wasn’t about her gender, or about harassment – these people were telling her their life stories, the problems they had with their boss, the misery they faced at home and even how their marriages were breaking down. The meetings were inadvertently turning into a series of counselling sessions – and in income terms, were becoming increasingly unproductive. The boundaries had gone, and the fundraiser was left feeling deflated and out of control.

Setting professional boundaries is important no matter what your role. But in some jobs in the charity and non-profit sector so much of what we do is dependent on strong, genuine, relationships – and so those boundaries can get a bit blurry. And sometimes the blurring seems to go all one way. So, what happens when you’re a fundraiser and your donor oversteps the mark, and suddenly Kevin is your new BFF – even if you don’t really want to be his?

Apparently this situation isn’t, unfortunately, unusual – particularly for people at the start of their fundraising career. And I know from my own experience that a lot of people in HR, administration and customer service can get caught here too.

In a working relationship where there’s a significant gap in the perceived status of the people involved – whether it’s age, power, authority, or wealth – it’s easy for that relationship to become unbalanced. In such cases the ‘junior partner’ feels they need to be amiable, caring, attentive – and grateful – to the other person, even if that person behaves inappropriately and starts to over-share. The solution is not to ignore the situation in the hopes it will stop. Rather:

  1. Acknowledge it’s happening, and do something about it. This is really important if the imbalance is causing the relationship to fail because this means there is no longer a service being delivered, or funds being raised. It’s time to move from rapport and relationship building, to a more measured approach.
  2. Pay attention to your own behaviour. Are you asking questions that allow the other person to indulge in personal off-loading? Or being too empathetic, and need to be a bit more dispassionate? Consciously steer the conversation away from personal topics. Instead of “How are things at home now?” try “I hope you are well? I saw this interesting bit of news on your website – have you been involved in that?” And be mindful of your non-verbal communication. Sit up straight to show you are being formal but friendly – rather than relaxed. Keep your tone and style professional.
  3. It may be useful to state the purpose of each meeting at the start. “I know you are very busy, so I don’t want to take up too much of your time. What I’d like to do in this meeting is [list agenda items].” Send an agenda in advance and ask them to feed in anything they would like to cover.
  4. Bring someone else to the meeting. I had a colleague that was asked by someone to join a meeting where they were finding the relationship difficult. Adding a third person changes the dynamic, which in turn can diffuse the personal aspect and get the relationship back onto the professional.

The key to resolving these situations is to reflect on what you can do to change the relationship. And not to let it continue. A relationship is two-way. You have the right to control the boundaries as much as the other person – whatever their status.

We all have the right to feel safe and comfortable at work, and to be respected for what we do. Follow these 4 steps to make sure you are maintaining a professional boundary.

If however that does not work, and you are being made to feel uncomfortable, that is not ok. To get some support, speak to a trusted colleague, your line manager or HR and report what has happened. You have the right to say no, and the right to ask for help. For more ideas on how to build productive relationships at work, check out our communications programmes such as Developing Personal Presence. Or call us on 020 7978 1516 to talk to one of our experienced consultants about in-house training or personal coaching.

[i] see and  for more blogs on this topic.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in personal effectiveness, change and innovation, and leadership development. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as...


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