Managing Alleged Survivors Abuse Claims

Authors: Peter Persuitti Dr. Steven Dranoff


Nonprofits, both secular and faith-based, serve some of the most difficult societal circumstances (food insecurity, homelessness, foster care, poverty, drug addiction, developmentally delayed and vulnerable constituencies), and we saw demands for their services skyrocket during the prolonged pandemic. We are so grateful for their vital role in society and see tremendous promise for the future. Youth-serving organizations in particular have a keystone role in the long-term development of our society and are called to do all they can to ensure a positive, formative experience.

We recognize the human condition of failure, and we must always be on guard as communities of caregivers to protect vulnerable people from abuse. Nothing can bring back a life impacted by life-changing harm or abuse. We have headlines about catastrophic abuse, often about incidents that happened many years ago. While these incidents are horrific, they are the exception, not the rule.

Carriers, board members and organizations read these headlines and immediately extrapolate without the full context. Of course, we should never be satisfied that our youth-serving organizations may not have had reported incidents of malfeasance. In some ways, a healthy organization has effective reporting mechanisms and proactive training, and reporting is a good thing, in terms of being proactive, addressing the problem and caring for the alleged survivor as soon as possible and with the utmost of empathy. Recall the potential vicious cycle of an abused becoming an abuser.

Let's look at where we are today with this societal expectation of ensuring safe environments and lift up some elements of confidence that the future will be better:

  • We continue to learn more each day about the nature of this risk — amazing advances have been made in our many years of working in this area. We are even looking at credentialing (similar to so many organizations overseen by the Council on Accreditation) for organizations that truly live out the standards of care. Like most effective brands, this credential will say something powerful: "We ARE a safe environment!" It will never make us perfect, but our intentions will be in front of our eyes every day as part of our brand.
  • "As leaders, we have to find ways to bring our employees together, to create the fertile soil that enables empathy to grow."1 Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO, Society for Human Resource Management
    We can't fix the past. We as leaders have inherited the history of our organizations — its former leaders, staff, volunteers — and research has clearly shown that something abnormal (bell curve) occurred in the 80s and early 90s to cause a breach in the dike of safety. We are gifted today with more informed data and research, and as a result, public opinion and civil authorities have taken a no-tolerance position. In fact, such alleged breaches are crimes and must be reported.
  • We have moved from compliance to commitment. In the 21st Century, we began to have checklists of requirements for safe environments that were noble and in many cases dutifully documented. It was a great step in the right direction. But the safety of vulnerable populations ultimately is much more than a checklist — it's a cultural shift and mindset that is pervasive throughout the organization and broader community. This latent evil lurks and needs all of us working together, including our local first responders.
  • We can look forward and make this pursuit of excellence an everyday mindset. We will always want to protect our organizations name, brand and reputation, but now we see the core of our organizations is our mission to protect youth (any vulnerable stakeholders) and to foster tomorrow's leaders. Many nonprofits have successfully invested in victim advocacy coordinators (VACs), a role at the cornerstone of an empathetic organization.
  • It's not if, but when. To that end, just like fire drills are a way to plan and prepare for an incident — thus saving as many lives and assets as possible — as part of our strategic planning, we as organizations need to plan for situations that are troubling. We must be prepared to confront allegations or reports in minutes and hours, given the potential damage caused from misinformation or silence. Public opinion has now surpassed the court of law in terms of catastrophic issues such as abuse.
  • Insurance is not the answer to the problem. It's a risk transfer mechanism that could be helpful, mindful it is complex when it comes to this exposure — and it is shifting every day. Terms like occurrence and claims-made, retro dates and tail coverage, diminishing definitions of coverage terms and bodily injury, and vanishing retro dates are like shifting sand.
  • Notice how carriers have significantly reduced limits of coverage, for example. Why? Have we given plaintiffs targets to pursue? Has social inflation turned this into a catastrophic risk? Again, we emphasize that no price can be put on a vulnerable person harmed. Youth organizations CAN and MUST make this aspect of their environment front and center of all they do. This defensible position will allow our youth-serving organizations to confront these assaults with good conscience. Each alleged breach will be an opportunity to mobilize our empathy and advocacy resources to reduce the longstanding harm.
  • Our organizations know their people, their processes and their mission, and we must use confidence in this area to take on this responsibility. We also must use science, and we have been fortunate to partner for many years with Dr. Steve Dranoff, a psychologist and creator of Risky Business. Dr. Dranoff, our consulting partner, presented a case study of building a culture of empathy in a large nonprofit at the 2022 Convocation in New Orleans. Our focus should be on creating an empathetic community that is equipped with resources and awareness. It begins with an understanding of the brain and the way people think. We also must recognize that the brain is like a muscle that must be given exercise and nutrition — education and recurring training. We see tremendous potential to use Dr. Dranoff's research and data and proven theories to actually score organizations and communities in terms of its empathy score.

Like any human situation, there is imperfection in our midst, and much of it lies in the obscure dark world — now permeating cyber space as well. We can't abandon society's needs, given the risks these threats pose. Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) thinking lifts up risk as an opportunity as well, and incorporating ideas presented here, customized to the context always, offers a promising path forward for everyone. It has to begin with the nonprofit's leadership and it has to be an engaging concept that permeates the culture with empathy as the focused mindset2. Time to make that commitment, to build confidence through empathy — education, training and living it out.

Empathy at the heart of our organization.

Author Information


1Taylor, Johnny C. "Eliminating the Empathy Deficit," Chief Executive, 21 Jan 2022.

2Brower, Tracy. "Empathy Is the Most Important Leadership Skill According to Research," Forbes, Sept 2021

To learn more

Visit Dr. Stephan Dranoff's Risky Business website to learn about his 30+ years of partnering with schools and nonprofits to teach empathy.


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