Despite increasing attention to various aspects of sexual violence ranging from serial perpetrators like Bill Cosby, unacceptably high rates of sexual violence on college campuses, and clergy sexual abuse, the philanthropy community remains remarkably silent on this issue. Fewer than 35 foundations list sexual assault victim services or sexual abuse as an area of focus in their work in Foundation Directory Online. With 87,000 foundations with assets over $800 billion, this is a pretty abysmal response to an issue that impacts one out of four women and one out of six men in the United States.
Most foundations, by charter, have already established areas of focus that their board and leadership believe are the best use of their funds. Oftentimes, these leaders may not believe that their narrow area of focus intersects with sexual violence, and they are better off staying committed to their key area. Other times, they believe that sexual violence is a women’s issue impacted a marginalized group of people in minor ways, rather than a pervasive human challenge facing every organization and community across the country.
Beyond a handful of dedicated and brave funders, few have stepped into leadership roles on the issue of sexual violence. Over 50,000 foundations list education as a field of interest while 16,000 list health. There are 780 community foundations nationwide that give away over $5 billion each year focused on specific geographic locations. Beyond financial support, foundation leaders and board members can help shape and influence the public’s response to critical community challenges.
The truth is that sexual violence is central to many more mainstream funding areas like public health, foster case, housing and homelessness, and juvenile justice, to name a few. According to the Adverse Childhood Experience Study, exposure to sexual violence as a child has long-term implications for physical health, as well as mental health. While these connections are well-documented, few foundations focused on heart disease, diabetes, or obesity view sexual violence prevention and response as a part of their own work to eliminate these chronic conditions and diseases.
There is also new evidence to suggest that sexual abuse is actually a predictor of whether a girl will become involved in the juvenile justice system, setting off a vicious cycle of ignoring and reacting to trauma that can last a lifetime. A recent report, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline, found that rates of sexual abuse and violence among incarcerated girls ranged from 31-81%, depending on the study. Despite a rise in attention on juvenile justice reform from major foundations like MacArthur and Annie E. Casey, the issue of sexual abuse and violence remains silent, or talked about in coded terms like mental health issues or traumatic experiences.
These are just two examples of ways in which addressing sexual violence can help advance other pressing social issues at the same time. Many adolescents enter the foster care system or experience homelessness as a result of sexual abuse or assault at home, and then face a greater risk of sexual violence while homeless or in the foster care setting. America’s Promise Alliance’s work on high school graduation emphasized the need for safe spaces that allow children to learn and thrive. For 15-25% of high school students, those problems include sexual abuse or violence.
Across the country, in board rooms, foundation staff meetings, and in the nonprofit organizations and communities they serve, the statistics are the same. We are all impacted by sexual violence, in visible and invisible ways, and can do more to advance this critical issue.
As a foundation professional, ask yourself: How does sexual violence impact my work? This issue is not as distant as you might think.