Nonprofits Are Not Immune From Conflict

Contrary to popular belief, nonprofits operate like any other business. Problems can arise from similar financial, marketing and technology issues. And, there are personnel issues as well.

At nonprofits, conflicts sometimes arise between the executive director and one or more board of directors’ members. Dissent at the highest level of leadership can be a difficult distraction if it is not resolved.

In most instances, it seems as though the conflict is caused by (1) a perception that board members are volunteers who are 100 percent committed to the cause while the executive director is a paid employee who is not as dedicated, (2) a board member who thinks a generous donation entitles her/him to control  how the organization operates, (3) a change in the make-up of the board, or (4) the executive director is perceived to have a closer relationship with certain board members.

At its core, it is likely that the conflict occurred because the roles and duties of the executive director, board members and board president are not clearly defined. At most nonprofits, the board is responsible for identifying the strategies that will best allow the nonprofit to fulfill its mission and the executive director is charged with directing those activities (e.g., fundraising efforts, volunteers) so that the nonprofit’s mission is achieved. The executive director is also charged with overseeing daily operations, including maintaining records and complying with government regulations.

In practice, however, these roles often overlap. The overlap is where conflicts can arise.

No matter the source of the conflict, the situation is uncomfortable, so people try to avoid dealing with it directly. The strange thing about conflict, though, is that avoiding it does not make it go away.

The only solution is working at resolving it.

Here are some best practices for undertaking the conflict resolution process:

1. Have a Conversation

Conversations about the conflict should be done in person. There is more room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation when difficult conversations happen over the phone or email. In addition, the parties have the advantage of reading body language when they are face-to-face.

2. Bring in a Neutral Third Party

If possible, have a neutral third party at the meeting to help facilitate the conversation. The third party can be the board chair (if that person is not involved in the conflict) or an outside mediator.

  1. The mediator should speak to each party before the meeting to gain an understanding of why the parties feel the way they do.
  2. Keep the conversation on track. There should be no discussion of any topic other than resolution of the conflict.
  3. The mediator should be able to diffuse the situation should the parties become emotional.

3. Be Informal & Confidential

The meeting should be informal and confidential. No minutes or reports; only an action plan.

4. Transparency is Key

Even if the parties think their conflict is private, the entire organization probably is aware of it. It is important to be transparent about the fact that the parties are working toward a resolution.

Difficult conversations are hard, but that does not mean they should be delayed. For the good of the organization, time should be set aside for coming to a resolution.

For more information on how we can help your organization, please visit our not-for-profit services page.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss further, please contact one of our Not-for-Profit Partners, Thomas DartnellAnthony RispoliChristabel Valladares, or Christopher Perrotta at (973) 298-8500.


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