Dealing Effectively with Nonprofit Board Conflicts
From Vince Hyman, former Publishing Director, Fieldstone Alliance:
Ahhh, the holiday season. The air is crisp. Streets and sidewalks are a blur of activity. Towns are lit with holiday cheer. And everywhere, everywhere, everywhere people have too much to do. Annual budgets, fund drives, staff parties, visiting relatives. Seems like each day brings on yet another unfulfillable commitment. And the board needs their fruitcake.
Time is tight, and tempers get short. What better time to look at everyone's least favorite topic: conflict?
Today's Tools You Can Use is excerpted and adapted from pages 114-120 of our McAdam Award Winning book, Resolving Conflict in Nonprofit Organizations: The Leader's Guide to Finding Constructive Solutions by Marion Peters Angelica, PhD.
This is one of our most fascinating and complex books. The author's philosophy is that conflict has great constructive potential, and the leader's job is to help harness that. Marion, now Dean of School Public Policy and Administration at Walden University (www.waldenu.edu), has experience in nonprofit management, public policy management, and conflict mediation. As a Fulbright Scholar, she worked on evaluating conflict resolution trainings offered to Greek and Turkish Cypriots. She is uniquely qualified to address conflict in nonprofit organizations.
The Two Main Types of Board Conflicts
Board conflicts are among the most challenging conflicts a
nonprofit executive faces. They generally come in two forms—conflicts among board
members and conflicts between the board and professional management of the organization,
either the executive or the staff. Both of these difficult situations require special
Conflict among board members
Most executives value board members' constructive disagreements
about what is best for the organization. But they fear the times when these disagreements
become destructive. Many board members also dislike conflicts, so much so that they
frequently abdicate their board responsibilities rather than deal with them.
A 1994 study of the members of over fifty boards in Minnesota reported that avoiding conflict is the most common reason for members' resignations.1 So, it's imperative that the nonprofit both manage the conflict to a resolution and keep as many board members as possible committed to your organization.
Facilitating a conflict among board members holds a real danger for an executive. He or she frequently ends up caught in the choppy waters between warring bosses. It's a set up to sink no matter what the outcome. In a board conflict, it is nearly impossible for an executive to maintain each board member's belief in his or her impartiality. And that trust is essential for a good working relationship and for constructive conflict resolution.
Even if the executive has strong ideas about the issues dividing a board, it is wise to let the board chair take the lead in resolving conflicts within the board. After all, managing the board is the chair's job. Unfortunately, many chairs do not understand or accept the full scope of their responsibilities. And many would rather not deal with conflict even when they understand that it is their role.
The emotional element in board conflicts
Emotional rancor often accompanies board conflicts. A discussion
that begins as a difference in members' views on a business issue can quickly become
intense and personal. Public embarrassment perpetuates the dispute even when the conflict
can be settled easily.
When exchanges get negative and personal, two things happen.
- The board members in conflict have increasing difficulty communicating constructively, and
- Uninvolved board members become increasingly uncomfortable watching the negative exchanges.
If left to simmer, unaddressed by the board chair, this conflict can destroy a board.
One of the most frequently used strategies in board conflicts is private meetings. This is not done to keep the board conflict a secret but for the comfort of both the disputing parties and the uninvolved board members.
To conduct a private meeting, the board chair can use shuttle diplomacy, speaking privately with individual board members. Also, he or she can bring a limited number of disagreeing members together privately for a facilitated discussion outside of the boardroom. This can be especially helpful when a board conflict is among only a few of the board members.
However, the number of members a chair can convene without the meeting becoming an official board meeting is affected by the organization's quorum stipulations. If the number of people in the conflict constitutes a quorum, it is a formal meeting of the board and all members should be invited to attend. If uninvolved members know the meeting topic, they can choose whether to attend, but they should not be excluded.
When a conflict that includes loss of face (the result of being belittled or shamed) erupts in a board meeting and is then resolved privately, be sure that the noninvolved members who witnessed the confrontation know that it has been resolved. Otherwise, they may be confused or believe that important decisions are being made behind their backs. The board chair can simply state that the problems between the disagreeing members have been cleared up.
If you are an executive with a board chair who will accept the conflict manager role, willingly or reluctantly, thank your lucky stars. Support the chair by coaching him or her on conflict analysis, process design, and other skills. However, no matter how much analysis or coaching you provide, the board chair must take the lead in managing the conflict.
When the board chair can't help
Don't be surprised to find board leaders uncomfortable with
conflict and its management. When the board chair can't or won't help, you might seek
another leader. A vice chair might fill this role, although members may ask why the
chair is not managing the conflict. This can undermine the chair's authority, which you
want to avoid. A highly respected past board chair or board member can be a good choice.
Whoever you choose, the person should have conflict management skills, be well regarded
by all the parties, be viewed as impartial toward the parties and be objective about the
If neither current nor past board leaders are willing or able to manage the conflict, consider using a skilled mediator. Most communities have access to community, nonprofit, and for-profit mediation organizations. Search under the terms mediation, conflict, and arbitration.
Conflict between board and executive or staff
Conflicts between the executive or other staff and the board are
extremely delicate. First, a significant power imbalance exists, since the board is the
executive's employer. Second, the executive is the bridge between the board and staff and
must understand and represent these groups' differing viewpoints to each other. This can
be as tricky as walking the plank without taking a plunge!
An executive can wind up in conflict with the board in three ways:
- When staff conflict is brought to the board;
- When direct conflict exists between the executive and some or all of the board members; and
- When a staff person makes an end run, bypassing the executive and bringing an issue directly to the board.
When staff conflict is brought to the board
A staff conflict brought before the board can ensnare the
executive, causing him or her to lose the board's confidence. To the board, the executive
represents staff leadership, and is responsible for maintaining staff productivity and
harmony. Given this, board members tend to regard staff conflicts brought to them as an
indication of a deficiency in the executive's management skills. Board members often resent
having to manage staff conflicts—after all, they did not donate their leisure time
to resolve staff battles.
Even so, the board should step in when efforts to resolve a conflict at the staff level have not succeeded. When you bring a staff conflict to the board, outline the nature of the problem and explain the process you want to board to use. If the issue requires confidentiality, explain the organization's obligation to maintain confidentiality.
Often the board chair or personnel committee assume the role of hearing and resolving staff conflicts that come before the board. If your organization's bylaws or the charters of your subcommittees authorize the personnel or executive committee to handle conflicts, activate one of these committees. If not, encourage the board to delegate the task to one of these two committees. There are three reasons for this. First, the use of a subcommittee gives the organization two chances for internal conflict resolution before turning to an outside agency—first through the subcommittee, and then through the full board if necessary. Second, the use of a subcommittee contains the information about the conflict, keeping it more confidential. Finally, the use of a subcommittee frees the rest of the board to attend to the organization's other important business.
One caveat: If a conflict is brought to the board and delegated to a subcommittee, all board members must understand the benefits of having a subcommittee handle the conflict. If uninvolved board members don't fully understand why it is prudent that only a few board members know the full details of the conflict, they can feel excluded. Also, the full board should be told the outcome of the conflict (not the details) and its implications for the organization.
When board and executive are in direct conflict
When an executive director is in serious direct conflict with the
board, he or she usually "loses" and may resign or be fired. Occasionally
the whole board resigns and the executive establishes a new board that supports him or her.
In either case, the organization usually loses momentum, continuity, expertise, and
leadership. Additionally, a conflict resolved in this way is likely to cost the organization
money, the confidence of its staff, and its good name—perhaps its most valuable
Few such conflicts erupt suddenly. Usually they are preceded by smaller conflicts that, if not handled well, erode the confidence or trust between the board and the executive. Handling small conflicts when they occur is important because once a direct conflict breaks out between board and executive, it is extremely difficult to resolve.
When a significant conflict develops between the executive and the board, rapid action and professional help are called for. Clearly an executive cannot manage a conflict in which he or she is a party. Neither can the board chair. In this case an external resource is the best option. Some choices include
- A mediator
- An organizational consultant with conflict management skills
- The organization's previous board chair, executive, or similar leader
When considering these resources, be sure that they will be viewed as unbiased by all parties.
There is little to be optimistic about when resolving conflicts between the executive and board. Often, such conflicts quickly become a battle of wills and wiles. This is precisely the type of situation where a neutral outsider can help, but nonprofit leaders need to have enough knowledge about and confidence in the conflict resolution process—in advance of needing it —to know that the process can only help, not hurt, their situation.
If the board and executive know about conflict resolution processes and, for the sake of the organization, are willing to try to mediate their conflict, they must first work together to select a mediator. In this situation the key criterion is that the person be viewed as neutral—someone all the parties already know and trust equally or someone previously unknown to the board and executive.
When staff makes an end run
Sometimes, staff make an end run and bring a staff conflict to
the board directly. A staff end run can have serious repercussions—splitting up board
members, creating ill will between executive and board, and disrupting the organization.
Both new employees and board members needed to be told during orientation that the
executive director is the point person for the board of directors.
In some larger organizations, staff are not allowed to communicate with board members. In smaller and more informal organizations, there is no such restriction—but in all cases, the policy should keep the executive director informed of any interactions with board members.
When an end run occurs, the executive needs to talk with the board members and the staff involved about the board-staff communications policy. A naïve staff person is easily educated, but one who is unwilling to follow protocol is another matter.
Staff who understand the way executives work with the board generally make end runs when they feel the executive isn't supporting them and believe all other avenues are closed. Because end runs are risky and put them in direct conflict with the executive, a staff person has to be very desperate or angry to take the chance. In general, this means the staff person and the executive are probably involved in an unresolved conflict. It's imperative to work through the conflict that motivated the staff member to risk an end run. Such a conflict will likely require the assistance of a mediator for resolution.
It is also important to remind the staff person about your expectations that he or she follow the organization's communication policy—and to discuss the consequences of disregarding the policy. This discussion should be documented. Disciplinary action (based on the written personnel policy) may be required, but it should be used sparingly because the goal is to set a positive tone for settling the dispute, not to fuel the fire.
It's equally imperative to immediately talk with the board members who were involved in the end run—about the substance of the concern raised by the staff member, how you are handling the conflict, and the problems created by not following existing communication policies. Don't be surprised if they are unaware of the policy or the reasons it exists.
Your first goal is to get the issue off the board table until you and the staff person have made every effort to work through the conflict. Depending on your board's policies and on their involvement in the conflict, you may then have to bring the resolution before the board for approval. Your second goal is to regain the trust of the board members involved. Honest communication is the best route to rebuilding their confidence in you. If your efforts to resolve the conflict fail, you should be the person to bring the conflict to the board.
Best Bet—Train the Board BEFORE Conflicts Get Negative
Given the inevitability of conflict in nonprofits, board members
need to know how to have constructive conflicts. The executive is the person who must help
them better understand conflict and develop ways to disagree constructively—
before serious conflicts erupt. Healthy conflict on a board can stimulate creativity
and strengthen the organization. Training your board in the processes of healthy conflict
is always a worthwhile investment of the organization's resources. For more information
on how to do that, see Marion's book.
December 7, 2005
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