Eventually, every board has some sort of conflict—whether it’s a small disagreement or a large difference in the direction they want the nonprofit to take. The key to managing board conflict is to be proactive when the first signs of conflict develop, rather than waiting for it to snowball into a bigger problem. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
While every conflict is different, there are a few key principles we’ll discuss here to get you started with proactively preventing and managing conflict on your board. If you’re in need of help unraveling an issue on your board, please contact us for assistance.
1. Communicate compassionately and often.
Conflict in any interpersonal relationships often sprouts from miscommunication or misunderstanding between people. Ongoing silence during conflict often breeds passive aggressive behavior and resentment, so if anything, over-communicate, and ensure you’re not assuming anyone’s motives. If there is a one-on-one conflict, ensure the two people can speak with one another outside the context of the larger board meeting.
2. Clarify and firmly establish roles within the board.
In the early stages of conflict, it’s crucial for board officers and members to understand their role as a member of the board, and their role in any position they hold on the board. The law establishes some of the role of the board already, and following these guidelines can protect board members and the organization from liability should a major issue occur. Establish or revisit your board code of conduct and the descriptions for the roles within the board to ensure everyone is clear on their responsibilities and the boundaries. This prevents people overstepping roles or failing to accomplish their responsibilities due to ignorance of their role.
3. Create an environment that encourages differing viewpoints.
Many nonprofits are focused on encouraging diversity and inclusion within the board. One critical piece of this is encouraging differing perspectives. Rarely is there a group of people who truly agree on every facet of an issue. When a board becomes an echo-chamber of agreement, it’s often because people with diverse perspectives are being sidelined or feel as though their voice wouldn’t be heard. Though conflict can arise from opposing thoughts, it can also be solved in this way as well. If you create a culture where disagreeing respectfully is encouraged and brainstorming is open-ended, you can often reach more robust solutions that result in more people being pleased with the outcome.
4. Know when to bring in a neutral third party.
Nonprofit governance conflict is unique because often what’s at stake is a cause that matters deeply to everyone involved. Because of this, emotions and stakes can be higher than in a for-profit context. If you’ve reached a point when there isn’t anyone who is truly neutral on the issue and resolution isn’t being reached, bring in a neutral third party with experience in nonprofit conflict resolution. Often, a third party is able to ask questions and make suggestions that would be rejected if they were to come from a person within the conflict.
If you’re at the point of needing a third party or a conflict has evolved beyond what you can handle on your own, please request a consultation and we’re happy to see how we can help. Our sister company, Allies 4 Good, can also help you successfully manage a board of directors before conflict arises and create policies to ensure your board can handle disagreements as they come up.