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Handling Conflict Between Nonprofit Directors and Board Members

Say it isn’t so! Your executive director and a board member are not getting along. Conflict between nonprofit directors and board members is happens more often than you think… But what’s a director to do?

Handling Conflict Between Nonprofit Directors and Board Members

Conflict Can Be Common in the Nonprofit World

There is often a misconception that nonprofits are the most harmonious places on earth. After all, isn’t everyone working together, peacefully promoting the organization’s mission? No they’re usually not, and here’s why.

Ironically, the creativity and passion of the board members can create conflict. Diversity is great, but there is also a dark side to it. Such variation of world views and thinking styles can be enriching but can also lead to grave misunderstandings.

In fact, the entire environment of a nonprofit is actually ripe for conflict to arise. After all, you’re working with limited resources and are often under time pressure. Nonprofits constantly deal with change, whether it be economic or governmental changes that affect the organization. You deal with board turnover and new technology, too.

The Roots of Conflict Between Nonprofit Directors and Board Members

One of the most common conflicts that a nonprofit can experience is conflict between the executive director and a board member. Typically, the conflict arises out of unclear boundaries for roles and responsibilities.

Board members are involved in strategy. Executive directors have a clear role to execute operational decisions. Board members who infringe upon this often create conflict. Sometimes the director invites the conflict by asking a board member to oversee operations. The board member perhaps goes too far, and the director regrets asking in the first place. This leads to a breakdown in trust which then can lead to conflict.

Addressing Conflict Between Nonprofit Directors and Board Members

Whatever the conflict that arises between board members and management, you must address it. Don’t let it linger, hoping it will go away. It won’t.

As director, it is your role to push for a resolution. If you need the help of the board chair, ask, unless it is the board chair you’re experiencing conflict with! In this case, ask for an external third party to mediate the conflict. Make sure this third party will be suitable and respected by everyone involved in the issue.

Make sure you have face-to-face communication. Don’t try to resolve the issue on the phone, and certainly not by e-mail. Schedule a meeting or meetings with all involved parties. This needs to be a separate meeting, not a board meeting.

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Whatever you do, don’t have secret meetings. The board and relevant staff members should know exactly what is going on. Be transparent. Set a clear meeting goal of resolving the disagreement (and perhaps repairing a damaged relationship). Don’t discuss any other business, and reel the conversation back in if it goes in that direction. Make sure that everyone in the meeting understands that the discussions are confidential. You can certainly document who participated and report the outcome, but don’t report the proceedings. No minutes!

Remember that emotions are always a big part of any conflict. Asking people to check their emotions at the door in order to resolve the conflict is unrealistic. People serving a nonprofit will always have strong emotions because they care about the organization and its cause. As director, you need to lead the way in resolving that conflict so that emotions are constructive rather than destructive to your organization and your mission.

RELATED: Avoid Board Member Conflicts of Interest with These Tips


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