Power struggles, miscommunication, and differences of opinion are bound to show up on any nonprofit board and can intensify when an organization is undergoing an executive transition. When conflict arises, one's first instinct might be to avoid it, but conflict can actually present an opportunity for organizational growth if it is addressed wisely. It may also point to systems that are broken and in need of fixing.
Consider the following story:
Emily founded a small nonprofit to address toxic waste in poor communities in her region 25 years ago. Over the years, the nonprofit became a prestigious and well-funded organization. As executive director, Emily hand-picked each board chair and, over time, the power on the board became unequally distributed, leaving some board members frustrated in their efforts to move the organization forward. Board meetings became short and perfunctory; there was little room for new ideas or inquiries about board practices. Although the bylaws called for term limits, they were not enforced. Annual evaluations of the executive director also did not take place. In one meeting, a member of the board suggested that the nonprofit would be stronger with a less enmeshed executive and some board members agreed. When Emily announced her retirement, the board became divided. Some members felt that Emily was being unfairly pushed out of the organization while others viewed her retirement as an opportunity for change. The board recognized that a unified front was necessary for a successful transition, but its members did not know to how to address the conflict they were having internally and feared that it would jeopardize the organization’s success in the future.
How would you leverage disagreements surrounding the executive transition if you were on this board? Behavior that is accusatory, combative, passive-aggressive, or reticent can lead to an unhealthy board culture. On the other hand, a constructive and dynamic board culture allows your board members and the organization’s leader to discuss issues that are affecting the organization without fear of reproach. It also inspires members to work together to come up with reasonable solutions.
After all, there are consequences to letting serious conflicts fester. Doing so may cause your organization to lose board members, resulting in financial and operational costs to the organization and uninformed decision making. A misaligned board can have an impact on senior leadership, staff members, and, ultimately, the community that the organization serves. At worst, it can impact relationships with funders and put your organization’s survival at risk.
Moving past the “blame game” to shared responsibility
It may seem that all it takes to sour an entire board is one person with a competitive or domineering personality, but it’s the board’s responsibility to manage any conflict that impacts the board's and the organization’s future. To address conflict successfully, all parties should consider the role they have played in the organization’s unfavorable state, even if that role was to remain silent. Remaining tight-lipped or inactive as conflict spins out of control doesn’t free you from accountability.
When boards move beyond finger-pointing, and begin to share responsibility, they can move towards identifying the root cause of conflict. Further analysis of conflict can reveal that there is a crack in the system that cannot be attributed to one person alone. For example, in the case above, the board had not implemented annual performance evaluations, so a formal process was not in place to provide feedback to the executive director. Because the executive director had such a strong influence on the selection of board president, the leadership power of the board was diluted.
Recognizing bylaws as guardrails to assure efficiency and effectiveness
Even when boards have policies in place to guide governance, they have to be implemented to be useful. The case above underlines the importance of enforcing policies that address board recruitment, selection of officers, and term limits, as well as evaluation of the executive. Be careful that the loudest voice (or the deepest pocket) does not have the strongest voice on the board.
It’s also essential that your board have a procedure for termination and a succession plan that outlines the inevitable, e.g., when it’s time for your executive director to step down. If you have a framework that addresses problems that could potentially arise on the board over time, and implement the policies you have in place, there is a better chance that your board can reach a consensus when that conflict does arise.
An annual performance evaluation of the executive director is a mandatory provision that will make disagreements easier to address openly and honestly. When necessary, the evaluation should include a clearly articulated outline of steps for improvement. If compensation is tied in part to performance, then clearly stated and measurable goals should be included in the performance evaluation, so that everyone is aware of the expectations that the organization’s executive must meet or exceed in the role.
Becoming a conflict competent board
If you’re worried that your nonprofit board is disintegrating because of conflict, make an effort to face conflict head-on for the common good of your board and organization. These five tips can help your board reach its next level of maturity when tempers flare.
- Recognize your mission as the sole star of your organization. At times, board members and the organization’s leader can get lost in their own points of view and the squabbling ends up subverting the organization’s mission. A departing executive director’s behavior may be fueled by apprehension about how the organization will survive when he or she steps down. In many cases, the transition inspires the executive’s dedication to the mission, but when self-interests or egos are involved, executives can act in ways that are detrimental to the organization. The same can be said of board members. Their egos must take backseat to the organization’s mission. As you approach conversations with your executive and board, go back to the basics. Start by reminding yourselves of your common interest in furthering the mission of organization. Notice if your board’s inability to tackle uncomfortable issues is reducing its impact. Taking time to make sure that your mission is front and center ensures that toxic behaviors don’t poison your organization’s success or goals for the future.
- Be purpose-oriented about conflict resolution. Before undertaking conflict resolution, board members and the organization’s executive should identify the key issues they are grappling with and their impact on the organization as a whole. Don’t jump into conversations about conflict without a clear description of the issues of concern. While the issues may seem obvious, you still need be specific; use observable facts and avoid making judgments. For example, if you’re having a disagreement over your executive director’s financial acumen, it’s important to begin with facts rather than making unsupported assertions: Try “I notice from the financial report that our revenue has decreased from x to y” instead of Oour executive director lacks competence in money management.” By expressing your concerns with specificity and objectivity, you increase the probability of success in addressing the conflict. Also, set parameters about how your team should conduct itself as it addresses conflict; this makes it easier to recognize when conversations go off course. When board members and the organization’s leader agree upon procedures, and they are reminded of this throughout the process, it supports alignment and inspires all parties to work together to reach their desired outcome.
- Focus on interest-based solutions rather than position-based solutions. In Roger Fisher and William L. Ury’s classic book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, they emphasize the importance of making a distinction between “positions” and “interests” to manage conflict effectively. A position is a static, usually binary demand: “We should/shouldn’t terminate the waste reduction program.” An interest is flexible, and usually addresses impact: “I have an interest in the cash flow of the agency, and wonder if closing the program would improve our financial health.” Most of us default to speaking about our positions, so it’s important to rein in discussions back to interests throughout the process. Boards should recruit members who possess strong communication, negotiation, and conflict-resolution skills. While these are also important skills for an executive director to possess, including them as desired qualifications for board members adds an additional layer of strength to the board.
Be curious. Conflict can become volatile if it feels like one side is listening more than the other. If you go into a meeting thinking that you’re right about a situation, and your opponent is wrong, you close off the opportunity to see the issues from his or her perspective. Focus less on having the answer, and more on listening. Make eye contact, ask questions, practice active listening, and summarize the other person’s perspective. These are all important to deepening your understanding of the conflict at hand. Be curious and use phrases like “I’m noticing that…”, "I’m wondering if….”, or “I’m curious about… “ For example, if your board feels the outgoing executive is too involved in your search for the next executive director, you may want to get curious about what his or her desire to be involved stems from and where he or she thinks her input would be most valuable. Are there important relationships that the executive has built that your next leader will need to develop or maintain? This may provide your outgoing executive director with an opportunity to play a less central yet key role in the process without exerting too much power over the board.
- Work with a third party to detect unhealthy cliques and encourage inclusion. Most conflicts have stages. In the first stage, the conflict is interpersonal and can be resolved with direct dialogue between the differing parties. If resolving the conflict is not successful at this stage, it moves from individual to group dynamics where each individual develops allies and factions emerge. The differing parties coalesce around their opinions and positions. At this stage, it would certainly help to seek a mediator or coach to provide objective advice to your board on how to address the disunity. Acting as a unit rather than in silos can have a tremendous impact on your board’s ability to resolve issues without strife.
You might be at odds over whether you will be doing more harm than good by shining a light on conflict on your board, but remember, not all conflict results in disaster. If board members and executive directors are inquisitive about what’s happening and share responsibility for the difficulties when they arise, while keeping their focus on the mission of the organization, they can ultimately cultivate a healthy organizational culture that contributes to the future success of their organization. Addressing conflict is not necessarily easy, but when weighing the costs to the benefits, we can see the results are worth the effort.
Jill Sarah Moscowitz is an associate at DRG Executive Search with more than 20 years of experience working with nonprofit and government organizations. In addition to nonprofit executive search consulting, her areas of expertise include workplace mediation and group facilitation. She is the former chairperson of the Association for Conflict Resolution’s Workplace Section, and has mediated hundreds of workplace disputes. Prior to joining DRG’s team, she worked with senior leaders in health care to provide training and dispute resolution services at all organizational levels.
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