The Types of Conflict within Nonprofits – Perspective from the Field

By:  Harold Tessendorf

My experience of the multi-dimensional nature of conflict within nonprofits is captured in the following definition from Folger, Poole and Stutman.  They define conflict as “… “the interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatible goals and interference from each other in achieving those goals.”

Conflict is seldom viewed in a positive light.  None of my personal acquaintances has admitted to waking up in the morning with a list of conflicts that they plan to initiate, or participate in, that day.  On the optimistic side, our to-do list might include a bullet point to address a current conflict.  But most likely, we are hoping that the situation will disappear, that we will figure out a way to avoid addressing it or preferably, that the other party has decided overnight on a course of action which eliminates the conflict.     

However, conflict is a natural part of human existence.  Researchers and practitioners alike have identified several positive benefits of conflict, including personal and organizational growth, and social change.   On the other hand, poorly managed conflict is likely to result in negative consequences.  In nonprofit organizations, these can include: a failure to meet program objectives; threats to funding and; low staff and volunteer morale and turnover. 

Yet, few nonprofits consciously engage in efforts to address their internal conflicts.  They are even less likely to invest in the conflict management skills that they need to resolve these conflicts and use them as opportunities for individual and organizational growth.  Nonprofits are viewed as places where conflict office politics should be kept at bay since the organization’s purpose is to mobilize people to support outcomes that better the community.    Conflict avoidance is often the default conflict management approach which nonprofits adopt. 

Since conflict is natural and beneficial, then it stands to reason that nonprofits should develop conflict resolution skills and systems.  If the conflict cannot be resolved, then it should be better managed so that it does not result in the negative consequences outlined above.  Before investing in conflict resolution skills and systems, it is first necessary for nonprofit leaders to develop a deeper appreciation for the different types of conflict that they will encounter. 

4 types of conflict within nonprofits

In the course of my three decades as a non-profit executive and mediator, I would categorize all of the organizational conflicts that I have experienced as falling into one of four conflict types.   

The first two types of conflict are tactical in nature.  They deal with situational power and flow from how the parties either engage, or fail to engage, with each other.  They occur more frequently but are less likely to cause major harm to the organization.  However, failing to manage or resolve them can easily lead to larger problems in the future as higher levels of mistrust make it harder for the parties to collaborate and resolve these later problems.  The parties lack not only the necessary conflict resolution skills, but more importantly the relationships and practice, or “muscle memory”, to address these issues.     

The remaining two types of conflict are more structural in nature.  They arise from disagreements over roles within the organization and about the organization’s future direction.  These conflicts require careful attention as the costs of not addressing them include threats to the nonprofit’s public image and to its financial sustainability.   The conflict, its management and its resolution, require a sensitivity to the organization’s different stakeholders, along with a focus on a longer time frame and “the larger picture”.  

  1. Conflict over information and resources

This type of conflict arises when there is a lack of information and data.  This stems from the fact that the information is either unknown or that it is not shared.  The Board of Directors and staff may require accurate financial information from the company that the nonprofit contracts with for accounting services.  They need timely information so that they can exercise oversight of the organization’s finances and make a key strategic decision.  They are frustrated because they have had to repeatedly request the information they need.  When they finally receive it, the information is presented in such a way that it leaves them with more questions than answers.  They express their displeasure to the accounting company’s owner.  The owner is equally frustrated with what he regards as the nonprofit’s unrealistic deadlines and expectations.    

In another case, two department heads need to coordinate their use of one of the nonprofit’s key resources so that they can complete different tasks and meet their respective departments’ objectives.  They make untested assumptions about each other.  This results in them failing to share the resource in a way which meets their respective needs.  Their frustration with each other boils over into an argument.  The conflict escalates when they both reach out to their mutual supervisor, attempting to gain the upper hand over the other.

2. Conflict arising from unclear expectations and the lack of execution 

Successful nonprofits mobilize a wide array of players – staff, clients, volunteers, board members, donors and government stakeholders – to further their mission.  In such a multi-stakeholder environment, and even with the most sensitive and thoughtful communication strategy, the pace of operations simply means that assumptions are made and not tested.  This often results in sub-optimal decisions and verbal disagreements.  In my experience, the cause of unclear expectations lies in the assumptions that the different parties make of each other.  These assumptions are compounded by the parties’ failure to clearly communicate with each other.  The likelihood of miscommunication increases when the parties rely on written, electronic communication rather than using face-to-face interactions.

An example of this that I have often experienced is the following.  The staff are upset that the nonprofit’s Board members are not supporting the organization’s fundraising initiatives, despite being notified about these events.  The staff assumes that Board members are aware that they need their support at these events.  They are frustrated when none of the Board members volunteer to help them.   When questioned, Board members respond that while they know about the events, they are uncertain what the staff expect them to do.

While this scenario began through miscommunication and resulted from unclear expectations, it also points to the deeper source of the conflict, namely that of the roles which the different parties are playing within the organization.   When the first two types of conflict occur on a regular basis, then they often point to underlying conflicts which are more structural in nature.  We will now turn our attention to conflicts over roles and future organizational direction.              

3. Conflict over roles within the organization

The most common and critical role conflict that I have experienced in nonprofits takes place between the Board of Directors and their Executive Director/CEO.  The lack of clear roles which are accepted by both parties, results in conflicts which, if not handled early, result in emotional stress and eventually executive and board turnover.  This conflict not only arises when these roles are not well defined, but it is also likely that conflict will persist once the organization has defined and institutionalized these roles.  Old practices are often hard to unlearn.     

A common example of role conflict between the Board and Executive is when a new Executive Director is recruited and begins working with the nonprofit.  During the preceding interim phase, members of the Executive Committee stepped in to manage daily operations.  They built relationships with staff members and learnt much about the organization’s operational issues.  They now find it difficult to step back into their oversight role after the new Executive Director is appointed.  They continue to request updates on operational issues from the Executive Director.  Occasionally they bypass the Executive Director and request the information directly from the staff members that they know.   The Executive Director is frustrated, not only by this behavior, but also by the Board’s failure to make introductions to important community leaders and to advocate publicly for the organization.   The lack of progress in resolving these role tensions leads the Executive Director to search for other employment. 

Recent surveys show that the turnover rate amongst nonprofit executives falls between 18% and 22% annually (Varga, 2019).  This means that 1 in 5 US nonprofits will be faced with recruiting a new executive leader each year.   This is costly to the nonprofit, impacting staff and donor confidence; but it also undermines the nonprofit’s ability to further its mission.  It also consumes the board’s energy and focus.    

While some of this turnover is natural, it has also been my experience that turnover is likely to be higher in settings where the board and executive director have (a) not recognized and acknowledged that conflict is periodically part of their interaction; (b) not agreed about how they will address disagreements when they arise; (c) not worked together to clearly define and agree on their respective roles; and, (d) not acquired the skills nor the coaching assistance which allows them to manage these conflicts.

4. Conflicts during transitions

The two most common types of transition that face nonprofits arise when there is a change in organizational direction or in leadership.  The established order is questioned and is being re-arranged.  Different internal stakeholders – line staff, management and the Board feel bewildered by the reason for, and pace of, change. 

While a crisis often forces a nonprofit’s leadership to address the question of its future direction, this discussion is even more conflict-prone in times when the organization appears to be performing well.  While some of the staff and board argue that the board needs to use this period of relative calm to evaluate and make changes to the nonprofit’s programs, others question the need to make changes to established and well-functioning programs.  Both parties may also question each other’s motivations and desire for change.   

Organizational conflict also occurs when an organization experiences the sudden loss of executive leadership.  The resulting leadership vacuum leads to concerns about program and job security, roles and, the organization’s future direction and sustainability.  These, in turn, stifle programs and tear at the organization’s operational fabric as board and staff adopt either a “wait and see” attitude or as factions begin to jockey for influence and power.  This generates a negative spiral which is noticed by the nonprofit’s external stakeholders including its donors, community leaders and clients.

Conclusion

Each of the conflict types outlined above requires a different conflict management approach and set of inter-related skills.  By recognizing that conflict is natural, inevitable and manageable, nonprofits leaders can be open to using it constructively to grow their organization, people and themselves. 

Sources:

Folger, J.P., Poole, M.S. and Stutman, R.K. 2018. Working Through Conflict. Strategies for Relationships, Groups and Organizations.  Routledge.  New York. 

Varga, T. Nonprofit Executive Director Turnover – Not If, But When. Posted June 15, 2019 as accessed at https://jjco.com.

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