The Third in a Series of Articles

By: Harold Tessendorf

I was first introduced to the practice of co-mediation when I began my conflict resolution work in the late 1980s. The South African communities where I was raised and worked were deeply divided by the systemic discrimination created by colonial and apartheid practices.  The deep-rooted nature of that conflict also meant that South Africans did not view one another as being impartial.  Political and community tensions spilled over into organizations and businesses.  When South Africa’s religious and business leaders realized that their influence was largely limited to their respective identity groups, and that they were considered biased by other key groups, they began to work together to convene negotiation sessions.  My mentor and professor, Gavin Bradshaw, referred to them as being “dual mediators”.  My colleagues and I adopted this model to successfully mediate a wide range of community and business conflicts through the local peace committees established by South Africa’s National Peace Accord of 1991.  We referred to our practice as co-mediation.  

Co-mediation is when two or more mediators work as co-equals to assist the parties in conflict reach a negotiated settlement.  While co-mediation is sometimes used in divorce and community disputes in the United States, it is seldom used when organizations and businesses are experiencing conflict.  The purpose of this article is to shed more light on the practice and benefits of co-mediation.  

The practice of co-mediation is useful when the parties to a conflict have reached an impasse.  They see no way forward, but neither are they willing to return to the status quo.  They are “stuck” and become more entrenched.  The tensions between the parties are high; they deeply mistrust one another and outsiders; and, they have little to no prior experience of mediation.  They cannot agree on who to select as a mediator. 

Co-mediation is also useful when the personal relationship between the negotiators is weak and when they have limited experience in negotiating. Organizations can benefit from co-mediation as well, especially when they may have some in-house mediators who understand the issues and organizational culture, but whom one or more of the parties’ regard as being partial to the other side.  Pairing the partial in-house mediator with an external peer will increase the likelihood that the parties will reach a negotiated agreement.  Co-mediation is invaluable in community conflicts where there are often numerous and diverse parties.  It allows for the mediators to reflect the parties and their communities. 

During co-mediation, the parties will see and work with two mediators rather than just one.  The co-mediators will sit next to each other, and depending on their style, may alternate roles during the mediation.  For example, one of the mediators may take primary responsibility for helping the parties to understand the substantive issues (content) at the heart of their conflict while the other will focus on the negotiation dynamics (process).  Co-mediators can also caucus with each other to help move the negotiation process along.  Both solo- and co-mediators follow a similar process while assisting the parties with their negotiations.  These stages were mentioned in the second article in this series.  

There are several benefits associated with co-mediation.  It allows the mediators to better manage both the content and the process components of the negotiations. When using co-mediation in organizational conflicts, I find that this practice allows the mediators to better leverage their unique strengths, compensate for one another’s weaknesses and biases, and supplement the other mediator when necessary.  Co-mediation gives parties to the conflict leave to identify themselves in the mediation panel.  This practice also builds greater accountability into the process as experienced co-mediators serve as a check on each other and through that they build the parties’ confidence in the mediation process. 

Another benefit of co-mediation is that it is highly effective in dispelling the three myths of mediation that I addressed in the first article.  Co-mediation helps to remove the choice of a neutral, solo mediator from the conflict, thereby allowing the parties to focus on reaching a negotiating agreement which addresses the issues that are at the heart of their conflict.  Co-mediators can use their status as insiders with one or more of the parties to help them assess their options and tell them hard truths when this is necessary.  They can turn any pleas that the parties make for them to become their advocate into an opportunity to discuss options and offers.  

When building a culture of conflict management, organizations should invest in negotiation training so that their members are equipped with the practice and skills of negotiation as well as understanding how mediation can assist them when they are at an impasse.   Some of their peers will also have the skills needed to assist them with their negotiations.  Organizations should also develop relationships with outside mediators whom they can call on to complement their in-house mediators when necessary. 

Co-mediation is highly effective because it addresses the three myths of mediation.  It affords the parties with the opportunity to overcome their impasse and reach agreement sooner.   This leads them to waste fewer financial, emotional, and physical resources on a prolonged conflict and instead put them to more productive use.  Co-mediation also builds a sense of community and helps to strengthen resilience across the communities where businesses, religious and civic organizations and government reside and operate.   

Source:  Bradshaw, G.J. 2008. Conflict Management for South African Students – Theory and Application. Cape Town: New Voices Publishing.

What Mediation Is … And Is Not

The Second in a Series of Three Articles

Harold Tessendorf

Mediation allows parties to explore their conflict, generate options, and negotiate an agreement that they design together, own, and implement.   

Mediators are not partisan advocates who favor one party over the other.  Instead, mediators advocate for a sound process of assisted negotiation (mediation).  Elements of this sound process include acknowledging emotions, listening for convergent and divergent interests, joint problem-solving, and written agreements.   Mediators assist the parties by managing these elements.   

Given the confidential nature of mediation, mediators do not come with a list of references.  This makes it challenging to assess their competence and neutrality.  Choosing mediators does involve a metaphorical leap of faith but there are ways in which parties can mitigate this uncertainty.  They must remember that they remain in control of any agreement that might be mediated.  They can choose to end the mediation at any time.  A characteristic of mediation is that it is a voluntary process.     

Armed with this assurance, parties can then look for impartial mediators.  Mediators demonstrate their fairness by establishing credibility with the parties through their attentive “hearing”.  This leads the parties to feel that they are being respected and are being viewed as co-equal to the other side.  Mediators cement their credibility with the parties by consistently adhering to the ethical standards and processes that they outline during the preparatory conversations they hold with the parties.  They build their credibility further when they reiterate these points in the joint statements they make at the beginning of each mediation session.  They subsequently reinforce their credibility by demonstrating their competency throughout the mediation.   This means that the parties feel that things are moving forward, however painful and slow this may be.  Another sign of competence is when the mediators help the parties to transition from a win-lose mindset to one which encourages them to propose and consider new options that might move the parties closer to agreement.    

Mediation is an informal process.  This means that the session takes the form of dialogue rather than following the formal rules that govern business meetings and court proceedings.   

Mediation does not take place in public places.  A characteristic of mediation is that it is confidential.  This means that the parties and the mediator do not disclose their negotiations until they are ready to announce the details of any agreement that they have reached. 

Mediation is therefore a private process.  It also does not include unrelated parties and, except for community conflicts, is closed to the public.  This allows the parties the space that they need to conduct their negotiations.  Mediators help to make this space safe for the parties’ negotiations. 

Mediators are not the decision-makers.  In many instances, they are not experts on the technical and legal issues at the heart of the conflict and therefore are unable to offer advice.  They do not impose a settlement on the parties.  The power to make decisions always remains with the parties. 

Mediation is non-binding.  This means that the parties have the power to decide whether to terminate or continue with the mediation.  What is binding on the parties is the agreement that they negotiate with the mediators’ help, which they are then responsible for implementing.   

Mediators do not stand in judgment of the parties.  They understand that any conflict is filled with snares that trap parties and that make it difficult for them to reach agreement.  Since anyone can fall victim to emotional traps and mental blocks, honest mediators are humble enough to recognize that they, too, fall victim to the snares in their own conflicts.   They accord grace to the parties.   

Mediation is a process that may not be concluded in a single session.  All mediation sessions result in one of three outcomes.  They may result in full or partial agreements on the substantive issues at hand.  They may also yield no agreement, except possibly an agreement to meet again after the parties have reviewed their options based on insights they gathered during the mediation. 

In the next article, we will build on this understanding of mediation by looking at the practice of co-mediation and how parties can use it to address any lingering concerns that they have about impartiality, advocacy, and mediator competency. 

Misconceptions about Mediation when Dealing with Organizational and Community Conflict

The First in a Series of Three Articles

Harold Tessendorf

During my recent work advising organizations and communities in conflict, I have encountered several common misconceptions about mediation.  These collude to prevent parties from reaching a negotiated agreement.  In this first of three articles about mediation, I share three misconceptions and explain what is driving them. 

The first misconception is that mediators must be neutral. The term “neutral” is commonly associated with court-mandated mediation where the judge mandates that the parties seek outside mediation before hearing and adjudicating the case.  Mediators are called “neutral” because they are unrelated to the parties and have no material stake in the outcome.

Neutrality is more difficult to achieve when conflicts involve organizations and communities.  This is especially true when the mediator comes from within the larger organization or lives in the same community.  The closer the mediator is to the conflict, the more likely it is that they are concerned with and have an opinion about it.  Since mediators have a desire to see that these conflicts are better managed, they are also more inclined to want to limit the disruption from these conflicts.    

It is more reasonable for parties to expect that mediators act impartially. Impartiality does not mean neutrality.  Instead, it means that mediators look at the bigger picture and treat all parties fairly while assisting them to negotiate agreements.  This fairness helps the parties to trust and accept the mediators.

The second misconception arises when mediators are confused with advocates.  In many conflicts, parties fail to choose a mediator because they are looking for a third party who will intercede on their behalf, adjudicate in their favor, and punish the other side.  This leads their opponent to question the mediator’s motives and reject the offer to mediate. 

This leads to the third misconception, namely that of the solo mediator.  The mediator is viewed as a superhero.  Again, this misconception owes its origins to the parties’ experience of the judicial system where a judge hears the case and then decides in favor of one of the parties.  We can also trace this misconception to our childhoods when we had a dispute with our sibling.  We appealed to a parent to settle this disagreement and expected that they would do so in our favor. 

Organizational and community mediation is strengthened when the parties engage a panel of mediators instead of relying on a single mediator. This increases the likelihood that the parties will reach agreement.   

What drives these misconceptions is the way in which the parties understand conflict. Since parties to a conflict feel aggrieved, they come to view their conflict as being win-lose. They do not want to be the first to compromise as they fear that this will be interpreted as weakness and loss.  They do not want to admit that some of their actions may have contributed to the present conflict.  This leads to an impasse. 

In the next article, I will explore what mediation is and is not before exploring co-mediation in the third and final article in this series.  As a teaser, mediators allow parties to explore their conflict together and then generate options which allow the parties to negotiate an agreement that they design, own, and implement.   

Crisis Mediation – Some Reflections from a South African-born Mediator

Harold Tessendorf

September 2020

As the United States enters the final stages of the 2020 presidential election and as the summer of protests and counter protests continue in cities and communities across the country, the following questions keep recurring to me: 

Is it possible for protesters and counter-protesters alike to express their political views in a non-violent and safe way?

Is there a way that police efforts to maintain public order can resemble community-policing?

Is there a template that local police, protesters and counter-protesters alike, can follow?

The answer to these questions is … “Yes”.   There is a model that emerged in South Africa during the 1990s that can, and should, be adapted to work in the United States in 2020. 

Between 1992 and 1994, I served as the Director of the Eastern Cape Regional Peace Committee.  This organization was created as part of South Africa’s National Peace Accord which business and church leaders hammered out between the leaders of the African National Congress Alliance (ANC), the white National Party government, the South African Police, the Inkatha Freedom Front and smaller parties.  I helped to establish local peace committees in communities across the Eastern Cape and mediated numerous local political, community-police and business disputes. In addition to serving as a crisis mediator, my office also coordinated the training of thousands of community mediators and peace monitors

One of the many community-police conflicts that I mediated took place in the town of Graaff-Reinet.  Its local government repeatedly refused to issue a protest permit to the local ANC.  No reasons were given for this denial.  When the ANC attempted to force the issue using an illegal march, the marchers were dispersed by the local police, resulting in injuries and the destruction of property.  I was called upon to mediate the dispute.  Through a series of joint sessions and caucuses with the parties, we were able to arrive at an agreement.  After learning that the local government’s key concern was that the marchers would destroy property, the ANC agreed to have sufficient marshals on hand to deal proactively with any unruly elements.  The police agreed to keep sufficient forces on hand to line the parade route while also closing and re-opening intersections as the marchers made their way to the City Hall. Paramilitary units were kept on standby but out of the marchers’ sight.   In exchange the ANC agreed to a set march route and timetable.  Local peace monitors also marched along the route to observe that all of the parties kept to the agreement.  They also were to let the mediator know about any potential flashpoints so that these could be addressed before they became violent.  Finally, the mediator, ANC leaders and police leaders remained physically close to one another so that they could quickly respond to any flash points that emerged during the march. 

This protest march went off without incident with all parties keeping to their agreement.  This gave all the parties the confidence that they could effectively manage protest marches.  It was also a productive relationship-building opportunity which led to more cooperation between these leaders as South Africa continued its transition to a post-apartheid society.      

Creating Citizen Crisis Mediators and Monitors in South Africa

  1. A group of committed peace committee members and peace secretariat staff collaborated to produce a training manual which introduced participants to the codes of conduct governing the different parties as well as sections on negotiation and mediation skills and practices. 
  2. The peace committees and their staff reached out to civil society organizations such as business groups, congregations, civic clubs and student organizations to educate them about mediation and to ask them to publicize the mediation training events.  This outreach was made easier as the peace committees themselves included representatives from these different stakeholders who kept their respective organizations updated about the work being done.   
  3. Experienced mediators used the manual referenced above to train members from the regional and local peace committees, as well as individuals identified through civic associations.  After completing their training, these mediators and monitors were deployed in their community and called upon as needed. 
  4. The regional and local peace committees created mediation teams which reflected the composition of the parties to the conflict.  Team members trained alongside each other so that they understood one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and personalities so that they were could work well together as co-mediators.   
  5. Business and church leaders engaged with national and regional political leaders, including those associated with extremist groups, to ensure that they understood the reason for, and role of, the crisis mediation teams.  This outreach also gave greater legitimacy to the mediation teams and the process that they followed.   
  6. Crisis mediators and peace monitors were clearly identified by their distinctive vests and caps.  They had communications equipment which allowed them to remain in touch.  Mediators also followed a set protocol to engage with the parties in a way which ensured that they were viewed as impartial.  
  7. Crisis mediators and monitors followed a code of conduct which included the values of impartiality, fairness and competence.  These values are ones associated with mediation.  This code of conduct was included in the training session and was also shared with the parties to conflict so that they knew what to expect from the mediators and monitors.    
  8. As the elections drew closer and as more peace monitors were recruited to augment the mediators, the decision was made to provide these monitors with small stipends.  This was especially important in neighborhoods and rural communities experiencing high levels of poverty as these economic realities would otherwise have prevented people from these areas from being able to serve as mediators and monitors.  It was felt that the absence of representatives from these communities would have undermined the effectiveness of the crisis mediation teams.
  9. Street-level, crisis mediation sessions complemented facilitated negotiations between ANC, police and local government over issues such as housing, policing, education and local government services.   

The Outcome and the Possibility

While it was difficult to envisage how bitter rivals such as the ANC, Inkatha and Police leaders could negotiate community agreements to keep the peace, their success in doing so with the help of local mediators proves that people who passionately hold different opinions can find common ground.  The South African example shows that it is possible for parties to keep the peace while simultaneously tackling the systemic issues which lie at the heart of their conflict.  In the process of building relationships to keep the peace, they discovered a shared humanness which made reconciliation possible. 

I believe that community leaders in cities and towns across the USA have the ability to negotiate agreements just as their counterparts did in Graaff-Reinet and thousands of communities across South Africa.  With the resources and capacity that US communities have at their disposal, communities can invest in crisis mediators to help deal with volatile flash points during marches while, and this is very important, simultaneously engaging community leaders to begin addressing the underlying issues and practices that gave rise to the protests in the first place. 

Harold Tessendorf served as the Regional Peace Director of the Eastern Cape Regional Peace Secretariat between 1992 and 1994.  An experienced mediator and trainer, he also served on the committee that drafted the training manual used to train crisis mediators and peace monitors in the lead up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994. 

Achieving Effectiveness During and Beyond Mergers

By Harold Tessendorf, Tessendorf Consulting – Certified Aligned Influence Consultant

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the recurring questions that have surfaced in for-profit and nonprofit circles include, “How many organizations will survive this pandemic?” “How many of them will shut their doors?” “How many of them will be forced to merge with others?” National organizations which have affiliated structures have responded to these questions by, in some cases, restructuring their operations to provide staff, documents, and checklists to assist local organizations as they merge. Local organizations, which operate independent of a national organization, are faced with having to navigate this on their own, placing even more strain on their board and executive leadership. Irrespective of whether organizations have a parent body to lean on or not, the decision whether or not to merge lies within the realm of the organization’s governance structure.    

These questions of what to do with struggling organizations beg further questions. Whose responsibility is it to make the decision to merge? Is it the role of the organization’s board or does it fall within the realm of the staff? And does this all change if the organization is the weaker or the stronger partner in the proposed merger? How will the new organization merge not only the assets of the old organizations, but also the interests of those organizations’ stakeholders? How will the new board merge the roles of each of the pre-merger boards? What happens to staff who fill duplicate positions at both organizations? How will they be accommodated within the new organization? How do organizations merge in a way that helps the new organization to be stronger, more resilient, and to have more community support than before? How does the history, program impact, and institutional memory of the organizations that merged inform the new organization?  While these questions emerge early, they will continue to surface throughout the merger process. 

With the goal of ensuring organizational effectiveness, Aligned influence® introduces boards of directors and the executive leadership team to their aligned, complimentary roles of Direct – Lead; Protect – Manage; and Enable – Accomplish. This alignment is central to organizational effectiveness and is even more important during periods of growth and re-organization, including mergers. Therefore, boards and staff must remain cognizant of this alignment throughout the three inter-related and progressive stages in the merger process, namely pre-merger, merger, and then post-merger. Each of these stages produce its own set of iterations on the questions listed above as the board and the executive staff work to stay aligned and thereby effective.   

Aligned Influence® can help boards and executives successfully navigate the strategic decision to merge.    Aligned Influence speaks to the importance of role discipline with its related variables of open communication and mutual respect for the role of the board and executive leadership team. Boards should be asking whether a merger will allow their organization, or its successor, to honor their “Direct” policy and they should be proactively engaging with and reviewing the input they receive from the organization’s stakeholders. These stakeholders include staff. Since the executive leader and their staff have a vested interest in any merger, the board should take their input on the programmatic implications of a merger into account when deliberating about a merger. Boards should be sensitive to the natural concerns that staff will have about mergers such as job losses or fears of being overburdened with additional responsibilities and service areas. However, the board should not abdicate its role of directing and enabling the organization and should never place all of the responsibility of mergers squarely on the shoulders of their executive leaders. At the same time, staff should not abdicate their responsibility to execute their manage and accomplish responsibilities during this time. Staff are not responsible for making the decision whether to merge or not. This decision rest with the boards of the respective organizations. Once that decision has been made, then staff, starting with the executive leaders, are responsible for planning for and accomplishing the merger of said organizations.

While the organizations’ boards and executive teams deliberate on these questions, they need to be mindful that their organizations are undergoing both change and transition simultaneously. On the surface, there is the change that the merger is bringing – changes in name, structure, roles, programs, service areas, and legal identity, to mention but a few. There are templates for these changes which boards and executive staff can adopt and modify to fit their circumstances. Accountants and attorneys play an important role here as they account for and combine assets and then safeguard these in new legal documents. Customized templates and resources provided by parent organizations also play a role at this juncture in the merger process. But below the surface, there are transitions which need to carefully navigated to ensure that the new, combined board and the executive staff are also aligned with their new internal and external stakeholders and that these embrace the new, merged organization that has emerged. Some of the questions that the merged board and executive staff now have to consider include ones about what adjustments the board needs to make to their Direct, Protect and Enable policies so that these can inform the strategic and tactical plans which the executive staff are responsible for as well as the operational policies that they use to manage the work of the new organization. 

Aligned Influence® is present at each of the three stages in the merger process. Deciding whether to merge or not; discussing how this impacts the “Direct” policy, ensuring that the organization continues to have protective boundaries, and engaging sensitively with internal teams and stakeholders throughout the process is the responsibility of the organization’s board of directors. The executive leader and their staff can best support the merger process by remaining disciplined in their roles by planning how the merger will impact their strategic plans, modify operational policies to ensure that they manage within the protective boundaries that the board has established, and ensure that the organization is well managed throughout the process

By drawing on their extensive experience of navigating mergers and organizational change, Aligned Influence’s team can help boards of directors and executive leaders to apply the Aligned Influence® model as they navigate decisions about mergers.    

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.


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. 


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