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Conflict Within Your Nonprofit – Handle With Care

The honeymoon is over.  It seems like yesterday that everyone was full of passion, vision and warm fuzzies.  You were going to save the world and nothing could stand in your way.  Now, passions have cooled, visions have diverged and the warm fuzzies have been replace with contempt and backbiting.  How did things go south so quickly?

Operating a business, especially a nonprofit, is a lot like a marriage…minus the romance.  What starts out with mutual respect and unity of purpose can descend into open hostility.  And, it can threaten your organization’s effectiveness…even its very existence.  Conflict management is an essential skill that every nonprofit leader must learn and utilize.  What follows are some key points to consider regarding effective conflict management:

Conflict is inevitable. Learn it, live it, love it.  The sooner you dispense of the notion that conflict can be avoided, the sooner you can manage the realities of it.  Conflict is inevitable because people are involved.  And where there are people, there will eventually be conflict.  Just like in marriage, you and the other leaders in your organization have different ideas, backgrounds and experiences.  These all color the way you approach life, including your approach to running your nonprofit.

Conflict is not bad…as long as it doesn’t become warfare.  Once things get that far, it is very difficult to recover without a lot a collateral damage.  Feelings are hurt, respect is lost and paths to resolution become steep.

Conflict is healthy…as long as it involves mutual respect and is channeled to productive ends.  Let me illustrate with an example of our own company.  Fourteen years ago when I started The Foundation Group, I had a business partner .  Along the way, we sparred over many issues critical to the direction and mission of this business.  Our long-time department heads can tell you stories of team meetings where we squared off, pounded desktops and had the veins on our foreheads bulge.  But, we still got things done.  Why?  Because these conflicts involved intensity, not anger.  It was never, ever personal.  Debates always stayed within the context of trying to do the right thing for our company, our staff and our clients.  It’s true that we often had very different ideas about how to get there.  But by approaching these issues with mutual respect and a spirit of appreciation for the unique perspective each one brought to the table, progress was made and the resulting plans were usually better as a result of the debate.  And, when the meeting was over, so was the conflict.

You might be saying, “Nice story, but my organization is way past that point.  What do we do if things are already hostile?”

Admittedly, you are in a tough position.  I won’t pat you on the back and say there is an easy 3-step plan to fix this.  But there are a few things you should consider.

Don’t contribute to the chaos. If you’ve been guilty of throwing gas on the fire, stop it now.  Be a leader and set the example.  You may even need to apologize to the others.  There’s no better way to shame them into acting like adults.

Get outside help. Often, things are too far gone to settle it yourselves.  If that’s the case, seek the services of a respected mediator.  Just like some marriage conflicts require counseling, some business conflicts require mediation.  Many seemingly impossible situations have been rectified using it.

If all else fails, be willing to walk away. No organization, now matter how important to you, should define your life.  Some conflicts cannot be resolved no matter how badly you want them to be.  Move on.

Learning to manage organizational conflict can be difficult and uncomfortable.  But the rewards are worth it.

Got a comment or story?  We’d love to hear about it.  Just use the comment box below…

Greg McRay is the founder and CEO of The Foundation Group. He is registered with the IRS as an Enrolled Agent and specializes in 501(c)(3) and other tax exemption issues.

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