Does Your Nonprofit Board Have Enough Conflict?

Does Your Nonprofit Board Have Enough Conflict?

By Eugene Fram

I recently encountered a human services board director who said he would like to see more conflict take place during board meetings. He was not suggesting civil disobedience, but he felt that the discussion level was modest, and there was too much deference to each other and especially to the board chair.

Deference to Each Other
This level of deference is probably due to the fact that the board members do not have much financial risk and only a modest potential of some reputational risk. While individual directors may have a strong or mild dedication to the mission vision and values of the organization, there is little reason for them to make a strong statement, to openly try converting others to their viewpoint or to make outside efforts to convert others to change. The strongest stand that can be taken is to vote “no” on the issue and quietly resign from the board. In one experience as a director, I didn’t follow this advice! The executive committee of the nonprofit agreed to an acquisition without a full board discussion. To maintain harmony, I went along with the vote to affirm the acquisition. However, about a month later, I resigned from the board using the usual excuse of increased job pressures.

In addition, many board directors may have a desire to have future contacts with persons on the other side of the issue and don’t want to jeopardize future associations with them and their friends. For example, a major donor might receive a great deal of deference. Who wants to be responsible for having caused the donor to abruptly resign and incurring the wrath of the entire board?

In summary, there seems to be little potential for very heavy conflict among the directors themselves, unless, from my experiences, the survival of the organization is imminent, and outside opinion leaders, such as their national group, develops an interest in the situation.

Deference to the Board Chair
Robert’s Rules of Order can be as the bases for handling conflict on nonprofit boards, and they are frequently cited in board charters as the proper format for conducting meetings. However, in practice, they are rarely formally used. For example, one board chair I know simply makes a “T” hand signal to stop discussions. On other nonprofit boards I have seen, directors simply acquiesce to the board chair’s position as a courtesy of moving the meeting along with alacrity. They don’t use any critical thinking when they should, and this unintended gap can result in developing personal financial risks for board members.

Managed Conflict on Nonprofit Boards
Board directors and board chairs should use Robert’s Rules of Order to heighten the level of civil discourse, not conflict, on nonprofit boards. However, not all boards chairs are proficient with the format. Until that happens, nonprofit board directors will need to become alert to the deference given to other directors and to the board chair in meeting discussions. Can these deferences be abandoned in some situations with healthy open conflict ensuing?
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14 comments

  1. In my experience, boards and their chairpersons generally strive to avoid conflicts. Much depends on the Nominations Committee’s terms of reference and board policies such as one which ensures diversity. It also creates problems if the chair is not excluded from the nominating committee and thus influences the selection of potential society and board members in accordance with his/her personal agenda or bias.

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    1. Good point Doris. Hopefully both board and the chair want to recruit “A” players. However, if the board or chair are “C”players, then possibility of recruiting “A’ players is significantly diminished.

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  2. Roberts Rules of Order are the proper way to run a meeting, The problem is that few people seem to know of them, The term conflict is often viewed as undesirable in board meetings. However, boards are elected to serve as a “check and balance” and so one should expect some back and forth debate on major issues.

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    1. This is a great point of differentiation. I love it when my board has a serious and meaningful discussion and disagreement about a high level strategic and necessary decision.I feel like they are doing their job at that point. Versus disagreement about minor or operational decisions that I would hope they trust staff to manage

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  3. wOULDN’T YOU SAY THAT AN EFFICIENT COMMITTEE SYSTEM CAN MINIMIZE BOARD DISCORD SINCE MANY OF THE POLARIZING ISSUES CAN BE RESOLVED IN COMMITTEE SESSIONS AND REPORTS OF THOSE DISCUSSIONS BY THE COMMITTEE CHAIR CAN INDICATE CONSIDERATION OF VARYING VIEWS WITHOUT HAVING TO HAVE BOARD BLOOD ON THE TABLE?

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  4. I find many people think they have to agree with me, as the Executive Director, about everything. I am known for stating, “If all 4 of us agreed on everything, then 3 of us are redundant.”

    If the meeting is run properly, disagreements can be used as debates for the good of the nonprofit. No blood has to be drawn. The purpose of the board is to help build the nonprofit up, not the board members egos.

    If a person is thin-skinned and can’t take a difference of opinion, then they should not be on a board of directors. It is for folks who know how to present their side rationally, and are big enough to accept a better or different idea if that is the best for the nonprofit. Board members should be good winners and good losers.

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  5. My experience has been that, perhaps because Board do very often avoid open conflicts, when unavoidable ones arise, they sometimes handle them poorly (e.i., over-personalization, factionalism). An additional negative side-
    effect of conflict avoidance has sometimes been “whispering campaigns” by one or more Board members who favor a given course of action, where an open would be both far healthier and more useful in resolving differing points of view.

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  6. I believe the word conflict is limiting the discussion. No one wants or expects verbal assaults, a good board doesn’t talk minor issues to death and a board member must respect the rule of the majority if he or she chooses to stay. However serious debate of major issues is a board’s job. Encouraging intelligent, textured discussion is a gift to an organization. The board chair who can build a board with diversity of thought and encourage that kind of conversation is a gift.

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    1. Richmond. Nicely articulated. Few board chairs have the talents and patience for volunteers to achieve what you suggest. However, let’s hope that this will changed as younger people succeed to board positions. Gene

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