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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