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Family Feud: How to Prevent Falling into the Board Member Conflict Trap

Family Feud:  How to Prevent Falling into the Board Member Conflict Trap.

Amid these “Difficult Economic Times” (a term nearing cliché status), organizations are suffering – money lost through investments, down-turn in annual gifts and everyone pointing fingers; “Our Board Members won’t provide names or ask their social network for support”  OR , “Staff isn’t hitting fund raising goals, we need to trim budgets, cut staff and management will take up the slack”. A perfect storm for conflict, a family conflict. In my eyes, staff and board are family, and family dysfunction makes everyone uneasy and stagnant. 

The crux is, there seems to be more chatter about  board/staff conflict than ever.  It’s understandable, fundamental changes are required during times like these. More than ever before your Board and staff must bond together and find ways to change, remain relevant and effective. People are watching, particularly donors.

All the same, we know “change” begets discomfort and discontent.  Undoubtedly at the turn of every corner you will be reminded of and faced with resistance as you delicately mold your organization into a trimmed-down, lean-and-mean machine.  Did I just use “delicate and mean machine” in the same sentence? Yes, I did. Considering your best bet in delivering the goods is walking that fine line between diplomacy and standing  strong on firm ground. What you must avoid is ignoring those  grappling with  the transformation. Your organization requires everyone moving in tandem.  The unfortunate truth?  It’s extremely unlikely that everyone will; including board members. Internal conflict is brewing.

Board conflicts are among the most challenging a nonprofit executive faces. They generally come in two forms—conflicts among board members and conflicts between the board and management. Both of these difficult situations require special consideration. Oftentimes, the Board and Executive Team are aware of the conflict, take sides and continue on as if all is well; until income dwindles and despite all efforts, recovery is unattainable.

If this sounds familiar; let me tell you, it almost always takes a third party (preferably a professional fundraising consultant) to come in and fix the “fundraising” problem. Any good consultant will suspect, fairly quickly, that internal conflict launched the loss of funding. Yet, there is confidence in a brighter future. I’ll tell you why. When greeted with this situation, I’m mindful of the job at hand. I am there to fix fundraising; the internal conflict is a vexing side-effect. But you do need to care for the side-effects before you can fix the fundraising. Here’s how:



1) Identify your key stakeholders. Who “gets” it and will work hard to salvage relationships.

2) Don’t get pulled in. Assumptions will be made that you’ve taken a  side. The solution is to not have “side” conversations. Whenever possible involve those key stakeholders in all conversations and decisions.

3) Understand the relationships among your board and staff. Who is aligned with whom?

4) Understand the genesis of the problem. Once you have create a value proposition (reciprocal benefit) for each of them.

5) Address problems immediately. Determine the best person to address those brewing issues.

6) Specifically Align your Key Stake Holders to the organization’s “Fundraising Recovery Plan”

7) Ask for help, and show that you are willing to listen and change

Once you have appraised the situation, put your recovery plan (this isn’t the blog on the resurrection of an annual fund – look for that in April) into place understanding that it MUST bring the staff and board into alignment. The money will follow. Here’s how:


1) Policies: Do Board member policies need to change? What are their expectations? Are they aware of their expectations? Are board members trained and given the organization “elevator speech”?

2) Job Description: If the answer to Q1 is NO, then are Board Member Job descriptions in place? Are Management Job Descriptions in place OR up-to-date?

3) Giving: Is it abundantly clear that “Family Gives First”? We are not just talking about our volunteer board members; staff must contribute and that should be clear (the amount for staff giving is less important than the simple act of giving any amount). 100% participation – Right? Right!

4) Recruitment Practices:  Is the Board diverse, representing all aspects of the organization: Legal, Finance, Community Volunteer (with a strong social network), Member’s Representing the Mission, and Money Managers.

5)   Board Meeting Inclusion: Are board meetings open to staff members? If not, open the door. While it is appropriate to have a portion of the meeting “closed” as an Executive Session; but then open the doors to those on the front line, your staff.

6)   Relentlessly communicate the same vision, values and mission. Whether you ask the person vacuuming the floor or the President of the Board, “What is this place? What do you do?”, all will respond will the same answer. Everyone understands why they are there and they are PROUD

7)   Provide multiple opportunities for staff input

8)   Issue staff progress reports and successes regularly

9)   Create a culture of openness, you are a family

10) Be present – both physically and emotionally

11) Motivate, energize, and reward staff quickly for positive results in moving forward

12) Gather Board and Staff together whenever possible, eliminate division and unite your family

If the above practices are put into place as part of the “Fundraising Recovery Plan” you will have the Board and Staff aligned and working together with joy and a renewed sense of enthusiasm. For those who do not “get it”; they must be cycled off the board or if staff, they must be let go. Just as Enthusiasm Breeds Enthusiasm. Poison Containments the Well. And that Well is money. What can you expect when Board and Staff are aligned?


!    Your resources (fundraising) will grow

!    Your Brand and Name Recognition is Amplified

!    Synergy equals sustainability and growth

!    Energy is spent on creating a fun environment rather than conflict resolution

!    It offers credibility to new board members and revitalizes current board members as they    understand they are a part of the organization’s family.

!    It gives you a structure and system to foresee and better manage discontent before   escalation

Once you bring the team together (each with a designated role) working alongside you to implement the plan to jump-start fundraising, your byproduct is the group working together. As your Board and Staff watch the plan work, with funds flowing in not out, moral increases and bad feelings wane.

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