Brown Bag Lunch Round Table: December 11, 2006
An intimate and diverse audience of 20 nonprofit professionals and board members were treated to an exciting discussion about conflict in nonprofit boardrooms. This Governance Matters event took place December 11, 2006, and was hosted by Merrill Lynch.
Jeanne Bergman, Ph.D. led the discussion by describing board dynamics. Board members serve because of passion for the mission; ability to give; or they are friends of another board member. They are a random and diverse group of people not usually connected to each other. Board work is frequently mundane until a crisis arises. When conflicts do arise, board members do not have solid relationships or resolution skills that allow them to work through conflict to resolution.
Jeanne described a crisis situation in which a board was shattered by a strategic planning process in which a consultant and some board members wanted to change the mission of the organization and others felt the mission should not be changed. A bitter conflict ensued. The mission stayed the same, but several board members resigned. The board was further shattered when the Executive Director left. The agency is much smaller then it once was delivering far fewer services.
Solid relationships among board members help avoid scarring an organization when it is dealing with conflict.
Anne Green shared a boardroom conflict she witnessed working with a nonprofit in the United Kingdom. At a meeting, the chair announced, without prior warning, that he wanted to change the mission. The board discussion was angry. The end result was that the two factions split off to set up their own organizations, keeping the original mission.
From Anne's perspective the Board had not been trained to "operate as a team." Had the chair prepped the board, worked offline to understand and overcome resistance, and been flexible about the outcome, the organization may have remained whole.
Many audience members responded to Jeanne and Anne with their own war stories.
A consultant noted a recent situation in which a committee member ranted for an hour in a meeting scheduled with a jam-packed agenda. Understanding the importance of the issue and board member's need to vent, the Board Chair allowed other members to respond to the agitated member. The Chair postponed the remainder of the meeting for another time. This tactic worked very well and when the committee reconvened the member was willing and ready to participate in a meaningful way. In this situation, conflict was adeptly avoided.
The panel was asked, "What do you do if you feel the stakes are so high and the Board made a fatally harmful decision?" Jeanne felt that the board member should be able to support a fair vote and after the process, he or she may need to leave the organization if they feel strongly they can not support the decision.
Jeanne, Anne and Barbara recommended several basic tools for resolving conflict in the boardroom:
- www.governancematters.org, resources tab
- www.foundationcenter.org for board member training
- Refer to the five-page handout "Factors to Consider in a Conflict Situation", "Problem Solving Questions", "Steps for Resolving Conflict" and "Tips for Avoiding Conflict in the Boardroom"