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People are sometimes surprised to learn that non-profit organizations are just as prone to conflict (if not more prone to conflict) than regular businesses. Here are some reasons why:

One of the great things about working with non-profit organizations is that their staff and volunteers are often passionate about their work. With values aligned in this way, why should conflict arise? Yet while shared values are crucial for an organization's success, there may be too little discussion of what those values really mean and how they should be implemented. In fact, doctoral research by Abbi Haggerty found that the main reason fundraisers gave for leaving an organization was that their values did not align with the values of the organization.

For example, in an organization devoted to serving the homeless, members might disagree over whether the focus should be on issues of basic survival, or on raising awareness about the causes of homelessness, or on influencing public policy. They might also disagree about which clients are a priority: some might think it more important to concentrate on homeless families and children, while others believe that the priority should be those homeless individuals who are hardest to reach. If these differences are not discussed, they can lead to conflict over allocation of resources.

When different points of view are not aired, there are no good models of disagreement in an organization. The result is often "surface agreement" masking internal dissent. People nod their heads without real engagement or buy-in, leading to boring, unproductive meetings that seem to be going over the same ground endlessly. This is a problem, because employees who are not engaged eventually leave the organization and employee turnover leads to increased costs for recruitment and training.

One of the most crucial shortcomings of non-profit organizations is the lack of adequate human resources support. Non-profits strive to be lean and to spend the minimum possible on overhead and administration so that the bulk of their budget can go to their good work. They strive to maintain the trust of donors and volunteers by spending money prudently. This is laudable. The problem is – how little spent on human resources issues is too little and how much is too much? Limited HR support might mean that no one in the company has the skills necessary for dealing with difficult people. Managers come to spend an inordinate amount of time managing conflict, as members who are in dispute with one another have nowhere else to turn. And the more time spent on managing conflict, the less time available to fulfill the organization's mission.

Limited HR support might also mean that there is little appreciation of legal obligations to employees. According to American data, the most common legal claims made by employees against non-profits involve discrimination, harassment, wrongful dismissal, retaliation and hostile work environment. Last year, the Ontario Labour Relations Board found the San Romanoway Revitalization Association in contravention of the Labour Relations Act for firing three employees who had sought to form a union. The Board ordered the organization to pay them damages.

Structural issues almost always play a role in conflict within non-profit organizations. Lines of authority and decision-making may not be clear. Informal hierarchies are frequently equal in power or even trump formal hierarchies. A member of an organization who has a history of long service and holds a great deal of institutional memory can possess an influence far beyond their official role. When such people aren't respected or made to feel valued, the consequences can be grave. At worst, it can lead to "soft" sabotage when things don't get done, but no one really understands why.

Another possible consequence is a flourishing of back-channel communications. For example, long-serving but relatively low-ranking members can often bypass direct supervisors, and even bypasses the executive director, getting the ear of board members or donors. Now, if the organization's management is guilty of misconduct then, of course, it is good if this comes to light. However, if a disgruntled employee is unhappy with change or with a poor performance appraisal, their interventions are likely to undermine the leadership and lead to asymmetries of information, confusion, and negative gossip.

Together with the reluctance to spend on proper human resources support is often a reluctance to invest in long-term solutions. To be sure, understanding the sources of conflict and working to improve organizational health can be time-consuming and costly. Yet the alternative I see far too often is for organizations to resort to a series of less-expensive "Band-Aid" solutions that fail because they do not address problems at their root. These half-measures end up being just as costly as a single, effective intervention.

Jeanette Bicknell, Ph.D., chartered mediator, is the owner of Principled Dispute Resolution & Consulting ( She helps individuals and organizations reduce conflict to create more success.

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