nonprofit conflict

The worry in Howard’s voice came through the phone line. Howard, the board president of a medium-sized arts and culture organization, reached out to us to work with the organization’s board of directors.

From the outside, County Theatre Co. was having a banner year, bringing record crowds to its signature events. But the organization had hit some bumps. While doing some planning work, the board got stuck. Now the board was divided into two factions, with nasty, contentious emails flying among board members. The board’s work had completely halted. No matter what “side” board members were on, all board members were so frustrated that they had turned their attention elsewhere.

Howard asked us to design and facilitate a process to heal the rifts and help the board create a plan for the coming year.

To get the ball rolling, we conducted interviews with each board member. We asked board members what the board had done well and where the challenges were. We asked each board member about the current role of the board and what else the board could work on to add more value.

These weren’t easy conversations. One afternoon, we spoke with a long-time board member who emotionally recalled the organization’s past with nostalgia. A few minutes later, we interviewed a new board member who wondered why the long-time board members were holding on to tradition so tightly!

We also conducted a board assessment survey—the one we use is available on our website. The version we use asks about board performance, conduct, and board members’ relationship with the Executive Director.

Similar to the interviews, responses to the board assessment varied. In responding to many statements, a group of the directors strongly agreed and another group strongly disagreed. For example, half of the board members agreed that “board members come to meetings prepared” and the other half disagreed. The gaps of perspective showed the difficulty in relating to one another and moving work forward.

Most significantly, only one of the board members who took the survey agreed that, “Our board meetings are frequently fun”—the rest disagreed or were neutral! Given everything else, this wasn’t surprising.

The responses were a red flag. While volunteering on a board of directors may have its moments of challenge, board members should feel overall that their participation enriches their lives and is meaningful. These feelings lead to investment and contribution of time and dollars. When these feelings aren’t there, directors are likely to put their energy – and donations — elsewhere.

We worked with a Design Team of several board members to create a board retreat agenda. The retreat included a discussion of the interview and survey responses (in an anonymous, aggregated form) with board members. It also included a visioning conversation about County Theatre Co.’s current strengths and challenges and where directors imagined it might be in three years.

At the retreat, board members spent some time learning more about each other, strengthening relationships among the group. They sat together in small groups and planned fundraising, board recruitment and other priorities for the year.

The board was on a better path by the end of our engagement. Board members stepped up to chair the board recruitment, governance and fundraising committees. At our last meeting, Howard thanked us profusely. He described the dread he had felt before he reached out and the relief he was now feeling at the group’s momentum.

Most nonprofit boards do not have the custom of doing a yearly board self-assessment. In our experience, teams are more likely to hit their goals when they have clarity around what they’re aiming toward.

Try this:

  • Download the board assessment survey here.
  • Have board members take the survey.
  • Set some dedicated time to reflect on the results together and set priorities for the coming year.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Renee Rubin Ross Ph.D
Dr. Renee Rubin Ross is a nationally recognized leader on board and organizational development and strategy and the founder of The Ross Collective, a consulting firm that designs and leads inclusive, participatory processes for social sector boards and staff. Committed to racial equity in the nonprofit sector, Dr. Ross supports organizations and individuals in practices that celebrate and amplify diverse voices and perspectives. In addition to her consulting work, Dr. Ross is the Director of the Cal State University East Bay Nonprofit Management Certificate program and teaches Board Development and Grant Writing for the program. Dr. Ross lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. She is a Board member of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. Her Doctorate in Education and Jewish Studies from New York University explored parent participation in schools. Renee’s hobbies including running, hiking, playing guitar and baking sourdough bread.