Let’s talk about conflict, baby! Let’s talk about you and me! Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that can be! Let’s talk about conflict!


Because if you’re a good nonprofit leader, or a good fundraiser, you’re going to have to say no.

Because it’s hard for people to hear no.

Because if we can’t address conflict effectively inside our organizations, then we have a prescription for a toxic workplace culture.

Because conflict is healthy!

According to this article, Dismantling Racism: White Supremacy Culture, taken from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001, fear of open conflict leads to:

  • people in power being scared of conflict and trying to ignore it or run from it
  • when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue rather than to look at the issue which is actually causing the problem
  • emphasis on being polite
  • equating the raising of difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line

This, I suspect, is why most people answered in our survey of 1100 people last year that their workplaces were not good at dealing with conflict.

Why do we fear conflict?

I believe it is related to perfectionism and trying to please others. If we say something about our boundaries, this person might reject us! This person might deem us not worthy of a promotion, or of caring.

Since we are afraid of being shamed or fired, we try to prove ourselves. So we stop sharing our boundaries that we need to share. Which leads to resentment. Frustration. And lack of trust as we promise things we cannot deliver.

Typical conflicts you might be experiencing right now

In the last several weeks, I’ve been talking with TONS of nonprofit leaders. People have shared with me, even as CEOs and Executive directors, that they have a culture of overwork. And boards that won’t fundraise. So, what could you do about that?

Board won’t fundraise

Well, it’s tricky, see? Good nonprofit leaders have to say no. And we can be the fall guy, if things don’t work out.  If we push too hard on the board to fundraise, we might get fired. Or we can raise all of this money, and then the board can say “We raised this money, goodbye!” Whether you’re a CEO, executive director or development director, this can be a real possibility for you. So you shoulder even more work, just to not make waves. What if we could get the board to do more cultivation and thanking?

Culture of overwork

Someone leaves, so suddenly we have fewer people to do the work. So our boss asks us to take on more. So we stay late. We work extra hard. We have little home life. We always put work first. But does this really serve our happiness, in the long run, to be totally identified with work? Who would we be, if work went away?

Creepy donors

You know what I’m talking about. It has happened to a lot of us. We feel like we can’t say no. We are shrinking in our shoes, imagining how they will touch us, talk to us or look at us. But when our boss asks to meet with the creepy donor, we meet with the creepy donor. And everything we thought was going to happen, came true. So we have to take a really long shower afterwards. Ugh. What if we could say, “I need X person to go with me on this call”?

Who would we be, if we had better boundaries, and put ourselves first?

Can you allow yourself to imagine… what it would look like if you had the ability to say what you were really thinking? If you could say, “No, I work til 5pm and then I go home?” or “No, I don’t want to meet with that donor?” or “No, I’m not going to be able to work this weekend” or “No, you’re not going to get a $1M grant?”

Dealing with Conflict is 100% What You Need To Be Doing Right Now

Make it personal, as well as organizational, and as well as something to look at in the larger culture.

I invite you to play with your fear of conflict, and just come out and say things.

Can you be honest with yourself and others when fear, shame and anxiety are coming up?

Can you say, “I am scared. I am worried that you will reject me. But I have to tell you….”?

As Brene Brown says, when perfectionism is driving, shame is riding shotgun. She invites people to answer these questions:

  • Can you stay in tough things when you get uncomfortable?
  • Are you clear about what your values are, have you turned them into behaviors?
  • Can you build trust and be trustworthy?
  • Do you know how to get back up, and how to rise?

A few potential antidotes:

  • roleplay ways to handle conflict before conflict happens
  • distinguish between being polite and raising hard issues
  • don’t require those who raise hard issues to raise them in acceptable ways, especially if you are using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address the issues being raised
  • once a conflict is resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it and see how it might have been handled differently

We all make mistakes. And sure, there’s the chance that if we develop better workplace boundaries, or allow ourselves to share our worries, conflicts, and anger at work, that other people will get angry. But we’re not supposed to be perfect at working.

We are simply supposed to be able to say, “I’m sorry” and get back up again.

How do you promote healthy conflict in the nonprofit workplace? Let me know in the comments below!

Mazarine Treyz
Mazarine Treyz is a nationally-recognized strategist for fundraising planning and communications. She is the CEO of Wild Woman Fundraising and the Author of The Wild Woman's Guide to Fundraising, as well as other books. Creator of over 12 e-courses, 3 masterclasses and 3 books, she has coached and taught over 12,000 nonprofit professionals how to be better fundraisers since 2010. Mazarine is the founder of the Fundraising Career Conference and the Nonprofit Leadership Summit.