Operations

How to Handle Conflict Between a Board and an Executive Leader

| Updated April 19, 2018

Look to resolution for conflict between nonprofit boards and executive leadership

At many nonprofit organizations, conflict between the board of directors or trustees and the executive director or chief executive is all too common. Understand the organizational impact and steps toward resolution.

Common culprits

It's tempting to attribute strife between board members and the executive director to personality clashes. Most conflicts are more complex, however, resulting from lack of information and different views of what information is important.

Consider these common complaints: board members feel they don't receive enough information, while the executive director feels the board is too involved in the details. Often these frustrations exist at the same time in the same organization. How can both be true?

Perhaps it's a case of sharing the wrong information with the board. For example, if board meetings are made up of reports about day-to-day management details, it's no surprise that the board starts to focus on these matters. The solution might be to focus instead on big-picture issues, such as vision, strategy and policy.

Other common causes of conflict:

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  • Board members are unclear about the difference between governance and management
  • Executive leaders are unclear about the board's role
  • No mechanism is in place for evaluating performance of either the board or the executive director

Organizational impact

A nonprofit's effectiveness can be hampered when the board and executive director step on each other's toes. When the conflict escalates and becomes apparent to the staff — such as when the executive director airs his or her frustration with the board — the staff may lose respect for the entire leadership team. Worse yet, a nonprofit that appears to be unprofessional and unorganized is a turn-off for donors.

Other consequences may include:

  • Wear and tear on staff and volunteer morale
  • Hesitancy by staff and board members to raise critical issues that require collaborative action
  • Departure of board members who prefer to give their time to nonprofits with more effective leadership teams
  • Departure of key staff due to frustrations with leadership
  • Loss of donations due to concern that contributions won't be used wisely

Resolution through self-assessment

If board members are unclear about where their authority begins and ends, review oversight responsibilities and ensure that mechanisms are in place to engage members in fulfilling this role.

One way to clarify expectations and highlight whether they're being met is an honest board self-assessment. It can be as simple as a questionnaire that asks board members to rate themselves on how well they're fulfilling their governing functions. The board chair and the executive director then lead a discussion about what's going well and where there are opportunities for improvement.

If the situation is too fraught for the executive director to facilitate a board self-assessment, it may be best to bring in a consultant to lead the board through the self-assessment and subsequent creation of an action plan.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

References

Governance Matters: Executive director conflict

Nonprofit Risk Management Center: Let's work together: The sweet sounds of a board-CEO partnership by Melanie Lockwood Herman and Erin Gloeckner

Dalhousie University: Managing conflict: A guide for volunteer boards by E. Grant MacDonald

WidgetMakr: Top 3 ways to turn off donors by Jack Simms (2012)

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Writer and editor grounded in the nonprofit health care arena