How to Prevent and Manage Conflicts in Nonprofit Workplaces

Productive working relationships are critical to your nonprofit’s success. Learn how to manage staff conflicts and create a collaborative environment.

Your nonprofit relies on a strong team to push your goals forward. Everyone has a critical role in advancing your mission, from your board members to your marketing staff. However, your nonprofit isn’t exempt from the conflict that naturally bubbles up in all workplaces. 

Conflict can take many different forms, including issues in staff productivity, stresses on interpersonal relationships, and disagreements around how to best meet an objective. Rather than allowing these issues to fester (and ultimately slow down your progress), your nonprofit can take preventative measures to stop conflict before it happens and quickly manage it when it does. 

Addressing conflict can feel uncomfortable, but plenty of benefits can come out of it. In fact, resolving disputes in a timely manner will help strengthen your internal culture, revitalize working relationships and keep motivation high across your entire team.

To prevent and manage conflict in your nonprofit’s workplace, use these top tips:

  • Rally staff around your nonprofit strategic plan
  • Create a system for elevating issues as needed
  • Offer community-building opportunities

A healthy work atmosphere is exactly what your nonprofit needs to retain employee support and channel their energy toward making your mission a reality. Let’s begin. 

Rally staff around your nonprofit strategic plan 

One of the most common issues in the workplace is a lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities and how team members can best contribute to your organization’s success. This can lead to disputes between employees, lapses in accountability, and disruption of project workflow.  

Reviewing your nonprofit’s strategic plan with your entire staff can help. Aly Sterling Philanthropy defines a nonprofit strategic plan as a dynamic performance map for the future that aligns your organization’s goals with your values. Your plan should include the following information:

  • Key objectives
  • Associated projects to push forward these objectives
  • Team member responsibilities within these projects
  • Performance indicators to track progress and make adjustments as needed
  • Timelines for project completion

Take the time to review these details with every staff member, so they know exactly how they fit into the “big picture” and can contribute to your nonprofit’s success over the long term. A strong plan of action helps to encourage accountability across your entire team, ensuring that employees will meet expectations and conflict will be less likely to occur. 

Create a system for elevating issues as needed

Even with your nonprofit strategic plan in place, it’s normal for a variety of different conflicts to occur. Rather than sweeping these issues under the rug and simply redirecting your team members to your strategic plan, it’s important to actively address conflict and offer resolutions to put your team back on track. 

Often, issues will occur that can be easily resolved among co-workers and don’t require leadership involvement. For example, let’s say two staff members on your donor stewardship team are arguing about the best way to connect with a particular major donor. This disagreement gets quickly resolved by looking back at your donor stewardship matrix and following your plan for higher-impact gifts. 

However, let’s say you have two marketing staff members who are arguing about the best way to promote your upcoming year-end fundraising campaign. Disagreement over tasks like generating the copy for your campaign landing page and choosing which pictures to use in your social media posts crop up, and over time, their banter escalates to bullying, slowing down your entire marketing team’s efforts. 

This is an instance where involving staff leaders in dispute resolution is critical. To take action, consider following these steps: 

  • Offer a way for employees to voice complaints: If your staff leaders meet regularly with their directs on a one-on-one basis, set the expectation early that staff members can discuss anything they’d like in these meetings. This gives employees the opportunity to express any concerns or conflicts that have occurred. Alternatively, you might create a procedure to submit an employee complaint form, which can be helpful for documenting the problem and dealing with the conflict in a more formal manner. 
  • Set up meetings with each party: Listen carefully to what your employees have to say about the conflict. If it’s an interpersonal issue, meet with each employee separately first to understand each respective side of the story. Remain neutral and take notes to record the conversations. 
  • Refer to your employee handbook and offer a solution: Your employee handbook should outline your policies and how to resolve employee disputes and conflicts. Look back at the associated guideline that aligns with your employee’s complaint and take the next steps. If an employee blatantly breaks company policy and shows unacceptable work behavior, you might consider more severe disciplinary action. 

If you come across a problem that isn’t clearly defined in your handbook, brainstorm ideas for a solution that will effectively address the issue at hand and leave all parties feeling content. If it’s an interpersonal dispute, you’ll more than likely have to come up with a compromise that allows both parties to find common ground. Once your solution is agreed upon by both employees, follow up with them in the weeks after to ensure that everything is going smoothly. 

You can also look towards professional services to help address higher-level issues. For example, an experienced consultant can help you identify ways to reenergize your board members and refocus their attention on your nonprofit’s mission. You might also consider hiring human resources (HR) professionals—if your nonprofit doesn’t already have a dedicated HR department—to provide a third-party perspective on conflict resolution.  

Offer community-building opportunities

Strong working relationships are based on mutual understanding and respect. To facilitate healthy peer-to-peer relationships among your staff members (and decrease the chances of interpersonal conflict), offer opportunities for team members to get to know one another outside of work. 

Use one or a combination of these ideas to spur team bonding and encourage collaboration: 

  • Develop a mentorship program: Pair seasoned staff with new team members to show them the ropes and facilitate strong relationships. This is a great way for new members to adapt to your nonprofit quickly and form connections with someone already established in the organization. 
  • Plan staff get-to-know-you events: With so many employees working remotely today, it’s more difficult to form friendly relations and instill trust in one another. eCardWidget’s guide to motivating employees recommends hosting events like staff dinners or engaging in team-building exercises like icebreaker questions before you dive into meeting agendas. 
  • Ask your team what they need: Rather than guessing what type of activities will resonate with your nonprofit’s staff, ask your team directly! Send out a survey to all of your staff members where they can voice suggestions for community-building activities or request ideas at your next meeting. This will help increase attendance rates at your staff events and programs and motivate employees to participate. 

A team that enjoys each other’s company is more likely to work in harmony, so it’s critical to prioritize team-building as part of your efforts to retain and engage employees. Collect your staff’s input as you begin offering community-building opportunities and refine these programs as needed to maximize results. 

Addressing conflict quickly can help your nonprofit strengthen its internal operations and boost employee satisfaction and retention. Make sure your organization has systems in place to not only prevent conflict from happening but also effectively tackle it when it does arise to keep employee morale high. With a motivated and passionate team of staff, your nonprofit will be in great shape to meet your goals and create change in your community. 

Aly Sterling
Long before Aly Sterling founded her eponymous consulting firm, she was solving the unique yet similar problems encountered by nonprofit organizations. Her decision to start her own business in 2007 was driven by her belief in leadership as the single most important factor in organizational success, and her determination to work with multiple causes at one time to scale societal change. Aly’s expertise includes fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation and board leadership development for the well-positioned nonprofit. She is regularly sought for comment by trade and mainstream media, including the Chronicle of Philanthropy and U.S. News & World Report. She has contributed to publications of BoardSource and The Governance Institute, as well as the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and The Giving Institute.