Sources of Conflict in Your Organization | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Recognize Potential Sources of Conflict in Your Historic Preservation Organization

Sources of Conflict in Your Organization | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

People initially join historic preservation organizations because they care deeply about preserving history or saving a particular historical artifact in your community. They want to do important work that helps accomplish a meaningful mission. But sometimes the passion that fuels advocacy work also leads to friction and conflict among staff, board members, and volunteers. Ultimately, this conflict can drive people away.

Forms of Conflict

Conflict within any nonprofit organization generally takes one of four forms:

  • Internal board conflict.
  • Conflict between one or more members of the board and the executive director.
  • Internal staff conflict.
  • Conflict between the organization and other stakeholders, supporters, or volunteers.

Experts in organizational management and conflict resolution have offered some tips on managing conflict in your organization.

Sources of Conflict

Your historic preservation organization could face any of the following common sources of conflict in a nonprofit organization.

Change. Of course, change is inevitable. Changes that could generate conflict within your organization include staff and board turnover, new technology (such as social media), or a new opportunity. Sometimes, new board members question the status quo and cause a great deal of conflict. This is particularly common within an organization that has several long-term board members and established ways of doing things.

Generational diversity. The historic preservation community is full of talented individuals from many generations. Unfortunately, generational differences can ignite both tension and stress among staff and board members. Younger historic preservation professionals are often driven and frequently have a post-graduate education. Older preservation professionals have seen the field develop over time. They often have significant and diverse hands-on experience but may not have an advanced academic degree.

In the best cases, older and younger preservationists bring their complementary strengths to the cause. In the worst cases, younger historic preservationists develop resentment and frustration within a board they see as old fashioned and close minded. Their older counterparts may dismiss their concerns as youthful ignorance and perceive new ideas as negative judgments of their life's work.

Chronic financial problems. Small nonprofit organizations typically have a meager budget. They rely upon membership and small individual donations to make payroll. Money problems caused by large, uncontrollable forces—like the national economy can create intense conflict. Your organization, like so many others, is probably not immune to cash flow issues. When times are tough, groups become more protective of perceived limited funds. Financial problems caused by mismanagement can be even worse. Money can also create conflict among partners.

Unrealistic expectations. People who are attracted to nonprofit work tend to have high ideals and expectations. But a mostly (or all) volunteer group can accomplish only so much. Expectations run much higher with full-time staff. If these expectations are not kept in check, they can push staff over the edge and out the door. Unrealistic expectations can also result in board member burnout and resignations.

Differing ideas about how to accomplish your mission. Mission statements tend to be broad ("to protect and preserve," for example) and do not specify the means for achieving goals. Although there are many ways to raise awareness about the value of historic preservation in your community, your organization's limited resources mean that you will be capable of pursuing only a few. Which few? is a question your group should answer at regular meetings or during your strategic planning efforts. If your members do not voice their ideas clearly and come to a collective agreement, your group will certainly see conflict.

Paid staff directed by a volunteer board. Even though your board is legally responsible for the financial health and stewardship of your organization, the executive director is ultimately tasked with maintaining cash flow and keeping your organization on track. Generally, no one blames the board when an organization is struggling. If something goes wrong, the executive director's reputation and livelihood may be on the line. When an organization is having trouble, the board naturally responds by more closely supervising day-to-day staff work. This often results in staff resentment, blurred boundaries between the board and staff, and a loss of trust. Differing notions of leadership and responsibility within a nonprofit can result in great stress and animosity.

Members who believe they are above conflict. Your organization's staff and board members support good works for limited compensation, so they may find it difficult to accept responsibility for bad behavior. They may feel that they are above contributing to a conflict.

Unacknowledged structural or cultural problems in your organization. An organization that has had a longstanding problem with board member or staff retention, or that can't get off the ground financially, may have an underlying problem with its organizational structure or board culture. Nonprofit organizations often operate in dysfunction for too long. Staff and board members often can't see organizational problems from the inside. Nonprofits also tend to be more democratic and inclusive than for-profit businesses. Although this can make staff and volunteers feel good, it often results in too many ideas, too many potential directions, muddy leadership, and messy squabbles.

Founders' syndrome. A nonprofit organization typically charts a path from its creative, free-form roots to an administrative structure that aids fair staffing and greater accountability. The founders of a nonprofit group often have a hard time letting go of their original vision and accepting the structural changes that will allow their group to grow. This temperament is not suited for handling managerial problems. Organizations that wish to move beyond the founding stage frequently find themselves dealing with conflict. Several nonprofit experts have written on this topic, but the best treatment is arguably Deborah Linnell’s Founders and Other Gods (PDF, 150 KB), an article originally published in the Nonprofit Quarterly.

False belief that nonprofit work will be easy. Some business professionals in non-preservation fields leave the hassles of the corporate world to work in a nonprofit environment. They believe their schedule will be more flexible, they will have to work fewer hours, and they will not have to deal with corporate hierarchies and restrictions. The truth often causes conflict. Nonprofit staff work long hours for little compensation with limited resources. Like corporations, nonprofit organizations have pecking orders and personality battles. They are not utopias.

Managing with corporate practices. By charter, your nonprofit organization has a responsibility to the public to satisfy its mission without an eye toward profit. The bottom line may inform your organization's practices, but it cannot dictate all decisions. If you have board members who are accustomed to corporate and financial management practices, they may make unrealistic demands on staff. Performance reviews of nonprofit staff cannot and should not be based on corporate models.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.

You can learn more about nonprofit operations from the Nonprofit Management Education Center offered by the Center for Community and Economic Development, which is part of the University of Wisconsin Division of Cooperative Extension. This resource includes a library of articles and an Organizational Assessment Tool.