Conflict in Non-Profits – How Mediation Can Help

Sasha Herzig on February 24, 2014

Not only do many of us rely on non-profits as a source of income, we all also rely on the services non-profits provide us daily.

Whether it’s low-cost medical services, the prevention of animal cruelty, or the promotion of public art, it is clear that we would not be able to survive without the help and hard work of non-profits.

Thus, when non-profits suffer from internal conflict, so do we.

As non-profits are service driven rather than profit driven, there is often the unfair assumption that non-profits do not suffer from internal conflict in the same ways that for-profits do.

But when you take into account that many non-profits are working to assist with devastating economic conditions, local disasters, poverty, and lack of funding, it’s easy to see how the stress of dealing with such sensitive issues can take a toll on non-profit staff and board members.

Unfortunately though, because non-profits often operate on smaller budgets than for-profit ventures, a human resources department or other internal resources are sometimes not within the budget.

Therefore, internal conflicts may arise due to:

  • Blurred lines of communication
  • Differences of opinion for short-term and long-term goals
  • Diversity issues
  • Disagreements between board members and staff on what is best for the organization.

Additionally, there may not be readily available procedures in place for dealing with these disputes and resolving them efficiently and effectively.

  • For example, imagine an arts non-profit whose mission is to enhance its community with free and low-cost arts programming by providing gallery space, performance opportunities, workshops and art classes. This non-profit receives a large grant from a donor who has been participating in its programs since its inception. The donor contributes an unrestricted gift, annually, and has been happy up until now with how the non-profit has chosen to use their donation.
  • This past year, a new executive director was hired, and has decided to use this donor’s gift to pay to renovate the organization’s space. The donor, however, does not want their unrestricted donation to be used for renovations, which they feel are unnecessary and costly. The executive director feels that the renovations will attract a larger audience, therefore increasing awareness of the organization. Even though the executive director feels that continuing with these plans is the right thing to do, they do not want to upset the donor and risk losing their annual donation.

This is where mediation would be a practical and comfortable option for the executive director and generous donor to hash out both of their wishes and come to an agreement where both parties will be satisfied.

How does mediation work?

Mediation is a holistic, inclusive, and affordable alternative to handling internal conflicts.

It allows both parties to express their concerns in a neutral environment, led by a mediator. The mediator is not the decision-maker; rather, she is an objective third-party who assists conflicting persons in coming to a mutual agreement.

Mediation seeks to preserve the working relationship of both parties involved in a conflict by supporting each party in deciding together on a compromise that meets both parties’ desires and objectives.

Mediation also allows conflicting parties to tell their story, while having the opportunity to hear the opposing party’s side as well. The process promotes positive dialogue in a non-aggressive environment, allowing both parties to have a more thorough understanding of the issues involved and each other’s differing perspectives.

Many participating parties leave mediation sessions feeling empowered and confident about being able to find a middle-ground between people with whom they work closely.

Any decisions made during mediation are non-binding, unless each party signs a contract detailing the agreed upon terms.

Before & after…

Prior to commencing mediation session(s), all participating parties should sign an agreement mapping out their best efforts to come to a resolution of the dispute, including confidentiality, good faith, openness and honesty.

After a resolution is made, a Resolution Agreement should be drawn up and signed by each party, laying out what was agreed to and holding each party to their commitments.

When is a good time to start mediation?

The sooner the better!

Issues only become larger and more complex over time. The sooner that each party is able to sit down, discuss their differences, and come to a resolution, the sooner the non-profit will be able to pursue its purposes.

Mediation can help your non-profit to:

  • Increase productivity of your organization to achieve its purposes;
  • Maintain transparency and communication between board members, staff, members and volunteers;
  • Arrive at a creative solution that allows all parties to express their interests and concerns;
  • Create a win-win situation where all parties feel like their wishes are being represented;
  • Avoid a wrongful termination/discrimination lawsuit when someone gets terminated;
  • Assist board members and employees to come to an agreement about how the non-profit will be run in the future;
  • Resolve disputes between fundraising professionals and employees on how to raise funds for the organization; and
  • Settle disputes between volunteers and employees.

Mediation is an attractive option for non-profits facing internal conflict, as it is an affordable alternative to litigation and traditional legal services. Not only is mediation less costly, it’s non-adversarial, allowing participants to come to a resolution that reflects both parties’ wishes.

For more information, please email We are happy to discuss your options and to see if mediation is the right choice for you and your organization.

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