Nonprofits are operated by passionate people. There’s no other reason that we would bypass careers with high earning potential and generous benefit packages to work overtime for organizations that can’t even provide basic office supplies.
Because of this, when there is a professional conflict, things can get heated pretty quickly. You see, we aren’t fighting for ourselves. We're fighting to provide the best services for our clients and community. Combine that fervor with lack of sleep and no resources, and many of us start to perceive any challenge as a challenge to the rights of the people we care so much about. Tempers can flare and, without proper management, explode.
In these kind of conflicts, nonprofits come under a lot more scrutiny than our for-profit counterparts. The IRS may not care about misinterpreted communication or ineffective partnerships, but the public—including funders—certainly do.
Bad publicity, even the petty sort, can cause people to second-guess giving you their hard-earned cash. So to keep the peace (and your donors), follow these four rules to navigate tough situations without sacrificing your reputation.
1. Watch Your Language
Obviously, most people have the common sense to not swear at their colleagues when they’re angry, especially in writing (or email) that can be preserved.
But swearing isn’t your only concern. When you’re trying to smooth over a tough work issue, you need to be careful about other words you use to communicate your distress to your co-workers. For instance, nothing enrages me more than when a colleague uses the word “shocking” to refer to a business matter. I always wonder: Is it really shocking? Or is it, in fact, just annoying? By using hyperbolic language, you can easily escalate a situation and transform what could have been a misunderstanding into a hostile confrontation.
If no laws have been broken, you will likely get along easier by choosing a more neutral tone for your communication.
2. Check Your Facts
We have all been in a situation in which we flaked on the details. We forgot to put an appointment on the calendar or didn’t show up even when it was on the calendar. It’s a shame, but it happens.
However, if you accuse your partner of doing something he or she didn’t do when tensions are already high, you could experience pretty harsh repercussions. For example, I once worked with someone who, after misreading a communication, accused me of not being accessible by phone or email. The thing was, she never contacted me by phone or email. When I pointed this out and provided evidence, her credibility was ruined in the eyes of our organization and outside partners who were involved in the project.
3. Loose Lips Sink Ships
In any conflict, you’re going to be angry, but complaining to your colleagues isn’t going to help anyone. Spilling all of the details about a budget crisis, for example, is going to distract everyone from their jobs and cause unneeded stress. And if your boss finds out that you were the one who blabbed (even if it wasn’t technically a secret), you have just made yourself seem untrustworthy.
So, keep your kvetching to your family members and friends who aren’t in the industry (and who are far away from the office).
And no, that doesn’t mean you can turn to social media either. Even a semi-anonymous blog post could blow up in your face and get your organization into trouble—and could even get you fired.
4. Rise Above
The nonprofit world is tiny, whether you’re working in the same neighborhood or across the globe. That means that you are going to run across the people you work with over and over again—and are going to have to be civil, even if you experienced conflict with them.
So, think about one good thing that you can honestly say about the people or organization. Are they dedicated to the cause (even if you find them horribly unprofessional)? Are they great fundraisers (even if their programs are weak)? Do they always put their community first (and therefore ignore important organizational principles, like good financial accounting)? Focus on the good whenever you speak to—or about—them.
I know of an executive director who bitterly complained about his organization’s outgoing programs director to a funder. That organization didn’t get its grant renewed that year. Why? Because the funder didn’t trust that the nonprofit would be led effectively by the executive director—who was later fired by the board of directors.
How you conduct yourself, especially in times of stress or crisis proves what kind of person you are. Don’t let a bad experience allow others to judge you and your organization at your worst.