What to do when Conflict Arises
… Exploring the impact conflict has on charities and the role of boards in using conflict, complaints and controversy as a way of ‘health-checking’ and improving their organisations…
Let’s face it, not many of us are good at handling conflict. However, is conflict always a bad thing in the context of charity governance, or can it assist boards in making good decisions which further their charitable objects and act as a catalyst for positive change?
The answer of course depends on a number of factors; not least being the root cause of the conflict, how long it lasts and what form it takes. Public confidence in charities remains at similar levels to 2016, despite trust in charities being badly knocked in 2016 and 2018, by controversies surrounding Age UK, Kids Company and more recently, the Oxfam scandal. High profile reputational conflicts and protracted controversies like these are almost always damaging and usually have serious consequences for the charities involved.
For example, as the Oxfam story unfolded, the charity lost thousands of its regular donors, and at its height, the issue even appeared to threaten the UK government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid. A quick glance at the articles in this publication confirms that conflict in the charity sector can come without warning and for very different reasons. However, given that most charities are involved one way or another with people and depend on volunteers, who are often passionate about the cause, then some degree of conflict may be unavoidable.
Managing conflict is almost always time consuming, it can be demoralising and is often damaging to key relationships. It can also, as in the case of Oxfam, be costly. Prolonged periods of conflict undermine confidence, unsettles trustees and diverts managers. Charities large or small, seldom in my experience flourish during times of conflict. Although, occasionally conflict may in fact be a good thing.
Charities are accountable to their beneficiaries and stakeholders and should listen to and value their feedback, even if at times it’s uncomfortable to hear. The stakeholder theory of governance recognises that a wide range of people and groups are likely to have valid and varying interests in charities and effective governance negotiates and resolves conflicts between them. To put it another way, challenges stemming from stakeholders expressing different opinions, if effectively managed, can be a driver of improvement.
Although listening and responding to stakeholders is essential, it’s important to appreciate that people have mixed motives for being involved with charities, not always altruistic, and the challenge for boards and chairs in particular, is to recognise the difference between constructive challenge and damaging conflict.
Constructive challenge has its origins in creativity; it respectfully questions conventional wisdom, is values driven, and is focussed on mission. Whereas outright conflict frequently stems from individuals or factions seeking greater influence, is distracting from mission, is occasionally personality driven and can be costly.
Outcomes from charity conflicts and disputes that I’ve seen over more than 30 years in the sector include, disruptive and costly extraordinary general meetings (EGMs); chairs and chief executives’ resignations; senior staff being sacked; independent investigations; serious incidents being reported to the Charity Commission; key staff leaving; damaging publicity; lost contracts; funders withdrawing and large legal bills. Therefore, conflict should never be ignored, or treated lightly, it calls for skilful management and sound judgement.
The Role of the Board
Governance plays a vital role in a charity and effective governance includes successfully managing conflict. Importantly, as conflicts bubble-up it’s rarely clear at the outset what wider implications there might be; therefore conflict resolution requires timely attention by trustees and senior managers. However, monitoring conflicts and complaints and how they’re being resolved can provide boards with valuable insights into organisational morale and underlying cultural issues.
The health and social care regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) is particularly interested in this aspect of scrutiny by non-executive boards – asking as part of their rigorous inspection process, what ‘line-of-sight’ does the board have from the board-room to front line services? How are trustees in practice ‘temperature checking’ the health and underpinning culture of the organisation? Is this organisation well-led?
To shockingly illustrate the importance of boards being alert to these warning ‘signals’, as many as 1,200 patients died as a result of poor care at Stafford hospital, a small district general hospital in the West Midlands. Governance doesn’t get any more serious than this.
In his public inquiry report, Robert Francis QC made it clear that the board of Stafford Hospital was primarily responsible for the failure of leadership that enabled poor standards of care to go unaddressed for so long. In other words, it was a shocking failure of governance. However, at the time, conflicts between staff and mangers and crucially complaints made by distressed relatives were characterised by some senior managers as vexatious, or fault-finding, and were tragically brushed aside.
Practicing effective governance is demanding, but mature boards understand that in managing conflict and complaints, the ‘buck stops with them.’
Being an Effective Trustee
There are many similarities in the role and responsibilities between charity trustees and health trust non-executive directors and the Mid Staffs health inquiry provides vital lessons for trustees and charity boards alike. Regulatory and policy developments since Mid Staffs have been a valuable driver of improvement in all aspects of governance practice in the UK.
Being an effective trustee is not easy, in part because you’re dependent on others for information about what’s going on across the organisation. If a powerful chief executive tells her board that a conflict simmering between managers and volunteers is nothing for trustees to be concerned about, it can be hard to challenge that view. In order to be effective, trustees need to be as well informed as possible, they need to engage with their stakeholders and be prepared to constructively challenge the executive. In short, to create some respectful conflict of their own.
Recent research from Birmingham University and the Nuffield Trust highlights the value of a ‘restless board’ that seeks to constantly compare itself with others and find ways to improve. Trustees should regularly visit frontline services, they should encourage routine meetings with stakeholders and regularly engage with the life of the charity beyond the boardroom. They need to be curious, welcome dialogue with stakeholders and be vigilant when conflict and complaints arise.
If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss this with us in more detail, please contact Hannah Farmborough or call on 0207 429 4147 to be put in touch with a member of our Not for Profit team.
This article is from our Using Conflict as a Catalyst for Change report, a guide to help you embrace, manage and mitigate conflict within your charity.