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    - Conflict

In place of strife

Any group of people with a common purpose will find themselves in dispute from time to time, but in the value-led voluntary sector there is the added dimension of emotional commitment to a cause, which can cloud judgement and distort objectivity.

Stress and internal conflict

Much conflict is the result of stress. The needs of beneficiaries and their often distressing circumstances can become overwhelming for staff and volunteers, and too often there is no designated person to whom they can turn for counselling and practical support. Unreasonable or unrealistic expectations from service users can also make physical and emotional demands on individuals and stretch organisational resources.

Financial pressures are another problem. Unrealistic targets put an unreasonable strain on those trying to raise funds. The assumption (now slowly shifting) that staff will help keep costs down by working unsocial hours and accepting a lack of suitable equipment and facilities can also be an unacceptable burden.

Sexual and racial harassment, insensitivity to disability and poor employment practices exist in the voluntary sector just as they do elsewhere. Your organisation should follow good employment practice and have adequate procedures to deal with such problems - see staff.

Conflict can result from the stress involved with change - whether it is dealing with a merger with a like-minded organisation or keeping up with the march of technology.

Even without these pressures, power struggles can erupt. There will be disagreements between individuals and differences of opinion over structure and direction between trustees and management. These can turn into serious disputes if they are not addressed promptly. Roles and responsibilities must be clarified.

Everyone in an organisation can use basic preventative measures to reduce the possibility of destructive conflict.

Conflicts with other organisations

Conflicts that develop between organisations and their funders can threaten an organisation's existence. See the conflict with a funder case study.

Video view: Carlisle CAB

See how a Citizen's Advice Bureau negotiated a deal with the local authority when their premises were being redeveloped.

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Competition for contracts with other voluntary organisations and the private sector has become increasingly expensive and time-consuming. Sometimes a clash of values between the service provider and the contractor can exacerbate existing internal tensions.


Poor communication lies behind many disputes. Clear lines of management and free-flowing communication are vital for the health of any organisation. There should be a structure facilitating this and everyone associated with the organisation should be familiar with it.

Expert view

Linda Laurance, conflict expert, talks about how conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing.

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When organisational change is being considered it is vital that there is the broadest possible consultation and that adequate time is given to the process. This will help ensure that good policies are adopted and that everyone in the organisation has a stake in them.

Governance and management

The boundaries between governance and management must be clearly defined: the board of trustees or management committee set and monitor policy and the managers are responsible for carrying it out and reporting on progress to the board.

In a very small organisation there may be no paid staff and it is important to define in writing individual areas of responsibility. Make sure that decisions are recorded when meetings take place at any level. This applies equally to discussions with other organisations.

One of the most important lines of communication is between the chairperson of the trustee board and the most senior manager. If contact is haphazard, the work of the organisation as a whole will be impeded. Ideally they should have contact at least once a week and meet at least once a month - see the internal conflict case study.

Lack of cohesion among trustees inhibits decision-making and causes frustration for staff and volunteers, who may need strategic agreement before they can proceed with a project.

The impact of conflict

If conflict is not addressed morale inevitably deteriorates, team unity disintegrates and quality standards are not met. Individuals will suffer from frustration which may lead to irritability, anger, withdrawal or even stress-related illness. If a conflict becomes public knowledge, fundraising can be impeded and an organisation's public image can be badly damaged. Ultimately, the beneficiaries for whom the organisation exists can suffer deterioration in services.

But there can be positive aspects! Debating opposing ideas provides an opportunity for people to think them through, explain them in more detail and learn from others' responses. Conflict can release tensions, develop people's confidence in their ability to manage differences, and strengthen relationships. The open discussion of different views can uncover hidden problems that need to be addressed and challenge accepted structures and procedures in a productive way.

Managing conflict

The trustees are responsible for ensuring that conflict in an organisation is properly managed - for example that grievance and disciplinary procedures are in place. Managers should be responsible for dealing with conflicts, with the chairman or another trustee only becoming involved in accordance with the appropriate procedures. It is worth thinking about how to deal with conflict before it happens and develop some guidelines for dealing with conflict.

Sorting out conflict within the organisation is the best option, however sometimes it's necessary to get external help to help things move on. There are a range of options. You could employ an external facilitator to assist in reaching consensus on, for instance, strategic policy or a team action plan. Other measures for dealing with conflict are mediation and arbitration.

Video view: RS health

See a role play of a mediation session addressing organisational conflict between a manager and chairperson.

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