Philanthropist Diane Lebson On Dealing With Disagreements In The Non-Profit World

By Diane Lebson

Helping others is often a good way to lift our moods, develop a sense of purpose, and contribute to the world. Hopefully, most of our experiences as volunteers provide us with those benefits – but any time we engage with others and deal with challenging situations, we may find that our charity work puts us on the front line to deal with people who have motives that conflict with our own. 

The truth is, where two or more people are gathered, there will be joy…and there will be difference of opinion. Even in organizations that are focused on making the world better, disagreements can arise. Particularly since the charitable sector has a halo around it, it is even more important to resolve disagreements with grace and for the best interest of the organization and the population they serve. Because a nonprofit’s brand is driven by its reputation and the experiences that donors, volunteers, and clients have, it is imperative that any dispute be handled with the utmost care.

One of my former bosses had a great framework for decision-making, which I believe also offers a sound system for approaching differences in your charity work:

  • Lead with mission. In all you do, does your work advance the mission you are trying to accomplish?
  • Then consider your organization. After you have ensured that your work is aligned with the mission, are you acting in a way that supports your organization and its efforts to make the world a better place? If there is ever a conflict between what the mission aspires to accomplish and what the organization asserts, go with the mission. 
  • Last, focus on self. While many people engage in charity work to address some personal need, it is always secondary to the mission and the organization. 

Women join philanthropic endeavors for numerous reasons that go beyond the mission of the organization. Sometimes they want to build a social network after a divorce, an avocation after the kids head to college, a distraction from something that is wrong in their life. All this means is that people bring their whole selves to their charitable endeavor and that can lead to conflict.

Working through misunderstandings can be difficult and emotional. Ignoring them is worse, as they can fester and make what started as a joyful experience become a painful encounter. Rather than pretending that these clashes do not exist, it is better for the mission, the organization, and yourself that you proactively address them. 

Generally, all disputes that fall into the following three buckets:

  • Lack of communication. Sometimes in our haste to get things done, we inadvertently leave out people who have a vested interest in our work. This can be averted by sending an email message before embarking upon an activity that may have many players or might not have universal agreement. In that communication, invite people to share their differing points of view and be earnest in listening to their advice. If someone is in the conversation, it is a good bet that they care and want to contribute.
  • Misinterpretations of communication or intent. This is certainly not unique to the nonprofit sector and is perpetuated by a culture in which we overly rely on email to communicate. While email can certainly be an efficient tool for sharing information to a large body of people, it is limited because it is often directive, one-way, and open to interpretation. If you are ever dealing with information that is controversial or has the ability to be misinterpreted, it is invaluable to speak live (either in person or via phone or video) with anyone you anticipate might have an issue. In the end, they still could disagree with you, but they will likely appreciate the fact that you thought enough of them to reach out to them individually.
  • Personality conflict. Particularly in instances where people work closely together for a sustained period of time, this can become a significant issue. While everyone doing charitable work subscribes to the mission, they have other underlying motivators for getting involved and those motivators may conflict with each other. For example, someone who volunteers for social reasons may be seeking a sense of esprit de corps and team. That sense of team might be in conflict with someone who seeks recognition for her efforts as an individual contributor. Furthermore, someone who has an underlying motivator that they do not believe has been satisfactorily addressed may lash out. In this case, it could be someone who might have started as a volunteer to the organization with the hope of getting promoted and ultimately serving on the board. If that person believes that promise has been broken or is not moving quickly enough, they might cause a row.

As adults, we handle disagreements all the time. The productive tools we acquired through those experiences often prove useful in working through conflict in your volunteer work. Anytime a disagreement arises in your charitable endeavors, try to resolve it directly using those tools. You and the other party will be better for it.

But what happens if you are unable to work through the dispute by yourselves? The next best thing is to engage whoever manages your work as a volunteer. Ask to speak with that individual privately and state the facts of the case as objectively as possible. Articulate what you hope would be an ideal resolution of the issue and the next steps you believe that the volunteer manager should take. A dispute is more likely to be addressed quickly and to your satisfaction if you make it easy for your supervisor to address it. People in authority prefer to work with others who address their problems proactively and not dump them in their laps like hot potatoes.  

Depending on how serious the issue is, you may or may not want to document it via an email to the manager. If the matter is a personality conflict or a difference in viewpoint, leave it off email and let the power of relationship trump the officiousness of a lodged complaint. However, if the disagreement is more serious and could have legal implications (e.g., harassment or theft), promptly record the case via email with as many objective details as possible. Refrain from being emotional and do not put anything in the email that you do not want others to see: particularly if the disagreement is legal in nature, is very likely that your email will be viewed by others.

Whenever you deal with people you believe are acting uncharitably in their charitable endeavors, it is always good to return to the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Diane Lebson, CFRE, is CEO of Evergreen Philanthropic Solutions, a consultancy that empowers organizations and people to do good in the world. Previously, Diane led the national women’s giving programs for United Way and the American Red Cross – together, they mobilized over 70,000 women and raised over $2 billion. Her book, For A Good Cause: A Practical Guide to Giving Joyfully, will be released in October 12, 2021. For more about Diane, please visit and follow her on social media: @diane_lebson.