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How to Handle Internal Negotiations at Nonprofits

For nonprofits, the toughest negotiations are often not those with external partners or donors but with colleagues inside the organisation. A quick list of what (not) to do.

Conflicts within value-driven organisations like nonprofits can be especially tough to handle. This is especially the case when conflict erupts over the identity and values of the organisation. One I can remember well as a former non-profit director are the conflicts between communication and fundraising professionals on one side, and field program managers on the other. Managing a small nonprofit working on cultural programs across the Middle East, I often found myself in between ‘camps’ of colleagues. While one end was arguing the appeal of their communications strategy, the other was pointing out the loss of resources that were better spent on program, or the potentially adverse effect of some communication piece on our partners or beneficiaries.

In larger nonprofits it is often easiest to altogether avoid the inherent tension between fundraising, communication strategy and program.

In larger nonprofits, it is often easiest to altogether avoid the inherent tension between fundraising, communication strategy and program, by allowing different departments their own space in “doing their thing”. Conflict avoidance is then an inexpensive short-term option. However, over time tensions between the frontline staff and headquarters rise, and may, all of a sudden, come to a boil.

What do basic insights from negotiation theory tell us? A quick list of what (not) to do:

1: Do not escalate prematurely

Going up the chain may feel good and nominally it takes responsibility off your shoulders. Most likely your colleagues on “the other side” will do the same. People are reaction machines and the risk is that the battle over “who wins the argument with management” becomes more important than attending to the needs and interests of the organisation at large. Escalation should be a measure of last resort.

2: Do not ignore emotions or negative perceptions between team members

This means, in the example above, strengthening relationships and contact between program managers, fundraisers and communication staff. People often instinctively prefer to sidestep relationship issues and move straight to the content, siding with being “professional” and “solution oriented”. In challenging negotiations this can be a costly mistake to make as distrust continues to linger underneath the surface and greatly hampers creativity to find solutions that are workable for all sides.

3: Do not propose solutions too early in this process but spend time exploring options

As discussed in the blog How to build strategic partnerships, putting solutions (however great) on the table too soon can be a costly mistake.

4: Look for objective criteria to weigh different options

That may look impossible in a situation in which different departments struggle over “their turf”. However, the core values the organisation upholds, can help guide a way forward in which everyone can recognise themselves. Ever thought the mission, vision and values statements were just there to speak to external actors such as donors or beneficiaries? They should be the primary means to navigate internal disputes.

5: Once a way forward is found, spend some time looking at how you respond to unforeseen developments

Agreements by definition cannot predict these developments but they can include a process for dealing with issues between colleagues at an early stage. Simple process rules on how to deal with new developments can also prevent escalating conflicts prematurely.

NPS provides a 2-day negotiation skills training for nonprofit professionals in Geneva this fall. The training is also available in in-company format.


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