Conflict is normal in any family or organization. Yet, many of us avoid conflicts, even if that avoidance affects relationships or how the foundation operates. This month in FGN we feature Part 2 of a two-part series excerpted from our forthcoming Passages Issue Brief on “Avoiding avoidance.” Last month, in Part 1, we introduced the nature of conflict and some of the most common conflicts in family philanthropy. This month we share creative “tactics” boards used to perpetuate the avoidance, and how you can use simple tools to call out and address conflict in a healthy, productive way.

Healthy tools to manage conflict

Now that you’ve learned about the most common conflicts and the tactics typically used to avoid them, you might be thinking: What can be done? Can a foundation that is rife with conflict and stuck in avoidance be saved?

The answer is yes. It takes work and a quorum of people who want things to change. Yet it can be done. There are tools that can help.

First, it’s important to know that the family culture sets the tone for how families behave. Alice Buhl, senior consultant at Lansberg, Gersick & Associates, advises that if you don’t know how your family works, it’s hard to change anything.

“The more a family is aware of its culture, the better they can understand how they operate within it,” says Buhl. “It helps to give people words to talk about their family culture so that they can be more conscious about how they interact. That way, they can call themselves out on it or change it.” (See the Resources section to learn more.)

In addition, good leadership matters. “Families do well when they have a leader who creates a healthy climate for meetings and board interaction. A good leader frames the issues, and manages conflict as it happens, rather than shutting it down,” says Buhl.

In addition to awareness and leadership, what else can be done? Here are 10 tools to address and manage conflict, both preventatively and after-the-fact. You can experiment with these tools and see what works for your board.

1. Create policies and guidelines for the foundation before they become issues.

Having policies in place before a conflict arises can be the best medicine. Consider policies on board qualifications; eligibility for board membership (include language that addresses spouses, in-laws, step-children, etc. and what happens when there’s a divorce); succession; terms and rotation policies; reimbursement; decision-making; and more. Be sure to apply those policies equally, and not in reaction to one individual.

In addition, be sure the foundation has a clear mission and grant guidelines. This can help prevent confusion and personal agendas when it comes to grantmaking.


When we opened up the board to spouses, we came up with a set of guidelines for every potential problem we could think of. One policy we set: If you’re divorced or separated for more than six months, the non-family spouse has to leave the board.

-- Lisa Parker, executive director, Lawrence Welk Foundation and vice president, Whittier Trust Company


2. Set clear expectations for board members.

It sure helps create clarity when board members actually know what it is that’s expected of them. As a committee, create a clear statement of board member expectations, and share it with all members—new and seasoned alike! In addition, orient new board members about the foundation’s history and values, and about their legal, financial, and grantmaking roles and responsibilities.

3. Create a safe space in meetings.

Try to create an atmosphere of mutual respect, listening and empathy in the boardroom and beyond. Establishing meeting rules can help (but be sure those rules don’t contribute to avoidance!). Rules can be about openness, about airing issues, about hearing everyone’s voice equally. People can take turns enforcing the meeting rules in a friendly but firm way. Offer a “parking lot” for issues that seem too overwhelming or heated in the moment. The board can always come back to these issues once people have a chance to calm down.

4. Make time for conflict.

Schedule time on a regular ongoing basis for people to air their differences and problems. This can be part of a more formal “conflict management process,” or an informal “okay, let’s get our issues on the table” talk. By creating a set “time” to bring up difficult issues, you can give people an opening to talk about conflict in a responsible way.

5. Name the issues.

Don’t let uninvited elephants stay in the room—call them out. This isn’t always easy, and in some ways, can escalate the conflict before it assuages it. However, naming conflict is often the first step in managing it. Naming can happen in the moment of conflict, in retrospect, or to acknowledge ongoing conflicts that keep rearing their head.

6. Keep track of conflicts and why they occur.

During meetings, track and see what issues rise to the top, and decide which need to be addressed now—and which can be addressed later. Notice if there are certain times of year (e.g., grant cycles, holidays, stressful times) when conflict seems to be more present than others. The more you can understand these conditions, the better you might be able to predict conflicts that are likely to arise.

7. Appoint a team to seek out best practices from other foundations around conflict management, and report back the learning to the board.

In this way, the board can approach conflict as an opportunity for learning and professional development, rather than something to take personally.


We surveyed our grantees with the help of an outside consultant, and used this data to reflect on ourselves and how we operate. Having this data from the outside world helped us address some of the unspoken conflicts in the family.

--Bobbi Hapgood, trustee, Educational Foundation of America and founder, Philanthropic Ventures


8. Rotate board leadership.

Some believe that board leadership (or membership, for that matter) shouldn’t be a lifetime appointment. If you have not already done so, consider instituting terms and term limits to give other qualified family members the chance to lead or be on the board. At a minimum, be sure that you have identified qualifications for the chair role and make sure you have a chair that can meet them.

9. Consider including nonfamily board members or “wise counsel.”

Family members behave when there are others in the room. If you include nonfamily board members or others whom the family respects for their wisdom and perspective, family members may act kinder and more professional in the foundation setting.

10. Break bread together.

Make the foundation more than about grants and money and power. Socialize! Remind people that they are part of a family. Share a meal, or dedicate the beginning or end of meetings with time to catch up and nurture relationships. Getting to know each other outside the boardroom can lead to more productive and collaborative environment inside the boardroom.


When do you need outside help?

Sometimes families can navigate their way through conflict, and other times they can’t. If your family foundation is struggling or stuck, it’s time to call on outside support. You can either engage a professional family advisor or call on a trusted, unbiased colleague. A neutral party will hear from everyone, and reflect back the things family members cannot say to one another. They can help you identify trouble spots, and suggest options for working through them.  

In the heat of the moment:
Four tips for personally coping with conflict

When you are the midst of a conflict, it can feel confusing and disempowering. While you can’t necessarily control what’s going on around you, you can choose to respond responsibly. Here are some tips for managing the conflict internally.

  • Notice the common signs for when you feel threatened, offended, or triggered. These could be shortness of breath, sweaty palms or other physical sensations, difficulty paying attention, emotional outbursts, shutting down, feeling victimized, blaming or judging defensively. Once you identify your “tell-tale” sign, you can name it. “I’m triggered right now.” Naming it in itself is a powerful practice.
  • Take space to re-center yourself. When you feel angry, hurt or triggered, there are two things to remember: Don’t act (even though you really want to!), and try to find some space to center yourself. The idea is not to avoid a situation, but to return when you are more capable of dealing with it. Taking space could be physically excusing yourself from the room (no one can argue with a bathroom break); or stating a “discomfort caveat”—acknowledging that you are feeling off-balance in the moment, and need some time to gather your thoughts.
  • Shift the energy. Sometimes you need more than taking space; you need to physically shift your energy. Try deep breaths or moving your body (getting up, walking, stretching). Or use humor if you can, which can be a quick way to diffuse anger and change the atmosphere in a room.
  • Respond skillfully. When you feel ready and able to think clearly, you can respond to the situation intentionally. Use “I” statements to clarify what you have heard, and what your needs, concerns, and feelings are. Approach the conflict from a problem-solving point of view, and although you might be feeling angry or sad, try to stay calm and patient through the process.


In Conclusion

Remember, conflict in itself isn’t a problem. It’s important for board members to go to bat for what they believe in, and in fact, disagreements and discord can sometimes catalyze the most creative solutions. Conflict, as uncomfortable as it is, can ultimately bring a board—and a family—closer together.

It’s avoiding conflict and letting it fester that’s the real troublemaker. If you or your fellow board members know there’s something that isn’t getting addressed, don’t let it linger. Be brave. Bring it up—before it gets too big and too overwhelming. (And get help if you need to!)

And one final piece of advice:

When addressing conflict (or conflict avoidance), know that you don’t have to tackle every challenging issue at once. The point is to plan ahead for conflict when possible, so that you can be proactive, not reactive. And who knows? You might be pleasantly surprised by your board’s ability to move through these conversations and grow in relationship to yourselves, as both a family and a foundation.

In our family, it’s our conflicts that have kept us sane.

– Family foundation trustee