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 1 of a two-part series excerpted from our forthcoming Passages Issue Brief on “Avoiding avoidance.” In Part 1 we’ll introduce the nature of conflict and some of the most common conflicts in family philanthropy. Next month, in Part 2, we will share creative “tactics” boards use to perpetuate the avoidance, and how you can use simple tools to call out and address conflict in a healthy, productive way.

Picture this: You’re at a family foundation board meeting (be it with your own family, or a family you work with).

Across the table from you is Dad, the founder. Dad makes a good show of wanting to include other opinions, but when it comes down to it, his word is the last word—and everybody knows it. Next to him, there’s Mom, co-founder and secretary of the board, who is advanced in age and is becoming more forgetful by the week (something that no one wants to bring up with her, for fear of hurting her feelings). An aunt sits next to her, a fireball who speaks her mind and refuses to take any flack from the founder (her baby brother).

Then there are the “kids”—the second generation—a gay son who is so focused on his own career and family that he barely shows up; and the other, a daughter in an interracial marriage who shows a genuine desire to one day run the foundation, and yet, has quite different political views and interests than those of her parents. Both have children of their own in their late teens and early 20s (one who is adopted), and no one has invited or talked about these grandchildren taking part.

Can you sensethe underlying tension in the room? While this example may seem extreme, these scenarios are not as uncommon as you may think.

Conflict will always occur in an organization that’s growing, evolving and changing.

Families who come together in philanthropy, be it a foundation or other giving vehicle, bring their strengths, their passions, their identities, and their conflicts with them. Out of fear or out of love, some will go years or decades (generations even!) keeping their differences under wraps and avoiding difficult conversations.



Conflict most often occurs when people perceive that there is a threat to their needs, interests, or concerns. “Although conflict is a normal part of any organization’s life, there’s a tendency to see it as negative and caused by difficult circumstances,” says Bobbi Hapgood, trustee of the Educational Foundation of America and founder of Philanthropic Ventures, a North Carolina-based consulting firm.

Yet conflict is neither good nor bad. It’s a natural part of human relationships and a dynamic in all group settings. For the most part, disputes aren’t caused by “bad people” trying to be difficult. They often result from people with good intentions trying to accomplish shared goals.

According to Ginny Esposito, president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy: “Conflict will always occur in an organization that's growing, evolving, and changing. What makes it a positive or negative experience is if it’s addressed, and how it’s managed.”

When treated as an opportunity for growth and creativity, conflict can actually be a positive experience that leads to great outcomes. According to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld in “What Makes Good Boards Great” (Harvard Business Review, 2002), “The most effective boards may be those that are contentious, that regard dissent as an obligation and treat no subject as un-discussable.”

By developing the skills to manage conflict—early and often—you can create a culture of healthy dissent, and save a lot of frustration and challenge later on.

The Nature of Conflict—and Why We Avoid It

If conflict isn’t bad, then why do we avoid it?

While some people are willing to fight a good fight at a moment’s notice, the majority of us tend steer clear of conflict when we can. This is part of a natural desire to work collaboratively, live in harmony with others, and get along well in society.

In families of origin, there are dozens of reasons why people avoid conflict. First and foremost, it’s uncomfortable. The perceived differences, hurts and misunderstandings among family members may feel so entrenched, so emotional, and so personally risky, that people may choose not to “go there” when it comes to conflict. Perhaps they think: “It’s never going to change; why should I even bring it up?” or “Can’t we just all get along?”

Some family members might fear escalating the anger, hurt, and drama in a given situation. They might want to avoid criticism, judgment, or being seen as vulnerable. Or they might be afraid of retribution—that if they confront an issue, someone might try to “get them back.”



Avoiding conflicts might keep the status quo for the moment, but it ultimately stifles the growth of both the individual and the family relationships. For families who work together in a foundation setting, the stakes are even higher.

According to Hapgood, “Conflict avoidance keeps a foundation from being able to evolve its governance structure and management. It may help alleviate tension in the short-term, but it’s bad in the long-term for the foundation and the family.” She notes that avoiding issues can lead to a poorly run foundation, ineffective grantmaking, ongoing miscommunications and misperceptions, and, in extreme cases, even the demise of the foundation.

One thing is certain: If continually swept under the rug, conflict will escalate

“Some people honestly believe that if you don’t deal with a problem, it will go away—and that isn’t true,” says Frank Merrick, trustee of the Merrick Family Foundation and principal of Foundation Management, Inc. “You can hold hands and sing Kumbaya all you want, but sometimes people just need to have it out, even if it risks hurting someone’s feelings.”

Merrick suggests that open, honest dialogue is key. “Nobody wants to be the jerk in the room, but sometimes you have to be that person and speak up in order to get things on the table. The board ought to welcome that dialogue, with a ‘thank you for making us discuss this.’”

I’m not opposed to a knock-down, drag-out fight in a board meeting. We don’t try to have total harmony.

-- Frank Merrick, trustee of the Merrick Family Foundation and principal of Foundation Management, Inc.


Top 7 Conflicts Families Avoid

Family relationships among board members can be both a blessing and a challenge. Here are some of the most common conflicts a family foundation board might experience:


No one likes to think about his or her own mortality or “aging out” of the foundation. Younger generations may feel it’s too sensitive a topic to bring up with their parents or grandparents. The kids may be afraid to step into their parents’ territory, and the parents may be worried that the kids aren’t interested. The result? No one talks about it—or if they do, they are often unsure how to go about it.

A family foundation that develops a succession plan early can prevent family difficulties later. Without a clear plan in place, a board may select successors arbitrarily, causing resentment or frustration on the part of those not included.

Succession is more than training the next generation—it’s also about valuing them and their participation. “You can train kids all you want, but if you don’t show you value them and their point of view, you won’t hand over the foundation well,” says Merrick.


People avoid succession like crazy.

– Alice Buhl, senior consultant at Lansberg, Gersick & Associates


Access to the foundation.

Sometimes related to succession (but not always), conflict can arise when it comes to which family members or family branches are chosen as board members. There are only so many seats on the board, which means some family members or branches must wait their turn (and that’s if the foundation has a rotation policy).

For example, if one brother is chosen as the succeeding board chair over his other siblings, this may lead to tension, anger, or hurt feelings among individuals or branches. Or if one family branch has more representatives on the board than the others, again, it can lead to suspicion of favoritism or of feeling “left out.” In addition, there may be resentment between family members who devote a considerable amount of time to the foundation, versus those who just show up to board meetings or don’t have as much time as they would like to participate.

Who’s on the board?

If new family members join the board, such as spouses, in-laws or non-family members, it may create uneasiness among the current board. They may feel these new members do not share a common bloodline, history or reverence for the original donor’s intent, which can create a culture of clannishness among family-only board members.

In addition, if there are no set policies about board qualifications, eligibility and the number of board seats, it may create a perception that the foundation is “up for grabs” for any family member, with any level of education or experience, to join. This can create an awkward situation for both the current board and those waiting in the wings.

Minority rule.

Minority rule is when one personality dominates the foundation or board meetings, and the rest of the board bends to meet this person’s demands. “An example of this is when Granddad is still at the board table getting old and cranky, and no one wants to contradict him,” says Merrick. “It can also happen when one of the board members bullies the others.” (See Poor performance and inappropriate behavior, below.)

If this person happens to be the original donor or board chair, sometimes this is called founder’s syndrome. The founder may think of the foundation as “his” or “hers” rather than a public trust governed by the board. He or she may micromanage or have trouble letting go. When minority rule goes unaddressed, it can lead to board (and staff) turnover, internal resentment and fear of the founder/dominant person, and board members who feel they don’t have a voice.

Rivalry among siblings or family branches.

Rivalry is built into sibling relationships from an early age, and can continue well into adulthood—manifesting itself into long-standing rifts among entire family branches. Siblings are often sensitive to unequal treatment—either real or perceived—and this can cause eruptions around the board table.


In our family, one branch is thought of as the ‘bad actors’. This perception has rolled down the family line into the kids. Family members assume there’s a ‘hidden agenda’ instead of getting to know these kids as the individuals they are.

--Family foundation trustee

Poor performance and inappropriate behavior.

Sometimes family members have personal issues that affect the way they relate to the rest of the board. These issues might be rooted in their perception of the foundation or the wealth itself, or it could be outside issues that then present themselves at board meetings. Poor performance might be anything from missing meetings, not participating even when at meetings, and not following through on what is promised. This could be the result of a board member’s busy career and family life, or simply not having time to devote to the foundation. Or, it could be that the member feels obligated to be part of the foundation, even though he or she isn’t really interested.

Inappropriate behavior could include any range of activities that thwart board operations. Some examples include: spreading misinformation (either deliberately or unintentionally), repeatedly contradicting, disrupting or manipulating the flow of discussion; stifling others’ ideas; verbally attacking or giving the “silent treatment;” denying that problems exist; etc.

Poor performance and inappropriate behavior call for the board’s leadership to swiftly intervene, identify the nature and cause of this behavior, and, if necessary, remove the member from the board. Of course, if the board leader is the one behaving badly, or has an alliance to the troubled board member, then this can make for an especially difficult situation for the rest of the board.

Disagreement around program or geographic areas.

Board members may have personal, religious or political differences, or the younger generation may have quite different interests than the elder generation. In addition, some board members may live in different cities or states, and have little to no connection with the geographic area where the foundation funds. This can cause these board members to lose interest or push for other funding priorities.

When not taken personally, however, individual differences among the board can be positive and important, as they allow other family members to learn new perspectives and gain respect for beliefs outside their own.


Looking for solutions to these common causes of conflict avoidance? Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article in the December issue of Family Giving News, where we will share tools and techniques for avoiding avoidance and addressing conflict in family philanthropy.