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Saturday, 19 March 2011

Getting along – conflicts among staff

By Kirsten Bullock

There seems to be an invisible line drawn between fundraising staff and programme staff, executive staff and frontline staff, support services, such as accounting and technology, and everyone else. It exists in some way in most of the organisations I’ve worked with in the USA and I would be interested to hear from readers elsewhere to see if this staff divide is universal.

As a lifelong student (and someone who tends to think too much), I have spent time trying to determine the root of these conflicts. It seems to me that they stem from three different areas:

1) A belief that everyone else is just like us.

2) A tendency to think that the area we work in is the most important.

3) Focusing on what we heard – rather than what was meant.

We are not all alike

I confess that I am not a detail-oriented person; however, I have the utmost respect for those who are. I must also confess though that I used to get really irritated with people who dwelt on details when I wanted to talk about the big picture (and still do occasionally). Over time, and through communications tests and profiles such as DISC and Myers Briggs, I’ve come to have a much greater respect for the importance of diversity on work teams. It ensures that we will be less likely to overlook items essential to the success of our project, among other benefits.

Marriage was a similar learning curve for me in this area. My husband and I folded our towels differently, put our toilet paper on the holder differently, squeezed the toothpaste differently and had very different cooking styles (it was a few years before we were able to cook together). It didn’t mean either of us, or our families, were wrong, we were just different.

We are equally important

While there could probably be some very energetic discussions about the most important part of an organisation (programmes, fundraising, operations), the truth is that none of them could be successful without the others. We need money to operate programmes, but we need strong programmes to warrant funding and we need good systems in place to assure that everything is operating smoothly.

Communication, especially listening, is the key

Communication is an on-going challenge for people, as evidenced by the deluge of self-help books covering this topic and the increasing number of coaches focusing on it. Two people might be using the same words but mean very different things. Add another culture, even a second or third language into the mix and it’s a wonder we’re able to communicate effectively at all.

Several months ago my mother had some friends from Denmark visiting her. They had gone on a trip to a store and while they were waiting to pay her two friends were having an animated conversation about something fairly mundane. The person behind the register expressed concern to my mother about the argument he assumed they were having because, based on what he knew from his cultural norms, he thought their animation was hostility.

Creating a collaborative environment

So, with these challenges (and many more that we don’t have space to cover here), how do we begin to create a more collaborative environment?

First, understand yourself (with a goal of helping to understand others). The things you find most irritating about others may be things you yourself struggle with, or could be the exact opposite to you. Spend some time thinking about your reaction to other people. If it’s a negative reaction, try to identify what’s causing that reaction and why.

Next, try to see the good in others. When you’re able to identify differences between you and others, try to see the benefits that those differences offer. If you’re like me and love to push forward on projects, it’s good to have one or two people on your team providing cautionary words about possible obstacles. If you’re the type of person who gets stuck because of all the obstacles, it’s beneficial to have someone on the team pushing to move things along.

Bring internal partners into the conversation early. Ask questions about how things operate in their department and understand the implications for their department of what you’re trying to accomplish. Bringing all the parties together at the beginning of a discussion can help avoid delays later on. The primary objective for this meeting would be to discuss what you’re trying to accomplish and then ask for ideas of the best way to get there. It does take longer, but there will be more support for the implementation phase – and you might be pleasantly surprised when a better idea emerges to accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to do.

Understand your organisation’s programmes. Take time to learn about the programmes you’re raising funds for and what the hoped for outcomes are. This is a great opportunity to build bridges with programme staff. And remember, people don’t always remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. Listening goes a long way in helping to build a strong relationship.

Recognise programme and operations staff, talk about them whenever the opportunity arises. As fundraising professionals, we often have the chance to do so publically. Let your programme and operations staff members know how much you appreciate them.

Start a giving programme for staff so, just like donors, they can become investors in the organisation beyond the day-to-day work they do; in some cases, introduce them to the joy of giving. Perhaps in a small way it helps other members of the organisation to get a small glimpse of the way we, as fundraising professionals, have the privilege of helping our donors use their money to accomplish something that they care deeply about and would not be able to accomplish on their own.

So, to summarise, it boils down to being a strong partner by listening and appreciating the strengths each person brings to the table. Hopefully through this process mutual respect will develop and a fruitful partnership can begin. Please let me know how these tips impact your work.


  1. Thanks Kirsten for the reminder. Fundraisers really are change agents and have the ability to build bridges and stronger organisations - especially if we can, at the same time, respect and encourage those around us and engage them in the fundraising process.
    Trish Roath
    The Australian Ballet School

  2. Thanks Trish - That's one of things I love most about being a professional fundraiser!

  3. Hey Kirsten,

    Great article but what are your thoughts about silos within the organization? We seem to get along personally but the organization's structure makes it difficult to be collaborative. The conflict is at a higher executive level. Those of us down here (middle level and lower level jobs) see the the toll it is taking on our organizations $$ and time. How can one approach managment about ideas that would benefit the org? Is it worth the risk? Thanks for your thoughts and ideas.