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Potential for disaster when you serve on a volunteer board

By Lynne Curry

Sometimes you take on work for which you aren’t paid—because it matters, or because you’ve been talked into it. Perhaps you serve on the board of a non-profit healthcare corporation, offering your experience and knowledge as a medical office manager. Possibly you run for your condo association’s board of directors because you want some control over the condominium unit in which you live. Despite the zero pay, you occasionally face situations that require hard work and take every ounce of skill you possess.

Recently, I helped a community health clinic 11-person board of directors when they found themselves petitioned by angry former employees and upset community members. They hadn’t expected the depth of allegations against the clinic or its top two leaders, nor to find their clinic making media news in April and May, but they worked together to resolve the problems.

In recent weeks, condo association board members throughout the country wondered “what have I gotten myself into and do I have the necessary skills?” The story that awakened their fears was one that shocked the nation. At least 95 people dead and more missing. We all felt for the victims who went to sleep in a dwelling with idyllic views, only to awaken to a nightmare.

What happened? Why did the resident-led association that operated the condominium not take swift action in 2018 when an engineering firm told them their building had “major structural damage”?If the media accounts can be believed, the seven-member condominium board became mired in contentious debate. Five of its members resigned in 2019, leaving an unresolved situation that led to death.

If you guessed “money” and the complexity of engineering opinions, you’ve identified two culprits. But there’s more. According to a well-researched June 30 Washington Post article, “ego battles;” “undermining” of other board members; “gossip,” and “mistruths” all played a part in the board’s inability to decisively act.2

In a traditional workplace, unresolved conflict leads to turnover, low morale, lowered productivity, strained relationships, stress, and lawsuits. Despite the difficulties conflict poses, the traditional workplace’s hierarchical structure provides clear definition concerning who makes final decisions.

Condo association board members, unrelated individuals who have agreed to share responsibility for their building, face additional challenges when conflict arises. The decisions board members make impact their residence, family and finances, making the situation uniquely personal and giving individual members the feeling that the position they take should prevail. Some board members may taste power for the first time and slip into destructive behaviors.

Here’s what to do if you serve on a board mired in conflict.

  • Realize you need to exercise the highest level of skill you possess when those you interact with have fewer skills or feel unwilling to use them.
  • Make respect your rudder and honesty your compass.
  • Cut others, but not yourself, slack, understanding that emotions can impair others’ cognitive faculties.
  • Set up a time to meet, and frame the discussion as working together to achieve a shared goal. Before launching into the discussion, agree to meeting guidelines designed to keep emotions from hijacking the discussion.
  • Create a foundation of shared understanding. In the early days of the Pebble Mine controversy, I met with a group of Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s young leaders who spent two days hearing reports from technical experts representing varying views concerning the mine. Prior to this meeting, the leaders had held divergent passionate views concerning the mine’s development. Some saw it as economic opportunity, others viewed it an environmental disaster in the making. After this extensive factual briefing, the leaders discussed their new views based on the mutual education they had received.
  • As a group, decide on your common goals and identify key issues. Discuss all key issues, starting with the least controversial first.
  • Listen to others’ perspectives. Assume you have something to learn from those who see things differently. Try to see the situation from their perspective and to understand their rationale.
  • When you speak, chose neutral words. Ask questions, demonstrating your intent to understand and to dialog. If you sense yourself becoming frustrated by others’ stubbornness, challenge your mindset and think past your blind spots. Focus on how to solve problems, rather than whom to blame. Remember that accusations lead to retaliation, and that winning at all costs means someone loses.

It will years to unravel all relevant pieces of the Surfside Condo story. Meanwhile you may choose to serve on a non-profit or condo association board because the organization’s mission matters to you. You may find yourself engaged in conflict that takes all your skills. If so, realize the problem situation gives you a chance to act in the best interests of those you serve.

The theme of accountability is core to the Surfside Condo story and this post, for a full discussion of how to implement accountability, see










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