TED Talks

The Case for Conflict

In the nonprofit world, we have a tendency to want everything to be warm and fluffy all the time. Sometimes we deal with gritty issues, but they’re touching and moving, and it makes you feel good to make a difference. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that sometimes the work environment doesn’t reflect that positivity. “Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t be FRIENDS?” The answer? If you never argued, you’d never get anything done.

Okay, so you’d probably still get work done. But it probably wouldn’t be the best work your team is capable of creating. In the past few weeks I’ve started listening to the HBR IdeaCast podcast from the Harvard Business Review. (Side note: I put these little 10-20 minute gems on par with TED Talks. They’re informative, entertaining and full of brilliant ideas. Please start listening immediately.) I recently listened to an episode that was published back in April, an interview with Leigh Thompson, who’s a professor at Kellogg School of Management and author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration.

Thompson talked about how conflict can increase creativity. She talked about the value of conflict on a team. It’s not really a new concept in management, but I really like the way she phrased the value of conflict:

On the one hand, conflict can bring a team to its knees with back biting and excessive argumentation, and back stabbing. And that’s kind of referred to as the bad type of conflict. Some people call it personality conflict where you attack the person.

The good type of conflict is what’s known as cognitive conflict, and that’s in some sense kind of what scientists should be doing. So they kind of debate ideas fiercely, but they don’t attack the intentions or personality of the person. There’s a lot of research in the management science literature that says, gosh, the only way you avoid group think and excessive like-mindedness is to have some kind of conflict in a team or group.

 I would definitely encourage you to listen (or read – the link I gave above includes a transcript) to everything Thompson says about conflict enabling creativity. It will really help you reframe the way you think about team conflict. And the important thing to take away here is to encourage cognitive conflict at your organization, not just between staff members, but with the board of directors as well. Make it clear that personality conflicts are unacceptable, but that your organization actually benefits from the diversity of ideas that healthy debate creates.

The Nonprofit Problem

If you're not familiar with TED Talks, it's time for you to change your life. The TED Talk that inspired this post (linked to below) is an example of the sheer awesomeness that comes out of these frank, funny, inspiring and innovative presentations. The one I've linked to by Dan Pallotta, entrepreneur & activist, is terrific, but if you're not familiar with TED at all, check out Mashable's 15 TED Talks That Will Change Your Life. After you read this post, of course. I would encourage anyone who is remotely interested in the nonprofit sector, either as a staffer, volunteer, donor or advocate, to watch the video in its entirety. What Pallotta addresses in his TED presentation is how the system is stacked against nonprofit organizations in the United States. Charities are expected to do vast amounts of social good, but are handicapped by a set of arbitrary values that society has created for how nonprofits ought to act. Pallotta makes five main points, and I'd like to talk about three of them:

  1. Compensation is not competitive with the private sector. Pallotta says, "We don't like nonprofits to use money to incentivize people to produce more in social services." Almost everyone who works in a nonprofit does so for the mission, not to get rich. But why does it have to be either/or? He goes on, "It gives a really stark, mutually exclusive choice between doing very well for yourself and your family, or, doing good for the world."
  2. Advertising & marketing is frowned upon, unless it's donated. "We don't like to see our donation spent on advertising in charity." Pallotta points out that charitable giving in the U.S. has been stuck at two percent of the GDP ever since we started measuring it the 1970s. No company can grow without great marketing, so how do we expect nonprofits to raise more money if we slap them on the wrists for spending in this department?
  3. Taking risk on new revenue ideas is virtually impossible. "Nonprofits are really reluctant to attempt any brave, daring, giant-scale, new fundraising endeavors for fear that if the thing fails, their reputations will be dragged through the mud. Well, you and I know when you prohibit failure, you kill innovation. If you kill innovation in fundraising, you can't raise more revenue. If you can't raise more revenue, you can't grow. And if you can't grow, you can't possibly solve large social problems."

The average person reading this list of problems might not see the issue. After all, there are no laws limiting compensation, prohibiting marketing or keeping organizations from trying new fundraisers. So why not do it? Surely the results will speak for themselves, and the public will recognize the good done and not have a problem with the "unconventional" methods used. I can't count on all my fingers and toes the number of times I've heard someone say they won't donate to the American Cancer Society because they have an outrageously overpaid CEO (ranked #2, in HuffPost's 10 Insanely Overpaid Nonprofit Executives – the existence of this article just further illustrates the compensation issue).

I propose a shift in the role of managers of nonprofits everywhere. Please, by all means, continue to toil away for a meager income and a greater social good. It's a worthy existence; I should know, as an adult who's been working in the nonprofit sector since college. But in between rallying the team, calling donors and sponsors, planning the new theme for the same fundraising event that's been successful for years, and putting out all the fires you have to put out, consider being an advocate for yourself. Nonprofit managers are going to have to lead from within the industry to push for a paradigm shift. It's a change in culture, a change in functions and a change in perspective, to be sure. It won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight. But if managers aren't the ones leading the charge, who will? If you don't talk with your community about the challenges facing the nonprofit world, how can you expect their support when you try something new? I know you can be an advocate; you are every day. Need some inspiration to make it happen? Watch the video I posted below. You won't regret it.


Activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta calls out the double standard that drives our broken relationship to charities. Too many nonprofits, he says, are rewarded for how little they spend -- not for what they get done. Instead of equating frugality with morality, he asks us to start rewarding charities for their big goals and big accomplishments (even if that comes with big expenses). In this bold talk, he says: Let's change the way we think about changing the world. source: www.ted.com