Virtually every worker in a non-profit organization has experienced this. And if someone is managing conflict in a non-profit, they had better be aware of it. The result of being unaware is usually a deadly loss of morale and too often one or more resignation letters.
Here is how it works: people who work in non-profits are good people who are serving others, meeting needs, saving the environment, helping the poor, etc. They are passionate for the work they do believing that it is crucial to some aspect of society or the world. However, they are paid less than they could get in other industries, they work longer days (often volunteering time beyond their work hours) and taking on responsibilities above the call of duty (such as phone calls at all times of the day and night from people in crisis). In short, they make sacrifices to fulfill their passion for the work.
So when they are in conflict with another worker, a supervisor, board member or just one of the people they serve, something happens that is different than in all other kinds of organizations. At some point in their emotional process they experience sacrifice indignation. They develop a “righteous anger” towards the person or people (or the whole system in general) who are “persecuting” them.
Internally, the conversation goes like this: “I have been serving here for 4 years for low pay, long hours and unreasonable expectations. Even my computer is out of date because the budget is spent. If I worked in business doing exactly what I am doing now, I would be making twice as much AND have a benefit package. And I would not have to rush off to see people in crisis at all times of the day and night. Why am I still doing this? I deserve better!” At this point, they feel a distinct sense of indignation about the sacrifice they are making and the conflict they are in is too much to bear. It’s obviously “unfair and wrong”.
Keep in mind something else that is crucial to this problem. The spouses and children feel an even greater sense of sacrifice indignation when their loved one is in conflict. This is because they emotionally take on the role of “defender”. Also, they don’t have the opportunity to speak and meet with the “persecutor” as the worker does, so their bitterness grows as their imagination runs wild. (Remember that they are already tired of vacations in cheap hotels, taking bag lunches to theme parks and eating dinners without their dad/mom/spouse.)
This family reality makes it even harder for the worker to control his/her bitterness in conflict -kicking off a disastrous cycle: The worker comes home to complain to the spouse. The spouse becomes furious about it and makes the worker even angrier when they go back to their work. This results in conflict escalation from harsher words and actions at work, causing the worker to come home with more horror stories about workplace injustices. Soon the spouse is doing an internet job search. By then, it is very difficult for the worker to remain in their position, both they and their family are poisoned against the organization and an ugly exit is just around the corner.
Dealing with this before it goes too far is vital in maintaining morale and keeping good people that truly have a heart for the vision of the organization.