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How To Survive Nonprofit Founder's Syndrome

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What is Founder’s Syndrome?

Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome is a common treatable disease. Frequently carried as a recessive gene by passionate, dedicated, dynamic, and visionary entrepreneurial leaders. Commonly found paired with groundbreaking new ideas to solve social problems. Often associated with new fledgling organizations. If seen in an established organization, it may be associated with a strong desire or internal quest for change or growth.

While it’s most often found among founders, the disease can also manifest itself in non-founders who have been in a leadership role for 7 or more years with an organization or clusters of board members who identify themselves as founding board members, founders, or co-founders. Founder’s syndrome is also not limited to nonprofits and can be found in the corporate world.

Who are founders?

Energetic, charismatic, fearless leaders fueled by ambition, determination, and conviction to fill a need and change the world. They do the hardest job of all – build something where there was nothing. To their detractors, they can be bold, stubborn, and opinionated. To their fans, they are charming, magnetic, and inspiring.

Who is involved in Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome?

The Founder: He/she worries the organization would fall apart without them. They may have their identity wrapped up with the organization. Indeed, to donors and the community at large, the founder’s identity may be synonymous with the organization. In extreme cases, they have invested so much of their life into the organization that they do not have a plan B for what they will do when they leave it.

The Board of Directors: They fear losing the founder’s wealth of knowledge and expertise. They’re afraid the founder’s strong relationships with donors will be lost. They may be resistant to change period or be resenting the extra burden and workload of transition planning and finding, hiring, onboarding, and managing a new Executive Director.

The New Incoming Executive Director: The new Executive Director feels like he/she has been called over to babysit a newborn baby only the helicopter parents will not hand over the baby and leave the house. He/she may be questioning why they took the job in the first place and if they’ll ever be allowed to run the organization. He/she may be planning their departure.

Does it go away? Is it curable?

In most scenarios, someone leaves. It could be the new incoming Executive Director who resigns, or it might be the founder who retires or moves on to greener pastures. How can you survive if your organization is afflicted with this syndrome?

How to survive Founder’s Syndrome

If you are the Founder…

Congratulations on building something from literally nothing. Yay, you! Think back to why you started your organization. You wanted to change something. You didn’t start the organization to have a job for the rest of your life. Truth bomb: if your organization cannot survive and thrive without you at the helm it doesn’t deserve to exist. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. Eleven years ago, I left the organization I founded and led for 12 years. When I decided to leave I told myself: “If it cannot thrive without me it doesn’t deserve to survive.” If that felt like a bitter pill to swallow here’s the frosting on the cake: seeing the organization not just survive but thrive AFTER you step away is your single biggest achievement. It is your legacy.

Will stepping away be easy? No. Will there be mistakes? Yes, and they may not all be yours. The good news is that you can work with seasoned experts to help make an executive transition as graceful as possible. This is a chance for new leadership to step up, for new opportunities to flourish and for your legacy to live on.

What can a founder do?

  1. Build your bench strength. Pass the baton and give leadership opportunities to staff beneath you. Showcase their talent. You have been the face of the organization and to transition, you need to start giving the spotlight and credit to others. Allow them more autonomy in their decision-making processes. Even taking a sabbatical is helpful.
  2. Craft a succession plan for you and other key leaders, like your development director. Your plan needs to proactively deal with the fears your board and others have about your departure.
  3. Get outside help. There are many nonprofit succession planning experts who can help you plan a successful departure. In addition to their professional expertise, you will benefit immensely from leaning on peer support.
  4. Plan your communications. A key part of your transition plan is who to tell when, starting with key players, then moving on to your inner circle of donors and extending out from there. This is one of many critical components in your transition plan.
  5. Do not join the board. This is strictly forbidden. Under no circumstances should a founder move from an executive role to a board role. Doing so will destroy any chances the new incoming Executive Director has at success and undermines their leadership.
  6. Take time to self-reflect. Your success will be dependent on you seeing yourself as separate from the organization. If you are not willing to play a different role and don’t genuinely want your successor to succeed it won’t work.

If you are the new incoming Executive Director…

  1. Establish your own credibility. You will need a quick win or two to prove yourself. You also need to quickly make yourself available to donors in the inner circle to have them feel respected and part of this exciting evolution.
  2. Treat the founder like your most important donor. This may be hard at times and I’m not saying it won’t demand a lot of tact and patience.
  3. Recruit board members who are not part of the founder’s posse.
  4. Do not tolerate a board trying to undermine you. Be mindful of warning signs. If you lose ground here, you may not get it back. Know when to walk away.

If you are the board…

  1. Recruit new board members with executive transition experience and actively recruit new board members who do NOT have relationships with the founder.
  2. Stay positive. Your reaction to the transition will set the tone for how others respond to it. Change is a positive thing, and this is a chance for new leadership to grow and step up. If you act react negatively to a founder’s departure staff will perceive it as a loss as well.
  3. Get ready to exercise extraordinary diplomacy and tact. Founders have egos. Sometimes big ones. You will need to frame the transition as a positive one while honoring and celebrating the contributions of the founder. Frame their contributions in the context of a sustainable legacy.

Suffering from a bad case of founder’s syndrome or wanting to vaccinate yourself from ever coming down with it? Join Rachel for a special webinar: “How to Survive Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome.”

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  • Anon Ymous

    It was truly perfect timing to read this today. I am a new Executive Director who was hired a couple of months after my predecessor who was the ED for only a few shorts months before being fired. Our nonprofit is still in it's first five years since organizing. I inherited a very disorganized, low functioning organization and, not to toot my own horn too loudly, I have hit the ground running and provided much needed structure and function of which I am very proud. I have done this essentially on my own, because I am the only employee and my board is essentially a board in name only. It is like pulling teeth to get timely responses from them and when I do get responses, it is accompanied by restrictions, condensation, and helicopter-parenting. I didn't have a name for it... but Founder's Syndrome is exactly what I am dealing with. Both of our co-founders were on the board, now only one. While the co-founder is incredible, I feel like my hands are tied most days, because I have never really been given any autonomy as the ED. I'm really treated like an Executive Assistant. Ironically, I came across this article when I jumped on LinkedIn to search for other ED opportunities. I'm not giving up yet, but I think some of these hard conversations are due. I'm just concerned that they aren't capable of having these conversations without feeling offended. I am doing an incredible job considering what I walked into. I am proud to be affiliated with the organization and very much believe in what we do. Fingers crossed that some positive change happens soon.
  • Rachel Muir

    Hello Lacie! This sounds like a very difficult situation. It does not sound like the founder is willing to walk away and since the rest of the board sides with her it is not likely to change. I am sorry! I think your instincts are right to look for your next opportunity.
  • Lacie

    We need help! We have founders that are now divorced and one wants badly to retain control but really doesn’t do or know how to do very much. She hired good people and we have simply outgrown her but she refuses to see it. She sees the non profit as a way to pad her pockets and lives in a wealth bubble. Board members all side with her and don’t believe anything management tells them because she throws everyone under the bus and plays the victim. Is this situation hopeless for change? Yes I am looking for a different job but I love this company and my job here. These founders have given me opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere and I am so thankful for that. But now we are growing and she is being left behind and is pissed off at the world and I think would fire all of senior management if she could. Any advice besides run fast??‍♀️
  • Rachel Muir

    I can relate, D. Sounds like you might feel like you've been called on to babysit a newborn but the parents won't leave the house. Good luck and know that there are many great nonprofits who would be lucky to have you!
  • Rachel Muir

    I'm so sorry Julie. Launching and leading a nonprofit is no small feat.
  • D

    So in this situation and wasn't aware that the Founder had written himself into the bylaws for life as having power and control over everything. He wants a babysitter that will do what he wants. Putting my resume together as I write this.
  • Julie

    There's an "if" I wish Ms. Muir covered: "If the organization isnt able to adjust, deteriorates, fails & intentionally ends." That *does* sometimes happen. Happened to me when I had to depart an organization with only 3 week's notice. (For personal reasons having nothing to do with the organization). Telling oneself *They didn't deserve it anyway" is little comfort to a founder & others who'd poured 3 years of work into an ultimately failed effort. It caused major resentment & collapse of relationships between the founder & those left behind. Sixteen years later only one of those relationships has been repaired, though only via email & sparsely. Our (U.S.) culture weilds "Failure is not an option" like a magic wand that repels failure. But it still happens! Then we pretend it didn't. We try to disappear the whole effort. There is little to no support to help everyone debrief, grieve, & move on in personally constructive ways. It happens because our work culture overvalues success and staying chirpy & positive about everything. Our transition was marred by anger, blame, shame, embarrassment, resentment & finally silence. They felt I'd abandoned them -- that they either couldn't or wouldn't have the will or ability to go on without me.
  • Fred Wantaate

    I needed to read this. Now I am better informed to make some key decisions in the organization I lead.
  • Rachel Muir

  • Andy Robinson

    Yay Rachel! Brilliant as always. "Part of leading well is leaving well." -- Don Tebbe, Exits from the Top
  • Rachel Muir

    You are right! Wendy, I hope you will join me for the webinar on Founder's Syndrome on September 5th! Here's the link to sign up:
  • Wendy Hehemann

    this article is so timely: we are dealing with this right now and have been talking about it for the last few days. People gave birth to the baby and want to keep it small. But the organization has to grow (or will suffocate) and we need to make changes!
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