In this webinar, you’ll get Rachel Muir’s 12 step program to survive Founder’s Syndrome with individual formulas and special care instructions for founders, board members, and the new incoming Executive Director.

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right, Rachel, my watch just struck 1:00. Is it okay if I go ahead and get this party started?

Rachel: Absolutely.

Steven: All right. Awesome. Well, good afternoon, everyone, if you’re on the east coast, I should say. Good morning if you’re out on the west coast. Thanks for being here for today’s Bloomerang webinar, “How to Survive Founder’s Syndrome.” And my name is Steven Shattuck, and I’m the Chief Engagement Officer over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating the discussion as always.

And just a couple of housekeeping items before we get going here, just want to let you all know that we are recording this session, and I’ll be sending out the recording as well as the slides later on this afternoon, probably about an hour after we conclude here. So be on the lookout for that. If you have to leave early, if you need to review the rest of the presentation, don’t worry, we’ll get you that recording. Have no fear.

Most importantly, though, as you are listening today, please feel free to chat in any questions or comments that you have throughout the hour. We’re going to try to save some time at the end for Q&A. So don’t be shy. I know a lot of you’ve already have done that, introduced yourself in the chat. I love it. If you haven’t done that, go ahead and do so. We’d love to know more about you, but don’t withhold those questions and comments either. We’ll try to get through as many as we can before 3:00 Eastern. I’ll also keep an eye on the Twitter feed for questions as well, if you prefer to use Twitter. We love Twitter.

And then one last note, if you have any trouble hearing us through your computer speakers, we find that the audio by the phone telephone is a little bit better. Doesn’t rely on internet connections or any of those kinds of things. So if you have any trouble, don’t give up on us completely, try to dial in by phone if you can, if that’ll be comfortable for you. Just check the email from ReadyTalk. It’s got a phone number in there just for you that you can use.

And if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, a special welcome to you, folks. We do these webinars just about every single week throughout the year. Bring on a great guest speaker. Today is no exception by any means. And we love doing it. But what we are most known for at Bloomerang is our donor management software. We are a provider of fundraising software, database software for nonprofits. So check us out if you are interested in that. You can even download a quick video demo and see the software in action.

So check that out later on. Don’t do that right now. Don’t do that for at least an hour because we’ve got a great session lined up for you. I am so excited about this one. It is definitely something I have personal experienced about. My household has personal experience with and I am so happy to welcome back a VIP amongst the Bloomerang community, Rachel Muir. Rachel, how’s it going? You doing okay?

Rachel: It’s going fantastic.

Steven: Yeah, this is awesome. I think this is maybe your like 93rd webinar with us. It feels like that first one though because it’s so fun to have you. Always a bright spot on my calendar and I love the topic like I said. But I just want to brag on you, Rachel, real quick. If you all don’t know Rachel, check her out. Follow her on Twitter for sure, sign up for her newsletter. She does all kinds of awesome webinars throughout the year, not just for Bloomerang. You may see her at a conference. Go to her session. If you have a choice between her and a and other speakers, it’s going to be a good one, you won’t regret it.

What I like about Rachel among many things is that she has been in your shoes. She’s an ED. She’s a founder herself. She founded a nonprofit when she was just 26. I wasn’t doing anything when I was 26. It makes me feel so inadequate to read Rachel’s bio, but she’s going to bring a lot of that knowledge to bear here in the next hour or so. But in her fundraising career and her consultancy, she’s helped organizations raise a lot of money, over $10 million. She’s been featured in lots of different places. She’s been named AFP’s Outstanding Fundraising Executive of the year, and you’re about to see why. So, Rachel, I don’t want to take any more time away from you. Tell us all about how to overcome founder’s syndrome. Take it away, my friend.

Rachel: Thank you so much. I am so excited to be with you guys today. Thank you for having me as your guest. This is such a great topic, and it’s really not a topic that you hear about a lot. So I want to give kudos to Bloomerang for having me. And this is such a great topic, and you are really in for a treat today.

My background is in the trenches. Just like you, I’m a recovering executive director. I started my own nonprofit called Girlstart to empower girls in math, science, engineering, and technology. And everything I know about fundraising and being a founder, I learned the hard way doing it. When I’m not training people to be better fundraisers, I am raising my boy-girl twins. They are seventh-graders. We’re in the awkward middle school years.

There is my Twitter handle and my email address and my website as well. And I do custom training and board retreats. I love speaking at conferences, doing keynotes. I love doing webinars. You can learn more about me and what I do on my website, And I love doing webinars, and I do them all the time. So if you want to get invited to my free webinars, just sign up. Or if you want some templates to help you make your fundraising easier, I’ve got oodles of guides up on my website from stewardship plans, to discovery guides, and everything in between. So just feel free to have at those. Those are all free. I’ve got a really great ebook to help you with your board as well.

I just did a class with Lynne Wester on donor surveys. So I just want to give a shout out. If doing a donor survey is something that you are thinking about in your fundraising future, if you do them right, you can dramatically boost revenue. If you don’t do them right, you can frustrate your donors. It’s a really great class, and it’s got lots of eye candy examples in it and even like the special pare down where we go through and critique surveys. So if that’s on your radar, that’s where you can find out more about donor surveys if that’s something you’re planning in the future.

I mentioned that I did a lot of webinars. I’m actually doing one tomorrow on end of year fundraising made easy. So that’s the link right there, makeovermy if you are interested in getting a jump on year end fundraising and getting lots of low-hanging fruits tips. We’re going to be cussing and discussing, Giving Tuesday. I’m going to be answering the important question, how much email is too much email? I’m going to be talking to you about how to warm your donors up before the ask with harvest time and lots of website tips to help you boost your end of year fundraising revenues. So if you want some tips to help you make into your fundraising easier, you can join me tomorrow. And even if you can’t make it, if you sign up, you will be sent the recording.

So I’m going to be your lovey for the next hour. If you are experiencing founder’s syndrome and this is what we’re going to talk about today. We’re going to talk about what founder’s syndrome is, who is involved, how to fix it. I’m going to give you a 12-step program for founders, board members, and staff, and I’m going to be taking your questions anytime so you just feel free to type into the questions box. Any questions that you have, I’ve got plenty of time at the end here to answer all your questions.

I don’t think that founder’s syndrome is talked about or acknowledged nearly enough in our sector. And it can be an extremely painful, challenging, stressful, difficult, precarious thing to walk through, whether you are a founder or you work for founder, if you know a founder, if you love a founder, it is a complex experience. And so, I’m going to be digging into it with kid gloves and again, I want you to feel comfortable typing it, any question that you have.

I’m speaking from experience here when I talk about founder’s syndrome on several different level because, of course, I was a founder and I started my own nonprofit organization, ran it for 12 years. But then after that, I got recruited to work for an organization where the board members were the founders and they had founder’s syndrome and the one senior staff member thought she was the founder and she had a very debilitating case of founder’s syndrome.

I then worked for a small shop of two founders and I then worked . . . Actually before that, I worked for a . . . I manage online marketing and fundraising consultant practice. I had a team of about six consultants who worked for me and I worked for several years running this shop doing online fundraising and online marketing for nonprofits and I took that over for a founder. So I went to a for-profit company and I took over a consultancy practice from the founder who created the fundraising, the online fundraising practice. So I’ve had lots of experience. I’ve really spent my whole career either being a founder or working for founders. And some of you typed in earlier and let us know if you are a founder or if you worked for one, and we’ve had a lot more people join in, so please feel free to type in and let us know where you’re coming from.

This world gives us lots of opportunities to work for founders, whether it’s the for-profit world or it is the nonprofit world. We’re letting it all hang out today. You are in a safe space. You know, working for a founder, it can be one of the most amazing, exhilarating experiences in the world and it can also be really, really challenging. And, in particular, I’m going to be talking about exit strategies, and I’m going to be talking about transitions, and I’m going to be talking also about what this looks like and feels like for the different people involved.

So you’re in a safe space. We’re letting all hang out. If you can talk to me like, you know, you would your best friend, you know, cussing if you want. It’s all fine because this can be a really complicated, difficult tension situation. And, you know, the founder may not be the one experiencing the tension, but everyone else might be. So you’re in a safe space and if you’re in an environment where you’re working for a founder or founders, whether it’s the founder’s executive juncture or you’ve got board members who are founders, it can feel really, really stressful and the conflicts can feel this intense. But it may not look like that to everyone else. You know, hopefully it doesn’t.

It may have looked something more like this to everyone else that is involved. But it can be a lot of dysfunction. It can mean a lot of sleepless nights, stress-eating, stress-drinking, anxiety. It can be really, really frustrating and it can also be really well-hidden. So we’ve got lots folks that are founders that are excited about exit strategies, people that have been working for founders.

So we’re going to start. It’s funny, I was telling Steven as we’re getting ready for this webinar, I was mentioning it on this webinar when I was doing another webinar and someone said, “Founder’s syndrome. I’m a founder, what’s founder’s syndrome? Like, what the heck is that? I’m a founder. You’re saying that I have some kind of disease?”

So founder’s syndrome is not specific just to nonprofits. I mean, it is rampant in the for-profit world as well. And it is a treatable infliction. It is often found among visionary entrepreneurs and new organizations. If it’s found in an established organization, it’s usually associated with some kind of a quest for change. Again, it’s not limited to nonprofits, and it’s not limited to founders. You can have founders syndrome. If you have worked for a nonprofit for seven years or more, you can actually exhibit many of the same qualities that would be associated with a founder.

So why is this so terrifying? I mean, in a bad case of founder’s syndrome, you could feel, like Dorothy over here, you can feel lost, and scared, and helpless. And like if you work for a founder and they have a really bad case of founder’s syndrome, you can feel like nothing you do is right and you can feel really confused and you can feel like it’s the founder’s way or the highway and you can feel terrified and uncertain about confronting them and how you confront them.

In one of the negative forms, it can get really, really toxic. It can lead to unethical behavior, a dysfunctional workplace, belligerent secret meetings, bullying. I mean, I really hope that no one is going through this right now, but it can get toxic. And this could be behavior that’s seen among a founder, this could be behavior that’s seen among board members who are founding board members and not really willing to like let go of the reins or aren’t open to change or are terrified that someone’s going to, you know, change things or it’s a threat to their leadership.

If you have seen that show, “The Profit,” then you have been exposed to founder’s syndrome because that’s . . . and that’s a great example of founder’s syndrome in for-profit organizations. Pretty much every company that Marcus works with on that show, “The Profit,” is a founder. You know, and it’s small businesses and they exhibit a lot of the classical negative manifestations of founder’s syndrome. And some of the positive ones too, like being charismatic, working really hard, having a vision, but also some of the negative ones of not being able to see their weaknesses, not being willing to ask for help, being threatened by other people’s ideas. So if you watched that show “The Profit,” you’re seeing founder’s syndrome alive and well in pretty much every episode. I just got to say I love it when my TV life spills into my nonprofit life. But that’s a really good example of that.

So let’s talk a little bit about the founders. So they are energetic, and they are charismatic. They’re fueled by ambition and determination and a conviction to fill a need. I mean, they started something from absolutely nothing. That was the hardest job of all. They started something from literally thin air. And that’s not easy to do. They’re visionary, they’re entrepreneurial, they’re dedicated, they are fueled by passion. Their passion inspires and electrifies everyone around them. To their fans, they’re charming and magnetic, and visionary, and inspiring, but to their detractors, they can feel stubborn, they can feel opinionated. It can feel like it’s literally their way or the highway. And that can be extremely challenging frustrating to work with.

So there are lots of different people that are involved in founder’s syndrome and there are, you know, the founder may have founder’s syndrome and they may have a really gentle case of it or a really bad case of it. Board members can have founder’s syndrome as well if they’ve been board members for a really long time, if they are the founders of the organization, and they started the organization, they’ve been serving on the board. The only person who really doesn’t have founder’s syndrome is the new incoming executive director.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to dig in to each one of these different people’s perspective and what each individual can do to set themselves up for success, to confront their weaknesses and opportunities and to make it better for everybody that is involved. And we are going to start, and, again, you’re welcome to type in your questions anytime. I am definitely going to tackle all of them.

So you may love these power couples and you may, or in the case of Claire and Frank Underwood, you may hate your power couples or love to hate these power couples, but these are some really fantastic power couples, June. We’ve got a Johnny Cash and June. We’ve got Michelle and Obama. And so, what makes these power couples powerful is that they understand each other’s strengths and they understand each other’s weaknesses and they play to their strengths.

So this is something that’s really critical for working well with a founder, understanding their strengths and weaknesses and playing well to them, but it’s also kind of how I want to frame the context of in order for us to be successful working for a founder or dealing with founder’s syndrome, it’s really important that we be able to put ourselves in the position of the other party, not just putting ourselves in the position of the founder, but putting ourselves in the position of the board. How does the board feel about the founder leaving and having to replace the founder? I mean, there are lots of . . . We can’t really handle this well if we’re not willing to take off our hat, and our lens, and our rose-tinted glasses through which we see the world and look at the perspective of the other people that are involved in it. And it’s the board, it’s the founder, and it’s the new incoming executive directors.

So our first therapy session, it’s going to be understanding the brilliant, charismatic, fearless leader that got us here in the first place, the founder. So the founder, this was what the founder is thinking, my fundraising friends. The founder is worried that the organization is going to fall apart without them. They may have their identity wrapped up with the organization, other people may perceive them to literally be synonymous with the organization.

I will tell you, I’m speaking from my own personal experience here, starting a nonprofit organization, when we were preparing for a capital campaign, we did a planning study also known as a feasibility study where we hired outside counsel. They went and met with our donors and interviewed our donors and some of the feedback that one donor gave was, you know, that, you know, feedback around my role as the founder of the organization and that the organization was really synonymous with my personality and with my brand.

And that is very, very true for many small startup, nonprofits, fledgling nonprofits it is a cult of personality of the founder who is no doubt magnetic and inspirational. I mean, you don’t start . . . You need many of those qualities in order to really get a movement, a social change movement up off the ground and running. So there, and as part of that, over time, the founder’s identity can literally just become fused with the organization and those two things can be seen as synonymous to the donors and the community at large, the founder’s identity may be completely equivalent to the organizational identity.

In extreme cases, the founder may have invested so much of their life into the organization, especially founders that have, you know, been working for an organization for, you know, 15 years, 20 years, that they may not have a plan B for what they’re going to do when they leave the organization. So that is what’s going on inside the mind of the founder.

Now, your board members have a perspective on this too, right? So your board members . . . they have . . . And the board really comes into play when there’s conflict with the founder or when there’s transition with the founder, when there’s an executive transition and the founder is ready to leave the organization, or maybe there’s a call for . . . maybe it isn’t working out with a founder and some change needs to happen. They may be completely terrified of losing the founder’s knowledge. They may be afraid that the founder’s relationships with donors are going to be damaged if there’s any conflict or lost, if there’s any movement of the founder outside of the organization.

They may be on that board because the founder recruited them, and they may have a deep, close personal relationship with the founder. They might just be totally resistant to change. They may not want the extra burden of doing an executive director search and that’s real work. They may have felt like, “I didn’t sign up for this, having to go out and do a search, having to hire a search firm, having to step in and either hire an interim executive director or provide some kind of leadership and stability and focus for the staff. Having to comfort staff when a news is made.”

I mean, they may have really felt like, “I didn’t sign up for this. I don’t want to do this. This is a lot of work.” This is where the, like the push comes to shove of, you know, if this happens on your watch as a board member, this could be literally like, you know, hundreds more hours of work that was just thrown into your lap that you weren’t looking for, that you didn’t want. And you may not have a positive reaction to that. But your reaction a founder leaving sets the tone for how everyone else in the organization and outside of the organization is going to perceive it. So your reaction to it matters a great deal.

And then we also have, what does this feel like and what does this look like to the new incoming executive director? So I know I have twins. Steven has two kids, including a baby girl. And, you know, I just had the twins. But maybe Steven and his wife felt like this with their first born son. Maybe they felt a little bit nervous the first time they had a babysitter come in and they left the house and, you know, gave that babysitter the reins.

So this is how it can feel like, and I can tell you from my own personal experience as an incoming executive director, new incoming executive director, working for board members who were founders, I felt like I had walked in to babysit a newborn baby and the parents of the newborn would not leave the house. They were not willing to hand over the baby and get out of the front door and go out to eat or wherever the heck they’re supposed to go, they just weren’t willing or ready to do it. And it can feel extremely demoralizing, and frustrating, and humiliating to the new executive director.

They may be sitting there thinking, “What is wrong with these helicopter board members? They won’t . . . I’m ready for the reins. Why did they hire me in the first place if they’re not going to let me do my job?” They may be questioning why they took this role in the first place and if they’re ever going to be able to run the organization, and they may actually be planning their departure. It may be so frustrating to them that they’re already talking to headhunters. And, you know, they don’t want to be treated this way. They were hired for their experience, and their knowhow, and their expertise and they are ready to run this organization. They don’t want to be treated like a babysitter whose newborn parents aren’t letting take the reins.

So I’m going to give you guys some tips to survive and thrive if this is you. I’ve got some awesome questions already. Tanisha asks, “Does founder’s syndrome clear up when the founder passes away?” It certainly can clear up after it passes away, but whether or not it clears up, is going to determine on the legacy of the founder. And so, for example, if the board members are all part of the, like best friends of the founder, then it’s not going to clear up after the founder passes away because those board members are probably going to try to uphold whatever that founder wanted to do and it might be like, okay, let’s say you’re the founder, what would Tanisha do? Well, how would Tanisha have handled this?

So it could clear up when the founder passes away, but if, you know, you can exhibit founder’s syndrome if you’ve only worked for the organization for seven years and it’s really kind of a . . . we’ve always done it this way, why do it differently. We’ve always done it this way. So it could clear up, but it may not clear up. So you guys type in your questions anytime. I’m definitely going to answer all of these, and I’m going to do my best to kind of answer them as we go.

One question was, “Is there a time period at which founder’s syndrome is at play? We are four years old. I’m planning to see us through this transition, but I don’t want to fall in the trap of assuming I am indispensable. Should I spend an exit plan and timeline for myself?” Absolutely. Absolutely. So that is the first. I love that question. It is a great question. The most important thing that you can do if you are the founder or if you are in an indispensable role, like our fabulous fundraisers, giving them a shout out today because that’s a really important role. If you are a fundraiser and you’ve been with the organization for a long time and you have really deep donor relationships, it is really important that you have an exit plan and that you have a succession plan. Like when I talk about exit plans, what I really want you to think about is a succession plan. It is the most important thing that you can do to survive and prepare yourself and your board.

And I’m going to walk through six different things that you can do if you are the founder. Okay? So when I have like difficult news, I like to make it easier for you by showing you an image of a really cute, fuzzy kitten. So I want to say congratulations to all my founders because you did something amazing and you started something from literally nothing. Yay, you. You are awesome. Stay that way. And I want you to think back to when you first started your organization. You wanted to change something? You wanted to make the world a better place. You did not Darren the organization or your company to have a job for the rest of your life. That wasn’t why you did it.

And this is a truth bomb. So this way I have this cute fuzzy kitten for you to focus on while I give you this truth bomb. If your organization cannot survive and thrive without you at the helm, it does not deserve to exist. I’m sorry if that sounds really harsh. Eleven years ago, I left the organization that I founded and led for 12 years and when I was ready to leave, I told myself, “If it cannot survive and thrive without me, it doesn’t deserve to survive.” So I know that may sound like really harsh and really like a bitter pill, but if it can’t survive without you, it’s because of this cult of personality and it’s because there isn’t enough of a community demand and a community need for what you’re doing for other people to pick up the sword and run into battle with it.

If that felt like a really better pill to swallow up, if that truth bomb was like, if that sent your head spinning, here’s the frosting on the cake. I want you to know that seeing your organization thrive after you scuff away is your single biggest achievement. It is literally your legacy, and it’s important, and it’s really going to make you feel good, and I want you to focus on that. It’s not going to be easy to step away. There’s going to be mistakes. There may not all be yours. You can work with seasoned experts to make your executive transition as graceful as possible.

And I’m going to walk you through a few things of what you can do to make that happen. I want to acknowledge that it is difficult to step away. It’s hard to make the decision, it’s hard to break the news. You know, I was really, really ready. Part of me being really ready was I had had twins and so, I had like kind of . . . I mean, girls have always been my baby, but then I had two new babies. But I had, you know, I’d been running the organization for 12 years, and I didn’t start the organization to have a job for the rest of my life. I was 26 years old when I started it, and there was more that I wanted to do.

So know that it’s not going to . . . There’s going to be mistakes. They’re not all going to be yours. Other people are going to make mistakes that frustrate you, mistakes that you can’t change. I highly encourage you to seek outside help for your own sanity as well as for the sanity of your staff and everyone involved because outside help can really help. There are many, many executive transition firms. Of course, obviously, there’s recruitment, but the bigger piece, and you can just Google exit plans or transition plans. There are so many free templates of exit plans and transition plans that you can find online, basically some of the core components of a transition plan is an updated job description.

And then the other pieces is the work that you’re going to do to build your bench. So in order for you to successfully prepare as a founder from leaving your organization, of course, an updated job description, that’s part of a transition plan. But building your bench strength is critical. You need to pass the baton and give leadership opportunities to the staff that made you. You need to show them off.

If you have someone you’ve been grooming to take the reins, your board is not going to suddenly automatically be like, “Oh, my gosh, we should totally give the reins to Chase. He is great and he’s been working so hard.” You know, this isn’t going to be obvious to them. You need to really groom your staff and you need to showcase them and you need to brag on them. You need to spotlight them. You need to . . . And it’s not just to your board, but to your donors and other people in the community.

You’ve been this face of the organization and in order for you to transition, you need to start giving the spotlight and the credit to other people. You need to give your staff more autonomy in their decision-making process. Taking a sabbatical is a really good strategy. I had a built-in sabbatical there because I had twins, so I had maternity leave. But that was a really good opportunity to build my bench strength, and I had been building it for a long time before then.

Crafting a succession plan. Again, I encourage you to have a succession plan, not just for yourself, but also for other key leaders, especially the development director. Having a succession plan, it goes a long way to help proactively deal with any fears that your board or other people have about your departure or any fears that people might have about your development director’s departure.

So succession planning is not a dirty word, it’s really about being prepared and one of the key elements, like elementary pieces of that is going to be an updated job description, but that’s just kind of the beginning of it. Planning your communications is critical. Now, that means who are you going to tell when, starting with your key players, your key donors, your inner circle, and moving on to outer circles, the public at large and extending out from there. This is a really, really important part of a transition plan. You’ve got to update a job description, you’ve got a communication plan.

Now, it’s funny, there were a couple of questions that beginning before we started about joining the board. I have a really strong opinion about this, and I don’t have this opinion in a vacuum. This is actually considered best practices. I do not encourage a founder to transition from being the executive director of the organization to becoming a board member of the organization. And I know that that is really, really hard, and I know that there are organizations that just flat out don’t do that either. I’ve done . . . I do custom training.

I did a custom training for an incredible organization and they told me point blank, “We don’t understand. Like you started that organization. Why are you not the president of the board? Why are you not of the . . . We think that if you start the organization, if you’re the founder, you should go, when you’re ready to leave, you should go be on the board.” So there are a few different reasons for that.

If the founder moves from being a paid staff member to being a board member, everyone on that board is going to look to that founder’s opinion on every decision possible. And it isn’t fair to the new incoming executive director. It doesn’t give them the runway to assert their authority, to assert their leadership, to be respected, everyone’s going to be sitting there going, “Oh, well, okay, well, I mean, how would Rachel handle this? What would Rachel do? Let’s ask Rachel that she thinks.” Or kind of, you know, stepping around her or him.

So it is not a good plan to join the board. You need to take time away. You can still be a donor of the organization, you could volunteer in other capacities, but I do not encourage you to take a board position. It is not a healthy decision. So I know there’s going to be questions related to that, and I just want to encourage you guys, type them in. I’m going to scroll through here.

So, okay, so how can the board prepare? So I talked about what the executive director can do and I give you six tips for the founder and for the executive director. These are my tips. These are all part of my 12-step program for what board members can do. It is really critical that board members frame this transition as a positive one. If you react to it negatively and act like, “Oh, great. Now Steven’s leaving the organization. Now Steven’s leaving. We’re going to go to hell in a hand basket. It’s all downhill from here. He’s just like running away. He’s abandoning us. We’re not going to survive.” You know, how you hold this is how other people are going to interpret this.

And interesting, I thought we have this really interesting . . . There’s one place where nonprofits are very, very different than the for-profit world. In the for-profit world, people leave jobs all the time and no one acts like there’s some back story or gossip around it or dirt, you know, like if it’s just, “Oh, you know, so-and-so left and they, you know, they left, you know, working at this company and they went to that company.” Okay, no big deal. But in the for-profit world, it’s like there’s this, “Oh, did you hear so and so less the Girl Scouts?” Which I think is kind of odd, but this can contribute to board members acting and perceiving it negatively.

And the truth is these are people’s careers and there are a lot of amazing, fantastic things if they’re going to go on to do. And it is an opportunity, when the old leadership steps down, it’s an opportunity for new leadership to step up. And it’s really important in nonprofits that there be a career path. It’s, you know, if you have a founder who’s been there for sure 10 years and, you know, other people who may be advancing in their careers might feel like, “Is there an opportunity for me to grow here? Is there actual upward career paths for me here?” You know, they need to feel that way.

So when one door closes, another door opens. I’m an extremely positive person and it is extremely important that the board frame this as positive because it’s the board members that are going to step in and be the face of the organization in a transition. They’re going to be responsible for doing a search. They’re going to be constable for interviewing and hiring the new executive director and having a negative attitude about the founder leaving isn’t going to be positive for staff, it’s not going to be positive for donors, and it’s certainly not going to be positive for the new incoming executive director.

It is definitely going to take some tact. I mean, it’s like tact is going to be like a muscle that is going to really get stretched during this. Founders have egos, sometimes big ones and it is up to the board to frame the transition as a positive one while honoring and celebrating the contributions of the founder and welcoming and celebrating the new leadership and the new executive director that is going to come in.

Is there a fundraising opportunity in that? You bet there is. This is a golden fund raising opportunity to have like a leadership circle, you know, some kind of recognition for the outgoing founder. There’s lots of awesome fundraising opportunities within this context, but it takes a lot of diplomacy and tact to have a graceful transition and a graceful exit. It’s going to be extra work, and they’re going to need to have some extra executive transition expertise.

So there’s lots of great organizations that consult with nonprofits and help nonprofits through transitions, but there needs to be a thoughtful communication plan around who’s contacted. This whole transition needs to make your key donors feel like they are in your inner circle and like they’re part of something and they’re in the know and you don’t want this to feel negative, to scare people, or to make people feel like, “Wow, all that happened. And I was like a really big important donor to them and I didn’t know about it and now there’s new leadership. Where am I in all this?” So that’s why it’s important that you take the time to get some expertise and think about all these elements that I’m telling you.

If you, my friends are the new incoming executive director, then, you know, this advice, I hope this advice finds me when a good place, I’m going to be totally honest here. It’s like ripping off a band-aid. The first thing you’re going to need to do is you’re going to need to pick your battles, you know, because there may be some element of like who moved my cheese going on within the organization and it’s not necessarily . . . it could be board members, it could be staff members. We’ve always done it this way. So you’re really going to need to be strategic about, it’s going to take a lot of diplomacy and a lot of tact and you’re really going to need to be thoughtful about what battles you choose to engage in. Hopefully, there’s few.

You need to establish your credibility quickly. So a couple of quick wins are going to be really important. They’re going to be really important for you to, you know, prove yourself. You’re going to need to make yourself available to donors in that inner circle immediately. They need to feel respected. They need to feel like you’re accessible to them. They need to feel like they are respected and valued parts of this exciting evolution for the organization.

And this is a kicker. You got to be prepared for this, so buckle your seatbelt. You’re going to need to treat that founder like a very important donor. This is going to take a lot of diplomacy. This is going to take a lot of tact. This isn’t always going to be easy. It’s going to be frustrating and hard at times, but you are going to . . . Part of having a graceful transition is the way that you treat that exiting executive director and founder. You’re going to need to treat them like a very important donor if you are the new incoming executive director.

Another thing that can help is working on recruiting new board members who are not part of the founder circle. So going out there and recruiting more members, just flexing that muscle and starting to build relationships with people who you can bring on to kind of balance the board. Because if a founder’s leaving and they’ve had their, you know, all of their friends are on the board, like we’ll say FOFs, friends of the founder, you know, they’re leaving, they’re not going to be doing a lot of board recruitment on their way out the door. So this is something for you to be mindful of and be aware of.

And you’ve also got to know when it’s time to walk away. So this breaks my fundraising heart, but, you know, sometimes when I’m having these conversations with people . . . I’ve had conversations with incoming executive directors who have expressed a lot of frustration to me where, you know, they feel like they, you know, the parents of a newborn baby and the organization’s a newborn baby and those parents will not leave and they feel like they don’t have a runway to be successful and they’re frustrated. Maybe there’s a terrible amount of dysfunction and it’s like, you know, there being forced to . . . They’re being verbally abused, maybe it’s a toxic situation. You know, you might . . . I have walked into situations where it was toxic and it wasn’t something. It was an uphill battle and it wasn’t a battle that I felt like it was worth it to fight.

So, I’m sorry to say, but you have to put on your own oxygen mask first before you can help anyone else on the plane, including your children. And, you know, you have to know when you’re going to walk away. These transitions are hard, these can be really complicated. Some tips to help you and guide you through this, these are just in general tips for difficult conversations, period. I talk about these a lot when I’m talking to organizations about graceful exits for board members.

Strong feelings mean we care. I mean, the most positive thing I can say to defuse it when these situations get really negative is that strong feelings means that we care and it takes a lot of tact and a lot of diplomacy to be a founder leaving or to be an incoming executive director coming in. I think it’s . . . I feel like board members have it easier because they are a group and they can all get help together, but if you have dysfunction among your board or if you have board members who have founder’s syndrome, then it isn’t easier and it can actually be even harder. So these are some tips just to help you with difficult conversations.

The biggest thing that I would say is having a transition plan, you know, that’s the updated job description, is really where it starts and kind of the plan of action of, you know, who is in the communication loop and how will we handle communicating to all the parties that are involved. I am going to dig in here and answer some your questions and you guys still have time to type them in.

Okay. So Laura asks, “Can you give an example of the positive story of . . . positive storytelling you’d frame for cofounder leaving?” So, you know, this is, you know, it’s an opportunity for new leadership to step up to the plate. You’re excited and you are thrilled for new opportunities for the organization to grow and develop in ways that the organization couldn’t grow and develop previously. A new executive director is going to bring on unique strengths that the prior executive director didn’t have.

So, you know, really think about any pas, you know, think about . . . It’s really very similar to managing change in the for-profit world. And we all bring different skills and talents to the mix and, you know, getting to have a new leadership, it’s an opportunity for staff who have been working hard at the organization for years. It’s a career opportunity for them to potentially step up and it’s an opportunity for the organization to learn and grow and develop with new leadership. So I hope that is a good positive spin. It’s authentic.

So I’m a person who wears my emotions on my sleeve. For this reason, I am starting to conduct my meetings with my cofounder by phone so that less assumptions are flying back and forth. I’m going to scroll back up here and look at Laura’s background here because . . . Okay. So the development . . . So I’m just going to give Laura a little background here. She’s working with a development consultant and he was with his called intense . . .

Okay, this whole thing phenomenon of in founder’s syndrome, intense emotional soup. That’s a really good discussion for a founder’s syndrome, intense emotional soup. Strong feelings mean we care. It is very intense. So her recommendation was that talk about the emotional processing side with personal people, husband therapists, and not the board. Yes.

This is complicated. You know, a good thing about working with outside counsel, whether you work with . . . And if you work with outside counsel on a transition plan, they are going to give you coaching in this area and they have been there. So I couldn’t find a screenshot of this, but I wanted to, to put this in a slide deck. There was this superhero in the ’90s and her name was Breakup Girl because she didn’t get the press that she deserved as a superhero. Her slogan was “I’ll be there because I’ve been there.” And she basically was like helping people through breakups. She was adorable. Anyway, I wanted to put break up girl in here because I am here because I’ve been here. I know what this all is like. It is totally intense emotional soup.

The positive thing about working with someone on executive transitions and, you know, if you don’t have budget right now, you can find a lot of resources like this for free. There’s tons and tons of templates for transition planning, for succession planning, but you might also recruit someone to your board or recruit someone as a mentor who has gone through one of these transitions or who has experience going through these transitions.

It happens in the for-profit world. You know, we work for a company to come in and gets bought out by another company. Cultural change is hard and working with outside counsel can go a long way to give you that kind of emotional support. But yes, if you’re going through this and you’re struggling, you’re kind of processing the end story, right? Like it’s like there’s grief involved. I mean, you’re going to go through all the stages of grief, whether you are leaving or whether you are saying goodbye to a founder, and it takes talking through that grief and going through all that to get through it.

And I would use your husband, your best friend, your neighbor as a sounding board over instead of using my board of directors as a sounding board because you have to be part of why I kind of frame this as from the different perspectives of, and so, that we could all think about how these other people are experiencing this transition and what’s on their mind and what they’re stressed about and what they’re worried about.

“Okay. So I’m one of four founders left on a board out of six total. I’ve been president all these years cause no one else wants to try. I need to know how to expand the board. It’s now my responsibility when she won’t be around.” So, yes. There’s a really great plug for something on my website. There’s a really great resource on my, “Makeover My Board.” Download it. It’s an ebook and it has lots.

I would just start with recruiting, but you know what I’m going to recommend? I’m going to recommend you identify someone else on your board who isn’t a founder and empower them to really play a key role in recruitment because you are a founder. So that is one thing that I’m going to encourage you to do. I’m going to encourage you to pass the baton, groom someone else for president who has a vision, nurture them, what would it take for them to be interested in that role and step up to that role. And I would encourage you to recruit someone, a new board member, or recruit someone existing on your board who wasn’t part of this founder circle to kind of chair your board governance committee to get some new blood, and that can help you expand your network.

So Nancy asks, “What about a situation when the founder’s the board chair and won’t delegate responsibility to the executive director?” That can be a really frustrating experience. And, you know, I have some tips for difficult conversations. You know, it isn’t easy. Sorry. It isn’t easy, but I don’t know, you can tell me how long you’ve been . . . I don’t if you’re the executive director, Nancy, or if it’s someone else, but this, you know, an executive director and an executive director who’s robbed of their powers isn’t going to stick around and a new executive director coming in isn’t going to be able to survive it either. And so, not addressing it, it’s perpetuating a dysfunctional scenario.

And maybe one way to help it could be my kind of go-to with boards and with like creating change on boards is doing a board survey, also known in real world as a board assessment, but sometimes assessment can be like kind of a negative word, but this could be something that you address in a board survey where you ask some questions . . . you could ask some strategic questions about, you know, does our executive director feel empowered to make decisions independently? Or what can we do to empower our executive director? That could be one particular solution. I hope that is helpful.

I knew that things would be awesome and thorny, difficult. This is the meaty stuff, right? This is like the hard challenging parts of leadership, and I would say to everyone like, don’t be afraid if you’re challenged by some of this to go out there and seek support. It doesn’t have to cost you money. You know, you might find a kindred spirit in someone in your community who’s gone through this, someone you meet from your local AFP chapter.

Cheryl asks, “Is there a good way to introduce new board members in preparation for this founder to leave, a staggered approach each year?” You should definitely be staggering your new board members joining the board. That is a really, really good strategy. I would say that’s a really good strategy. I would say, you know, making sure that you don’t just have new . . . these aren’t new board members that that founder brought on, they need to be new board members that other board members brought on and I would say having a succession plan and I would say talking with the new incoming board members about the succession plan when they come on and you’re recruiting to the board is positive as well.

Oh, this is a good one. Danny asked an awesome question. I love this because I’ve seen this go down. “How do you handle an executive director that announces retirement? The board hires a new executive director, and an old ED decides not to retire.” I have literally seen this. I have literally . . . I was at a fundraising conference and I met someone that I knew who was the development director and she was like, “I’m so excited to introduce you to our new executive director.” And she had the former executive director who was there, and he was basically just kind of still acting like he was the executive director of the organization. And everyone was kind of just like tolerating it. It wasn’t . . .

He was having a hard time transitioning. He had so much of his identity wrapped up with the organization that he was having a hard time transitioning. But I would say you got the other board members need to . . . board members need to have a conversation with the old ED. The new ED is not going to be able to be successful and it isn’t fair to them and it isn’t fair to the organization, one person does not get to take down the whole ship. Am I right, my friends? One person does not get to take down the whole ship, and it isn’t fair to the new executive director or to the organization that they aren’t retiring. So this is why, you know, we don’t want the former executive director on the board. We have to give them the space.

Vicky asks, “We often work with founders . . . ” And I think if I’m understanding, Vicky, Vicky works like with . . . She’s a consultant, if I looked this up right. Okay. So Vicky works with founders who say they’re going to exit but then don’t. “How common is this? Any suggestions for consultants working with them?”

Yes. I mean, I would say hopefully they’re not in the same place with Donnie describe where the board has actually gone out and hired a new executive director and someone has quit their job. They go start a new job and then not really able to start their new job. I don’t know statistically how common that is, but I would say it’s really common and it’s guaranteed to happen if they’re serving on the board and that’s why they shouldn’t serve on the board.

But I would say all the tips that I gave for the outgoing founders, they, you know, they need to be ready to make a clean break from the organization. If they don’t, they’re not setting it up for success. And that isn’t fair to the organization. You can remind them, “You didn’t start this organization so that you would have a job for the rest of your life.” They need to have other things in their life that come in and fill that space and bring them that joy and that sense of fulfillment and everything else.

You guys are still asking awesome questions. I just want to mention something to you guys because I only do this a couple times a year. I have a class that’s coming up. If you are feeling frustrated, not knowing what donors to focus on or trying to get donor visits or addicted to a hamster wheel of grants and events, if your board members aren’t fundraising, I have a class. It actually starts mixed week. Hard to believe it is next week. I just wanted to mention that to you guys. It is a coaching program with lots of training and lots of expertise on building a fundraising portfolio, coaching on getting the gift, lots of tools included, including a wealth screen and video email. It starts next week. It’s actually 25 hours of CFRE credit.

So if that is something, if you’re looking at, if you want to up your fundraising skills by the end of this year, there’s also a bonus end of year fundraising clinic, coaching clinic that’s in the course. So if that’s something that interests you, I invite you to check out Thank you for allowing me to give that brief commercial. I’m to dig into more of these fabulous questions.

“Our founder was the board chair for years and just resigned three hours before our August meeting. What are some tips to let the public know, if at all?” So that’s a big transition that your p founder was the board chair for years and then suddenly, it sounds like it was really abrupt. So hopefully, you have had a conversation with your founder and there’s a storyline and you understand why they left. I would get to the bottom of understanding why they left and in terms of letting the public know, if at all, that’s a really good question.

So it sounds like your organization does not have any fulltime staff. It sounds like from, if I’m understanding your question, your organization really just has a board. So if that’s the scenario, you may not need to put out a lot of couple of communications. You can retype in if that’s the otherwise, if I didn’t understand that, but I would say, you have . . . You know, you definitely need to have a communications plan if you have fulltime staff and you have . . . Because you’ve got to, you’ve got to deal with how are we going to handle this transition? Who is going to lead this organization? Who is going to serve as the interim executive director? Is it going to be a staff member that’s promoted to interim executive director? Is it going to be someone that we hire from the outside?

They’re looking to the board chair. The staff is looking to the board chair to comfort them, to reassure them, and have these decisions in place. And then how are we going to communicate this to our donors? When are we going to communicate it to them? Who knows first? How do they know? When are we communicating it to the other groups? That’s why you need that whole plan.

But if you’re a small organization and you don’t have the staff and this is just basically your founder has stepped down and this is a change in your board, you certainly don’t necessarily have to do any of that. It could really just be a matter of how you’re communicating this to, as part of your story, as part of your history to new incoming board members. I don’t know how much publicity, your founder, if it’s garnered any, so if you want to give me a little more context, I can certainly try to dig in there a little bit more.

Devin, this very fascinating question from Devin. This is one . . . And what an awesome plug for donor surveys. So I mentioned donor surveys earlier. And one of the awesome things that donor surveys can help you reveal is why your donors got involved with you in the first place and if they’re contributing to you because their passion for the figurehead or the founder of your organization or something else.

So Devin said, “We conducted a donor survey and learned that a huge percentage of our donors give because of our relationship with the founder who’s preparing to retire. Any tips on how to retain those donors?” Awesome question. You can retain those donors by having deep personal . . . Someone else needs to step up and start building relationships with those donors. So that founder needs to take you or the development director to get to know those donors and build those deep personal relationship, number one.

And I don’t know how long your donor has . . . I don’t know how long your founder has been there, but I will say this, you know, your donors don’t . . . Like my donors didn’t expect me to run Girlstart for the rest of my life. And I feel like on many levels, my donors embraced a leadership change and your donors may be . . . I mean, I ran the organization from almost 13 years. Your donors may be less resistant to embracing a leadership change than you think, but the important thing is that those relationships don’t fall through the cracks when you have a staff change. You don’t want staff attrition to result in donor attrition and the only way to get around that is for you to build good relationships with those donors.

And you need to be prepared to have, who is going to find out about this change first? How are they going to find out? And all that communication needs to reassure the gratitude for the donor, confidence in the organization, and excitement about the future. You know, how you hold this, whether you’re a board member who totally freaked out about change and transitions, other people are going to pick up on how you hold it.

So Elizabeth asked a great question, “What is a . . . ?” And if I didn’t ask all of these, you’re welcome to email me. By the way, I have this, if you want to get some fundraising tips for end of year, you can join me tomorrow. This is my email address. Elizabeth asks, “What’s a typical onboarding period for a new ED? Three months, six months? When does the founder exit?”

So I would say that the founder or can be like on call for a period like maybe they . . . maybe for a three-months period or a one-month period you pay them a retainer and they’re just available for the new executive director. I’d say one month is probably fair. Maybe you don’t pay them, maybe they are happy to do that without any kind of retainer.

But I would say you want to give a good onboarding period for a new ED. I would say I would say six months would be good because they need to meet the board, meet the staff, meet the donors. It takes, I mean, it could be long, right? Really, you got to play the new card for at least 12 months and my book but it takes time to build relationships with all of the donors. It really takes time. So that would be my advice.

I’m happy to keep answering more of these. I want to also . . . This is one of my favorites of resources. So this is one I made with Bloomerang, “The Lucrative Art of Great Discovery.” These are just awesome discovery questions. Should you be out there meeting with donors, talking about a transition, these are some thoughtful questions to get to know your donors better. I’m happy to keep answering a few of these if it’s okay with you, but I want to be sensitive to time. Steven, it’s totally up to you. I’m super happy to ask a few more of these if you like.

Steven: Yeah, why don’t we a couple more.

Rachel: Awesome. Okay. So Alison asks, “Our founder wants to get off the board. They’re a president and has for about a year. They have completely stepped back and besides from coming to meetings and giving opinions there, how do we deal with that?” They aren’t willing to help with their succession replacement.

Okay. So the founder is the president and they’ve wanted to resign from the board, but they’re still coming to meetings and they’re not . . . Okay. So this is interesting because they want to get off the board, but they’re still coming to meetings.

So I would say you should have someone else on your board who is ready to step up as president. And I mean, like this doesn’t . . . I mean, it doesn’t have to be . . . You should have someone else on your board who is ready to step up, and that is my advice there because I would say it isn’t necessarily the founder’s job to help with their succession and replacement.

So let me clarify that. It is not the . . . The founder may want very, very deeply to help with succession and replacement. I did. I groomed someone remarkable to be my successor, but you know what? The board members, it’s up to the board to hire the executive director.

And now, I know what Alison is talking about is board, she doesn’t have a stash and half paid staff. She’s talking about the founders on the board and he’s ready to get off the board, but they don’t have someone else to . . . But he’s not willing to find someone else. Your board, your executive committee, your other board leadership should be able to step up and have another board member become president of the board or be active at recruiting other people who can step up to the plate and you should have a transition plan for when they are going to actually leave the board.

But in this scenario of a paid staff member, the paid staff member may really want to find their successor and the board may not be okay with that or interested in that, and it is the board’s job to hire and fire the executive director. So that could be just . . . That’s the board’s decision and it’s not the founder’s decision of founder being a paid staff member.

John said, “I’m a founder of many years, however, this is a one and a half person office and I have no one to succeed to. The question we are grappling with is should bring in an associate director to learn of ropes and then take over or just look for a new CEO?” I would just look for a new CEO, personally. I would, that would be my advice because you can only hope that that person is going to take that rope and they may not want to take the rope. So I would just go ahead and look for a new executive director to take over. That would be my advice.

Let’s see. I think that’s everything. Okay. Here’s an interesting question from Barbara and it’s a quick one, “The ED is frustrated and ready to leave. What can be done to move the founder as an emeritus position and save the really good ED from leaving?” Well, this is where stuff gets complicated and it gets messy. And the sad thing is, is that this kind of dysfunctional relationships can make EDs just ready to walk straight out the door.

So you can reckon . . . You know, you can recognize the founder with lovely glowing sentiments with a tribute. It could be a fundraiser, it could be a founder’s circle, it could be a founder’s fund. You can do so much to honor and celebrate the founder that doesn’t involve them coming into the office or attending board meetings. You can do that. If you need more help, you know, there are resources there, you know, you can look at board transition, executive transitions.

But I would say this . . . one person does not get to take the whole ship down and the value of the organization and what the organization brings to the community is too important to let one person destroy it. The, you know, the greatest . . . In a perfect world, my fundraising friends, in a perfect, beautiful world, founders would realize and recognize that seeing the organization survive after they leave is their single biggest achievement. And you can communicate that to them.

It can be hard for people to let go. Their identity can be swept up in this. This can be . . . If you’re feeling like you’re stuck and you can’t get out, there is help. You know, this is . . . Executive transitions are real. There are experts out there that can help you with this. So don’t give up. There’s hope. You took the first step. You joined us today, you took the first step. This isn’t always easy. This can be complicated. It can be sticky, but don’t give up. You can get there. And if you’re a new incoming executive director and you’ve been beating your head against the wall, you know, like sometimes you can’t get through, and that’s unfortunate. But this was, you know, this is . . . There are many great organizations out there desperate for your talents and these are all thoughtful things. You know, we only learn from our mistakes, right?

These have been my experiences working for a founders board. Some of the most painful, excruciating experiences of my life, I learned a lot from them. On the plus side, I wouldn’t even be able to speak from experience to you beautiful people today if I hadn’t gone through all that grief, and tears, and sleepless nights. I do have the scars to prove it, but I hope that you have found today helpful and enjoyable. If you want to join me at tomorrow to talk end of year, that’s what I’m going to be doing. And that’s my contact information. And I think I answered everything, but if I didn’t answer something that you asked, you’re always welcome to shoot me an email.

Steven: All right, that was awesome, Rachel. Thanks for staying a few extra minutes longer to answer more questions and thanks everyone else who stuck around beyond 3:00. This is fun. I can’t ever remember getting this many questions. So I think you’d definitely touched on some important issues here, Rachel, so thanks for being here.

Rachel: Thank you.

Steven: This was fun. Definitely check out all this stuff Rachel talks about. Check out that class starting next week. It’ll be a good one of course. Check out Rachel on Twitter, download that ebook, of course. Check out all those things. And if you didn’t get your question answered, I know there were a lot we didn’t quite get to. I’m going to give Rachel the check here in spirit. So maybe you might get an email from her later on if that’s okay. If you don’t mind me offering that up, Rachel.

Rachel: Yeah, no worries.

Steven: Awesome. Well, we are going to call it a day there. We’ve got a great webinar coming up next week. Rob Wu from CauseVox, buddy of our great software over at CauseVox is going to be talking about . . . give your fundraising ideas. We’re coming up on year end, coming up on Giving Tuesday. He has some really cool, very practical, very practical and tactile things that you can put into practice probably same day. I’ve seen his slides, some pretty cool ideas there that I haven’t seen that anywhere else. So next Thursday, 2:00 p.m. Eastern, join us.

If you’re not available that time, we’ve got lots of other webinars available throughout the end of the year. We even got some scheduled out into next year already. Can’t believe it, but we’d love to see you again on another session. So look for an email from me with the recording and slides. I’ll get that in your hands this afternoon. I promise. Definitely reach out to Rachel and hopefully, we’ll see you again on another webinar. So have a good rest of your week. Stay warm out there. Stay cool out there wherever you are. Stay safe and we’ll talk to you again soon. Bye, now.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.