9 Ways for Nonprofits to Overcome ‘Founder’s Syndrome’

A disease found in nonprofits has its genesis in the inspiration and personality — or personalities — that created the organization. The ailment is called “Founder’s Syndrome.”

When a founder is unable to remain relevant as his/her organization evolves, it can be devastating. Often, the skills needed to start an organization and fight to keep it alive in its infancy are not the skills needed to lead and manage as the organization ages, grows and becomes more sophisticated. While effective in early days, a personality-driven leadership style can hamper an organization’s effectiveness and growth.

Symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome include maintaining control with a small group. The scenario could be a small board all personally connected to the founder or a small leadership team that does not change as the organization’s needs evolve.

Sometimes the control factor is a personal benefit, when friends and family members are employed inappropriately or with extraordinary compensation or benefits. Sometimes it is a question of ego. Once a nonprofit is founded, it becomes a public trust. The organization does not “belong” to the founder. The process is like nurturing children and then giving them free choice. As you begin to secure donations, your public accountability increases.

Here are nine ways you can avoid or overcome Founder’s Syndrome:

  1. Create checks and balances. In your bylaws and other early policies, prohibit nepotism and have a board of both insiders and outsiders.
  2. Ensure that your board is advised by outside counsel on CEO compensation and evaluation.
  3. Be open to changing roles. As the organization grows, the founder may need to move out of operations and hire a chief operating officer and other senior team members, for example.
  4. Bring in new people. As you grow, you will need new talents and fresh perspectives from your staff and your board.
  5. Have an exit strategy. As hard as it is, a founder shouldn’t necessarily plan to be there forever. From the start, envision how leadership will transition and how the founder might be involved in the organization in the future — i.e., founder, president emeritus.
  6. Establish succession planning for staff and a development program for the board. With this in place, it will minimize the perception of anyone being indispensible to the organization.
  7. Have an accountability partner, group or coach outside the organization to provide honest feedback to the founder.
  8. Have the founder embrace continuing to improve his or her skills so he or she evolves as the organization does through formal education (a master’s degree in nonprofits or an MBA, for example), coaching, a network of nonprofit CEOS and site visits to other organizations.
  9. Increase planning, and establish systems as your organization grows. Conduct strategic planning involving key constituencies, and don’t allow any one person to control the process to a specific outcome.

Founder’s Syndrome can be particularly devastating to fundraising. If a founder is not open to increased accountability as an organization grows, donors will become increasingly suspicious and may eventually flee.

Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.

Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.

Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.

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