by Marie Palacios

Founder’s Syndrome.  If you are in the nonprofit world, chances are you have been affected by this condition even if you have never been able to put a name on it.

Founder’s syndrome has been defined as “a disease in nonprofits that has its genesis in the inspiration and personality – or personalities – that created the organization.”

Sound familiar now?

Contrary to common belief that only the person who “dreamed up” the organization is susceptible to this condition, Founder’s Syndrome can manifest itself in an individual or group of charter board members, a particularly dominant board officer, a CEO, or even a long-term staff member.

This Self-Appointed Successor’s Syndrome has brought more than one nonprofit to its knees and is much more common than one would expect.

So what causes founder’s syndrome and how can nonprofits “cure” this ailment and move towards a healthier existence?

Founder’s Syndrome can develop when an individual is thrust into a position where the life of the nonprofit is directly linked with their ability to meet critical needs, overcome major obstacles, or generate the interest and resources needed to keep the doors open.  Onset usually occurs at the beginning stages of organizational development, and while the founder certainly was responsible for keeping the organization alive during that period…things eventually change. The challenge comes when that person who is afflicted by Founder’s Syndrome is unable to change with the organization to ensure their participation remains relevant and timely.

As with any ailment, the first step towards recovery is to recognize the symptoms and confirm the diagnosis.

Common symptoms include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Micromanages day-to-day operations despite the fact that those tasks have been delegated to staff or another committee/task force.
  2. Guards organization resources, which limits effectiveness of other team members.
  3. Insists on meeting with donors with or without key staff/development personnel.
  4. Tries to oversee projects even when someone one else is clearly more suited for the job.
  5. Commits the organization to new initiatives/partnerships without consulting staff/board.
  6. Unable to adapt to changes within the organization (mission, programs, fundraising, staff, etc.).
  7. Prefers to be the first point of contact for organization issues – even if staff could/should be.
  8. Represents their opinion to stakeholders as the consensus opinion of the organization.
  9. Encourages political alliances, gamesmanship, and backroom deals instead of seeking consensus through established decision-making channels.
  10. Shows disrespect for the time-honored structure of roles, responsibilities, and by-laws of a nonprofit.

While most of those symptoms appear to be negative, it is important to acknowledge the intent and integrity that many founders possess.
For example, while many board members may just be “warming a seat,” the founder is busy burning the midnight oil. Founders often invest the better portion of their time, talents, and treasures to the organization that they helped create. This forges an emotional connection that is extremely difficult to break.
So, how do we find a balance?
Founders have so many amazing qualities that it would be cruel to them and possibly detrimental to the organization to simply “push them out” and cut ties.  These are passionate individuals who tend to be loved and respected by the community. They have wisdom and experience that can benefit the organization. Rather than focusing on removing a founder from the organization, it is imperative that nonprofits explore ways to engage those individuals in ways that continue to benefit the organization as it evolves.
Ten Strategies for Treating Founder’s Syndrome Include:
  1. Clarify roles and responsibilities of board and staff.
  2. Establish checks and balances so that one person doesn’t hold veto power over the entire board/staff. No single person should have veto authority or lead on the appearance of having so.
  3. Modify operating systems to ensure that everyone understands and adheres to the chain of command and that the founder is not at the top of that chain. For example, lead staff such as the Executive Director or Development should never be told that their “direct supervisor” is the founder. Lead staff should report regularly to a designated committee (executive committee, personnel committee, oversite committee, etc.). That committee should provide resources, offer consensus when needed, outline job descriptions, and complete regular evaluations of the Executive Director’s performance. Founders might be the source of conflict since they tend to overstep their “governance” role and become heavily involved in the day to day operating processes. This often creates conflict between the founder and staff, but if the board of directors has established the founder as the head of the personnel committee, staff do not have a viable way to express their grievances or seek positive resolutions.
  4. Update bylaws and other policies to ensure that term limits are established and respected.
  5. Build a diverse board of directors who understand that their fiduciary duty of loyalty is to the organization as a whole and not simply the founder(s).  
  6. Charge the board’s executive committee with monitoring/addressing issues that stem from Founder’s Syndrome.
  7. Identify the passion/skills set of the founder(s) and establish strategic ways to engage the founder(s) in organizational development so they can adapt and become part of the change.
  8. Acknowledge the contributions of the founder(s) and respect their input even if it isn’t always in the best interest of the organization to adhere to those suggestions.
  9. Understand that the founder(s) has a strong emotional bond with the organization and considers it his/her “baby.”
  10. Help the founder recognize that while he/she played a critical role in birthing the “baby,” the organization (much like a child) must learn to function independently and many different people must play a role in that growth and development.

At the end of the day, both those who suffer from Founder’s Syndrome and those who suffer because of a founder should be able to reach common ground if they have the best interest of the organization at heart. Everyone wants the organization to grow and become self-sustaining, right?

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that co-parenting (with board/staff support) is the best way to make that happen! This process, while challenging is rewarding. Just as many couples seek a professional marriage counselor to facilitate an open dialogue and help “save” a marriage, many organizations can benefit from the assistance of professional consultants who are equipped to do the same for your mission!

Best of luck as you continue to grow for good.

Get our free Grant Readiness Checklist

Prepare for your proposal writing journey!

The Grant Readiness Checklist is on it's way to your inbox now!