A founder is a single individual or a small group of individuals, who bring an organization through tough times (e.g., a start-up, a growth spurt, a financial collapse). Often these sorts of situations require a strong passionate personality—someone who can make fast decisions and motivate people to action. Founders often invest significant time and money into the nonprofit. They are used to being very hands-on and drivers of programming and service delivery. But the question is how to move successfully past the founder stage? How can the stakeholders of an organization ensure sustainability of the nonprofit and the mission when the founder continues to play a role while the organization grows and changes?
Just like start-up for-profit businesses, nonprofits require flexibility as the needs for making decisions in the organization change. They need to implement mechanisms for shared responsibility and authority. It is when those decision-making mechanisms do not change while the organization grows that “Founder’s Syndrome” becomes an issue. We see this most frequently with organizations that have grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a $2-10 million community powerhouse, and decisions are still made as if the founders were gathered around someone’s living room. Founder’s Syndrome isn’t necessarily about the actual founder of an organization. The central figure could be the person who took over from the founder. It could be someone who took over in a time of crisis, and led the organization to clear waters. It could be a demonstrative board member there from the beginning who does not recognize the need for changing roles. Or, it could just be someone who has been at the helm forever. It could the person that “birthed” the nonprofit and holds tremendous passion for the mission and possibly has significant personal and financial investment. In other words it could the person to whom everyone seems to defer to out of respect or because this person still holds the purse strings.
Regardless, it is very important for individuals in leadership roles to understand this place in the nonprofit’s lifecycle and lead it to sustainable governance.
What Founder’s Syndrome Could Look Like
Founder’s syndrome decisions often are not made strategically. Usually decisions are simply made by the “Founder.” All other parties merely rubber stamp what the founder suggests. There is generally strong resistance to any change in decision-making, where the Founder might lose his/her total control of the organization. Boards of these organizations usually do not govern, rather they “approve” what the founder suggests. Planning is not done collectively, but by the founder. And plans/ideas that do NOT come from the founder usually do not go very far. In other words, regardless of the size of the organization, everyone who is NOT the Founder is relegated to the role of support staff to the Founder. (If you ever hear a board say, “Our board’s role is just to support the CEO,” that is one of many classic signals that Founder’s Syndrome is likely at play.)
Some may ask, “So what’s wrong with that?” And the answer is simple: If the “Founder” is hit by a meteor tomorrow, the organization is not sustainable, and all the good work the organization has done over the years is in danger of screeching to a halt. This threat occurs because organizations facing Founder’s Syndrome usually have little infrastructure in place because it simply has not been needed. In these situations, the founder IS the infrastructure!
What Founders Need to Know
Once you have birthed it, it is no longer your baby. Just as it is with our own children, once they are born, they are their own people. We can guide our children, teach them, nurture them—but our son or daughter is a person in his/her own right. The same goes for “our” organization. It’s not ours. It is its own thing. We don’t own it. In fact, legally, a 501C3 is owned by the stakeholders.
Once you give a gift, it’s no longer yours. You have created this amazing gift for your community. Now that it is used and depended upon by others—now that you have given this gift to the community, it is no longer yours. It belongs to the community. That’s the definition of a gift.
From these two facts—that the organization is a being in its own right, and that that being belongs to the community, not the founding member—come a number of other facts many founders may hesitate to face.
- Along with the decision to bring a child into the world comes the responsibility to raise it to live independently. We all know the old adage “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Well, the part we do not like to admit to ourselves is that there is another certainty associated with the “death” part—and that is that none of us knows exactly when our day will come. Because we know we are not going to live forever, and we cannot know if our last day will be tomorrow or 50 years from now, it is irresponsible to run our organizations as if we will, in fact, be around forever. It is simply not fair to the organization, or to those who benefit from the work we do. The only responsible approach, therefore, is to raise this child to NOT need us.
- The world doesn’t owe you anything for having founded your organization. We gave up our lives to create the organization we founded. We went without sleep, sweated, cried and bled for this organization, and in some cases, even went into debt. But the sad truth is that nobody owes us anything for doing that. We did it because we cared. Regardless of which metaphor you use—that of having a child, or that of giving a gift—neither of them provides for a payback. Our “payback” in having children is in seeing them grow and take on the world on their own. And our “payback” for giving a gift is in seeing how happy the recipient is to use that gift, hopefully for a long, long time.
- It’s not about you. Harsh, but true. It is hard sometimes to acknowledge that regardless of how much we put into nurturing the organization we founded, in the long run, none of that really matters. It is not about our emotional needs—regardless of what those are. It is not about what we have sacrificed to make it all work, or the recognition and gratitude we think we should get. It is about the community—which is why we created this gift in the first place. If we have not prepared the organization to survive (and dare I say thrive?) without our presence and we cannot even think of leaving, as the organization would crumble without us, then we have somehow made it about us, rather than about the community.
- Your vision isn’t nearly as important as the organization’s vision and the community’s vision. Yes, it was our vision that founded the organization in the first place. But as the organization grows and matures, that vision may not be all there is. The ability for the organization to dramatically affect the community may be far larger than the vision we had when we first opened the doors. Doing things the way they have always been done, and thinking the way things have always been thought is not necessarily the best thing for the organization, nor for the community it serves. It is simply what WE would do. So if we fear the vision would change if we weren’t there, perhaps it’s time to let it evolve while we are still present. In the first year after birth it is time to revisit the mission and the vision. What does the community want from us and what is missing in the community as it pertains to the importance of the work?
So What is a Founder To Do?
First, if you are the founder of a brand new organization and you are just starting out, build it right. Build it to be sustainable for the future. Build it as if you won’t be there to see it through its life. Think about the future while you are creating the organization’s present.
If, however, the organization is an older one, and it and you have become inextricably entwined, then there is work to be done. Some of that work is organizational. Some is personal.
Let’s start with the personal side:
- Acknowledge that some day, the split will happen. The only way to ensure that your legacy is an organization that serves the community long after you are gone is to acknowledge, right now, that you cannot be there forever—and that you never know when that “forever” will occur. Take that to heart and be conscious of it as you plan for your organization’s future, and you will likely put the needed tools in place to survive you. If however you keep a sense of entitlement or make others around you think you deserve entitlement as the founder, then you will have trust problems and you will risk the organizational health of the nonprofit. Do not surround yourself with “yes” people. You need workers and you need people who will debate openly with you for the good of the organization.
- Get help. Find a professional coach who can help you work out the personal aspects of your eventual separation from the organization, even if you are not going anywhere but are just thinking about ensuring the organization is ready in the event you do. This is especially important for those of you who do not believe you have Founder’s Syndrome, but have heard it whispered.
On the organizational side:
- A healthy organization starts with a healthy board. Whether you are a board member or the CEO, if the board as a whole is depending on you for everything from the organization’s vision to the connection to the community, then it is time to begin developing, training and restructuring your board to lead the organization. This will likely take some very strategic recruiting efforts as well—because there is a good chance many of the existing board members were hand-picked by you! (That’s all part of the syndrome.) If the organization is to thrive into the next decade and further, the board will have to understand its role at the top of the organizational chart, and it will have to be populated by people who want to do that job. It is time to really look at governance structures that will allow for sustainability.
- Codify the vision and values that are at the heart of the organization. Create a working credo that will guide both the board’s future decisions and those made by the staff. There is nothing to say that the credo won’t evolve over time– it likely will. But the core of what is important will remain, and that will be another part of your legacy. Do not disregard the importance of organizational values.
- Create a succession plan that proactively deals with all the things you (or the board) fear might happen when you leave.
- Are they afraid that you have been the link to the community, the public image of the organization? Then determine a way to proactively deal with that—perhaps creating a speakers bureau or PR committee.
- Are they afraid that most of the institutional memory of the organization resides inside your head? Then find a way to proactively deal with that—perhaps by committing that knowledge to paper or video.
- Are they afraid that you have been the best fundraiser they could dream of? Then find a proactive way to deal with that—perhaps by developing an army of development volunteers with a passion for the mission or a board that understands that 50% of their role will be ambassadorship and fundraising.
Whatever the fear, make sure your succession plan deals with it proactively to ensure the viability of the organization for the long term. While the main focus of this plan will be succession, the ancillary benefit is that you will be building organizational infrastructure. And that will provide benefit immediately.
- As part of your succession plan, train someone now who could replace you, even temporarily, in the event something happens to you. This doesn’t mean you are going anywhere soon. You may not be leaving for another 10 years! But if the whole organization relies on you for its survival, and you really are hit by a meteor tomorrow, then what will happen? Find someone you can share your institutional knowledge with, and train them to share the load now, while you still can.
- When you leave, do not plan to stay on the board of directors. If you move to a governing role on the board, the new CEO/Executive Director will never be able to get out from under your shadow and you run the risk that board members and others will continue to defer to you. You should move out of the way and let the new culture be created.
All nonprofits have a “start-up” phase. If you are in it now and you are reading this article, then you can start to build sustainability with a clear understanding of “Founders Syndrome” and all of the components it entails. For the beginning leadership group, do not rush the process; make sure to embrace achieving clarity of mission, vision, governance structures and norms. Yes, they will change over time, but just like children need to go to school to learn, nonprofit founders and boards need to adapt to change, while learning about best practices for sustainability and high impact.
Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs, for the December edition of NEW’s Notes. Diana has a commitment to board governance and strong nonprofits. She is considered an expert in nonprofit board dynamics and governance.
Check out other stories in this month’s NEW’s Notes here.