Founder’s Syndrome

The Reality of Leading is that We All Must Step Down Sometime

What makes an individual able to take a nonprofit organization from “just an idea”, through the difficult early stages into a successful mature entity is strength of character, passion and ability to lead.  Yet, those very strong skills may become hindrances in founder-led organizations “when there is a gap between the founder’s past strengths and the current & future needs of the agency.”

When and How does it Happen?

It usually occurs when there has been only one executive director in the organization’s entire history or the primary founding trustee has never left the board (especially as Chair) and they continually dominate decision-making.

Founders are generally the first executive director of an organization or first chair of the board and in nearly all cases there is a natural feeling of ownership. Unfortunately, this can often lead to a rubber-stamp board because “sometimes its just easier to go along with the founder”.  It is also common that a board may be hesitant to think independently, in making decisions, for fear of offending the founder.

“Ultimately founders syndrome sets in because the organization becomes dependent, not on the systems and structures of the organization, but on the unique style of the leader — whether the leader is consistently decisive or consistently indecisive”.

It is rarely good for a founder to step down from the ED position and move onto the board because this can threaten the board’s loyalty to the new executive director and may inadvertently invite supervision of the new ED by the founder. With an unhealthy reliance on a founder, new leadership development is prevented; advantages to team process are lost and the organization is locked in a no-growth stage of its life cycle.

Signs an organization may have it:

  • Unsteady Infrastructure
  • Low morale
  • High turnover
  • An inability to affect practical changes
  • Chronic disorganization
  • Often Hand-picked board
  • Staff / Board fear Founder
  • Founder has a highly reactive style which does not change as growth occurs
  • Problems repeat themselves

More Symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome

Are there ways to prevent this from happening in young organizations?

Yes. If you are the founder keep these very important factors about 501(c)(3) entities in the forefront of your mind:

  1. It’s not yours. No one (not even the founder) ‘owns’ the agency.
  2. It belongs to the community – it’s a public charity. It is not about you.
  3. The most important responsibility you have is to give it independence.
  4. As the organization grows the vision may evolve to meet the changing needs of the community.

Organizations just starting should consider all of these factors and begin by building the structure right, with good policies, by-laws and early board members who strongly believe in the mission. Build it to sustain itself – without you.

If the above factors are ignored and a founder hand-picks members of the board the organization can develop into a closed entity where personal and organization agendas center on the founder.

Online Resources:

Founder’s Syndrome? Who Me? by Hildy Gottlieb

Case Study: Overcoming Founders Syndrome in a Nonprofit

Founder’s Syndrome: How Corporations Suffer & Can Recover by Carter McNamara


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