Founder’s Syndrome Can Take Down a Nonprofit. Here’s How To Avoid It

by Joan Garry

One key to avoiding Founder's Syndrome it to understand the roles and responsibilities of the board and staff. You can learn all about that here.

Let me tell you the story of Manuel, a brand new nonprofit Executive Director, and Maria, the nonprofit’s founder.

This is based on a completely true story, changed just enough so nobody gets hurt.

Maria is larger than life, knows everyone, and is passionate about mental health issues. About 15 years ago, she founded a direct service organization. It filled a real need in her community.

Through sheer force of will, she built a high-profile board (mostly Maria’s personal friends.)

The organization grew and it was time to bring in a real Executive Director. Since the nonprofit was publicly perceived to be strong and growing, they got a great candidate pool.

Enter Manuel. He’s highly respected in the community and is a major catch. Manuel got the gig.

But then, a couple weeks after he started, Manuel learned that the board felt the organization couldn’t let Maria get away. She’s too important. So they asked her to join the board. Of course she agreed.

He didn’t realize it right away, but it soon became a total nightmare. The board chair was weak and, rather than partnering with Manuel to successfully move the organization into the future, he deferred to Maria in all things. After all, who knows better than Maria?

Manuel wanted to get out and solicit renewals. Maria told him these are her relationships.

Every time Manuel spread his wings, Maria clipped them. “That’s not how we do things here.” Manuel had no autonomy whatsoever.

In the end, Manuel ended up a glorified (actually not glorified) Chief of Staff. Not really an ED.

Imagine you were Manuel. How long would you last? To preserve your own mental health (as your organization works to do with your clients), I’d give you 10 months or less.

Then what? You don’t badmouth the organization or Maria but still….

Reputation problem. Board exodus. Fundraising down. Maria is bitter, loses interest and retires.

Organization crumbles.

It’s amazing how often I’ve seen this scenario play out. And yet when I actually speak to all the players, everyone tells me they have the best of intentions. It just doesn’t play out that way.

So today, I want to present to you a framework for how the founder, the new Executive Director, and the board can work together to make a successful and productive transition.


Founders are remarkable people. They see gaps others do not see. They are so deeply passionate about filling that need that they eloquently and charismatically enlist dozens to build an organization to fill that gap. Their drive and ambition turns an idea into an enterprise that attracts talent, funding, and makes a difference.

Our society is indebted to nonprofit founders.

And then once the founding is founded, things can go terribly awry.

There are all sorts of things founders do that end up being problematic. A founder might…

  • Become the board chair
  • Become the paid board chair AND Executive Director (yes, this actually happens)
  • Remain on the board and be part of the new E.D. search committee
  • Head the new E.D.’s first formal evaluation
  • Maintain the corner office after the new E.D. is hired
  • Call staff directly and attempt to direct staff activities
  • Complain about the new E.D. to external stakeholders


All three parties (founders, board, E.D.) have big issues here.

Founders worry that what they built will stumble and fall if they don’t stay involved. They may have identity issues (“This job has been my life – what do I do next?”) Worse, a founder may worry that the nonprofit will succeed without her leadership.

Boards worry about losing the founder’s relationships – with themselves (“We love her! We don’t want to upset her!”), with donors, and with other constituents. There may just be simple resistance to change (“We’ve gotten this far with these processes, or no processes at all! This is how we do things here.”) They may also fear losing the founder’s deep institutional and sector knowledge.

The new Executive Director wonders, “Why did they even bother hiring ANYONE? Don’t they trust me? Why isn’t my board supporting me? Can I go home now please?”


Seven years ago, GLSEN faced a potential “founder’s syndrome” situation when its founder, Kevin Jennings, left the organization.

But that didn’t happen. Eliza Byard took over as the new Executive Director and has been there ever since. She has grown the scope and impact of the organization in its efforts to end anti-LGBT bias and violence in schools. She is respected and admired.

I spoke with Eliza and Kevin independently to discuss their recipes for success. Their answers were mighty similar. They did a lot of things right and I offer their story as a model.

What the Founder, Kevin, Did Right

  • Kevin hired a brilliant Deputy Director he believed could succeed him.
  • He left and refused a seat on the board.
  • Before leaving, he passed the baton to Eliza. And he did so with authenticity to donors, colleagues, and all the key players essential to GLSEN’s work.
  • He let Eliza define his role after he stepped down. He was adamant that she call the shots.
  • Kevin treated Eliza with honor and respect every step of the way.

What the Executive Director, Eliza, Did Right

  • Eliza ignored those who told she would not last long. She knew it wouldn’t be easy. She started the job wearing her big girl pants.
  • She chose to share the ownership of the organization with the staff. She told them “We inherited this organization together – it’s ours now to build and grow and continue the work Kevin started.”
  • She identified a few projects that the staff could work on together with clear success markers – to bring them together, to build collaboration and a sense of shared ownership.
  • Eliza treated Kevin with honor and respect every step of the way.

In case you want to go deeper, Kevin and I recorded an in-depth podcast episode on how he avoided Founder’s Syndrome.


My dear founder – for you I have the deepest respect. You’ve done the hardest job of all – built a brand new and successful organization from scratch.

But your job is not just to create. It’s to build an organization to last, with or without you. Seeing the organization thrive after you step away is your single biggest achievement. It’s your legacy.

Stepping away may feel like the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But if you care about the organization and the success of your new E.D., you must. The future sustainability of the organization depends on it. You can’t give in to Founder’s Syndrome.

When you start to think it might be time to bring in a new leader, you must work to make the organization less founder-centric. Build your bench strength. Showcase talent. Bring in new board members.

Please institutionalize relationships with intention. Pass the baton publicly and then be sure to let go of it.

Most importantly, stop trying to do everything!!!


As a board, your job is to help make the transition as easy as possible. You want to set up your new leader for success. Remember, the ultimate responsibility for the organization’s health and sustainability belongs to you. Do not let this be trumped by any personal loyalty to the founder or fear that the organization may not survive her departure. This mindset can and will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here are a few things you can do…

  • Recruit a board member (or two) who has been down this road, seen the big potholes, and watched the wheels come off the organizational bus.
  • I beg you. Do not ask the founder to serve on the board. In so doing you are just shifting the power of the founder to one in which the founder provides oversight to her replacement.
  • Remember that founders have egos. Usually sizeable ones. It’s a key reason Founder’s Syndrome happens. A smart and sensitive board chair can help reframe the extraordinary contribution of the founder like this: “The most extraordinary founders create an organization that is so amazing, so strong, that it is sustainable even beyond the founder’s tenure.”


Oy. What a tough situation you’ve found yourself in. You’re probably questioning your judgment, self-worth, and sanity.

But please… do not, I repeat, do not whine and play the victim. You’ll only make the board long for the days of a commanding founder.

Here are three things you should do…

  1. Establish your own credibility with a few targeted quick hits. Nothing beats your own successes.
  2. Do not put up with a board that allows the founder to undermine you. Draw clear lines in the sand with your board chair and begin to actively recruit new people who are not a part of the founder’s posse.
  3. Treat the founder just like your most important donor. The founder must be respected and honored (even if she is driving you out of your mind.)

I wish I didn’t have to write this post, but I see Founder’s Syndrome occur all too often and it can get so ugly. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Thanks to Kevin Jennings and Eliza Byard for reminding us.

And as for comments, I know the folks struggling would so benefit from other success strategies you have used.

Practical advice and hope comes in mighty handy in tough situations.

Here are two podcasts I’ve recorded on Founder’s Syndrome:

59 thoughts on “Founder’s Syndrome Can Take Down a Nonprofit. Here’s How To Avoid It”

  1. Here’s a scenario that I witnessed: charismatic activist founds anti-poverty organization in community’s poorest census tract with himself as executive director, formally incorporates as a not-for-profit organization, recruits a board, sleeps with board and staff members, and fights his handpicked board when they do not take orders as his unpaid labor force.

  2. Dear Betty (can I assume that ‘barcode’ is not your real last name? 🙂
    That is a MIGHTY ugly one. The sleeping around with board and staff – sadly I hear this with some regularity. It is such a blatant and ugly use of power.

  3. This happened to me as a new ED. The past founder/volunteer ED actually put herself on the 3 person committee to evaluate me, was on the board and continued to hold a major volunteer position within the org. Her constant stream of emails to me started to assist me in our period “of transition” then turned into advice for me “as a mentor.” I lasted 3 months.

  4. Julie. I wish this post was not resonating so much for people. I like the high traffic but the reason for it makes me sad. I hope you found a home with an organization that let you lead. Thanks for sharing the story.

  5. Spot on. I am so fortunate to be the new Executive Director for an organization that did it right. Thank you for this wonderful reminder of how lucky I am at the National Bone Marrow Transplant Link (nbmtLINK.) Your blogs inspire me, Joan as a new ED this spring. Kudos to Myra Jacobs, our incredible founder, smart, wise and kind. I am one of the lucky ones!

  6. Peggy. You are INDEED one of the lucky ones. Would love for you to comment again. Anything else a great founder like yours did that I should add to my list?

  7. Living the Founder Syndrome nightmare currently. I’m writing grants to help the organization and constantly get a “don’t bother, they won’t help.” or “I talked to them in 2010, they’re not interested in supporting us.” No, I’ve given up drinking!

  8. Living this now, not the founder but the person who thinks she rescued the organization and ran it for three years. I’m experiencing every point you made, Joan, and add to it that the way-too-powerful board member berates and belittles me and other staff at every public opportunity, and refuses to meet, speak, or even text message privately to develop a relationship. I am tired of being told that I need to be less sensitive, and just go out a raise money. She claims credit for every dime I bring in! We just had a very successful dinner, totally credited to the dinner consultant who also refused to include me in any plans, and seated me and my guests in the back of the venue. No vision for growing the organization, and no interest in a long-term plan, just next year’s gala event. This is 5th grade mean girls stuff. I want to quit but I don’t want to feel like a failure.

  9. Joan, your post was sent to me from one of my board of directors (REALLY SMART BEEN AROUND NON-Profits for years, seen it all kinda guy). We have been discussing these issues for several years as we know these are major pitfalls. As a founder I am passionate about our program and my passion resonates with the Program Participants, donors, volunteers and staff! This program is “taking off” we have been told by funders that it is unusual to see such grown in this short amount of time. I can relate to almost everything in this post, there are things I do really well and there are things that could use some work ( to say the least ). I am young and a leader in my chosen profession as a Therapist, I felt there was a gap that needed filling, so I filled it with a creative and innovative way of providing services that would captivate teenagers. I love our organization and its directors, I am not looking to step down nor is the board looking to remove me….. would you elaborate a little more on ideas for make the organization less founder-centric and how to make room for new talent…. mind you, I have a tendency to try to fill my weaknesses with staff but completely ignore that I have to fill my strengths in a succession plan that will work.

  10. I recently founded the Fibromyalgia Care Society of America. I plan to keep this article on my corkboard as a constant reminder that my job is to create an organization that thrives with or without me. Thanks Joan!

  11. I think anyone who takes a job succeeding a charismatic founder must be VERY direct with the Board/hiring committee: “I respect the outgoing ED, appreciate what she’s done for the community and organization, and would be honored to carry on her legacy. But I need complete ownership of this position. I cannot accept the position if there is a formal or informal role for her.” To me, having the former ED around would be a deal-breaker. If they still want me, great! If not, it wasn’t meant to be.

  12. BLawton: I so wish I was not getting so many comments like this. Is there a way to ask for forgiveness rather than permission and score a win without the founder? I know this comes with risks… Board allies????

  13. Abstract688 – NO ONE should be berated and belittled by their boss. And you should not put up with it on behalf of your staff. For the long term benefit of the organization, I hope you will figure out how to speak up so that the staff knows you are supportive of them. Quitting is not failing. As long as you know in your heart that you have given it your very best shot.

  14. Milly. This comment gives me such hope. I hope that others out there read it as well. I also know folks who suffer from fibromyalgia and so thank you on their behalf for having the passion and determination to build an organization from the ground up

  15. Midwest. As I said in the post, the key is that the NEW person needs to define the role the founder plays. Some new folks will want to have some kind of relationship so that people can in fact see evidence of continuity and baton passing. But that is up to the new person. And should be part of the interview process (are you listening board members out there????)

  16. The best advice I can give you is to build a strong team and institutionalize the key relationships. Take staff out on donor asks. Have staff speak at events. Folks want to know that the organization is about more than you. Be sure to take staff to board meetings – let them present and impress. Don’t accept all speaking gigs at conferences; find spots for your staff to shine. Begin to build the culture of shared ownership that Eliza built at GLSEN. Please! Sustainability is your real legacy to this organization.

  17. As the founder and ED of an organization in a rural area. I can only stress that don’t just take warm bodies. I was so desperate to get help that I brought on people who had other agendas and when I wouldn’t go along with them worked to drive me out. I literally left to save my sanity. The founder can be a pain but so can new people who think they know everything and have nothing to learn from other’s experience. I’ll never found another nonprofit again. I think that there is something to be said for a business model versus a nonprofit board.

  18. Lisa. Grab a copy of Jim Collins’ From Good To Great in The Social Sector. Only 30+ pages long. He is a well known business writer and translates his most excellent advice out of the private sector and into ours. One of his single biggest pieces of advice: GET THE RIGHT PEOPLE ON THE BUS!!!!
    You are absolutely right. Take the time to figure out what you need and then go find an excellent person who shares your passion for the mission.

  19. One of the predictable situations I’ve experienced with the Founder Syndrome, is a board that is reluctant to interfere with the founder’s decision-making process. Often times, the founder selects the board member and their is a loyalty from the individual trustee to the founder. Yes, I agree that sometimes it is better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission, especially when you’re grant writing. if the grant is successful (a hard trick to pull off if you don’t have the cooperation from the top) then you can waive a check in front of him. The risk is that the executive will tighten up on the process to the point where you should be declared a non-exempt employee. Been there, done that.

  20. Great article Joan. As an ED who has been there, if I give you advice: if you are an ED who finds yourself in this situation…GET OUT NOW! I spent 3 years patiently transforming the organization and facilitating board growth. Grew the services 6-fold, tripled the fundraising, diversified the staff… The board stepped forward, my friends and fellow EDs lauded my tenacity, and the panicked founder began bad-mouthing me internally and externally. Today, the organization is back to where it was, and I am working hard at overcoming the impact of being in such an unsupportive demoralizing environment for 3 years.

  21. Dear Former E.D. I bet it wasn’t easy to know it was time to go. I bet many readers (including myself) would love to know what you do now? Clearly you are working through PTFS (post traumatic Founder syndrome) but did you back on the nonprofit horse? You sound very capable and that the organization clearly did not know how lucky it was to have you.
    Do you run another nonprofit today? I hope so.

  22. I have been there – I lasted a year, beating your odds by 2 months. A few years later when my husband found himself in the same situation, I urged him not to do it. He lasted 10 months. In his case he leveraged the disaster into a better job and new career direction – he lined up another job before quitting. In my case, I was fired and it took me years to recover career-wise, compounded by the fact that I wasn’t just succeeding one founder, but two (married couple) who had been my mentors and role models since I started there as a volunteer at age 23. So it took me even longer to recover any self-confidence.

  23. Jahphotogal: I’m so sorry that both you and your husband had the same experience. How terrible. As I asked another reader, have you returned to the nonprofit sector or sworn it off? I’d love to know.

  24. Yes, we are both lifers, I think. I’ve been an ED at another organization now for 15 years and have been learning the lessons of that earlier experience bit by bit. It took me a long time to feel competent. I have now been here so long and the organization has grown so much (from just me, part-time, to 20-odd staffers and a $1 million budget) that even though I am not the founder, when I leave (which I hope to do soon – I want one more act to my career!) replacing me will be just as challenging. So I am trying to follow all the advice you and others have written about creating a good succession plan, creating a culture where there is enough strength and leadership spread out among staff and board that they’ll barely miss me when I’m gone.

  25. Great article! Founders can also suffer from what I would call “Founder Burnout Syndrome” where they invest tons of energy, time and money into something and then start feeling resentful of board and staff members. I’ve experienced that at my small performing arts organization and it can be really damaging if the founder gets to a point where she loses her passion for the mission and purpose of the group. I came to my organization 8 years ago and am the first full-time ED in the group’s 25 year history. I had a group of 6 founders who had made a mass exodus from the board 4 months before I was hired. They were angry and they were vocal! They also took about $50,000+ in fundraising relationships with them when they left. A substantial percentage of my time during my first year hear was spent “mending fences.” I took these folks out to lunch individually and listened to their sides of the story. I agreed with them when their points were valid and I kept my mouth shut when I thought they were being ridiculous. My mantra with them was, “I can’t apologize or justify things that happened before I arrived, but I can show you that things are very different under my leadership and I’d really appreciate your support.” Eventually, I was able to regain their support of the organization. I have NOT put any of them back on the board and have been very frank with my board’s nominating committee about my reasons whenever someone has suggested bringing any of them back. They’re back to being good ambassadors for us, though, and most of the funding relationships have been restored.

  26. I can’t believe the timing on this one. In fact, I’ve used the term ‘founder syndrome’ to refer to my own experience as founder of an organization that has organized itself precariously on my shoulders. I recently decided after 6 years building the organization I founded to say “I’m done”. I need to pull the pin and let the organization re-organize itself for longevity and sustainability. I’ve had many discussions with people about how to make this transition. We’re interviewing managing director candidates on Friday!! I meet with the board on Thursday to discuss transition tactics. The plan was to have me remain on the board in an advisory role but not as president. Yes! I’ve been president and ED this whole time!! Actually, this is not due to my own need to control everything. I’ve been throwing up flares for help for years, but my board has consistently reflected back that no one else can step into the role confidently. They’ve continually told me that their role is to support me in manifesting my vision (world music choral organization, with adult and children’s choral programs, live folkdances, and intimate concerts/workshops with visiting musicians). I’ve brought 3 new people on the board and specifically one I feel can take the role of chairman and guide the organization through the process over the next 6 months. Everyone seems to feel that I can’t just up and leave but I think I should, and frankly I want to.

  27. I’m experiencing the founder burnout syndrome currently. Just plain exhausted with hauling the weight of the organization.

  28. Megan. No one CAN step into the role confidently. The board is right. No one can if you are still the go-to person for vision your board is given the authority to keep you on the board. You have all the power. That includes the power to say no to your board. Hope you will listen to your own voice and not the voices of others.

  29. Megan. Your work must ALWAYS be in the best interest of your organzation. Either figure out whether what is at the heart of the burnout is fixable or do what’s right and move on. Your clients / stakeholders deserve someone giving 120%.

  30. Rosalind. Excellent point. And typically because founders consider themselves indispensable or the board has told them they are, they almost always overstay their welcome.

  31. Thank you Joan. I am saying No to the board. I do know its time to walk away, and I’m actually rather excited and relieved about that.

  32. Joan – the responses to your post are familiar and heartbreaking. I’ve always thought 7 years should be the term limit of a founder. Going in knowing when the outside exit date is can be a great motivator for doing the hard work of building something sustainable that is not dangerously dependent on the name, connections, charisma, energy, etc. of the founder. I’ve been in this business a long time and have become a strong proponent of a solution that has worked in a number of settings. The Intentional Interim. No one wants to succeed a legend. The better opportunity is to succeed the person who succeeded the legend. Placing a highly experienced professional ED for limited period of 12-18 months allows the organization some breathing space to recover from the influence good/bad of the founder or legendary leader and prepare the landscape for a new leader to be truly effective with staff, clients, board, funders, etc. (This assumes, of course, that the board doesn’t make the foolish decision to add the founder to the board.) In fact, if I were a foundation, I’d offer grants explicitly to support the Intentional Interim model knowing that many orgs are so myopic that they are terrified of the prospect of a “down year” in the absence of the legend. Long term this approach will eliminate many organizational headaches and position the agency for long-term success.

  33. Living this nightmare. Founder is on the board and also our director of development. Any decisions I try to make about the organization are taken as a personal affront. I don’t think the situation is salvageable.

  34. Dear Art Music.
    This sounds like a very bad situation. You are the ED? The Founder is a board member and works for you as the Director of Development? Any board that would allow this kind of structure needs a real overhaul. You are right to be considering your options unless I am missing something.

  35. Dear Lord it’s like a movie I keep reliving. Thank you for the article and advise. At least I feel a bit more sane now.

  36. The intentional interim can work if the organization is aware that they might have Founders Syndrome. An organization that is clueless will hire someone, make it impossible for that person to do their job, and then spiral down. If you are aware, then you’re treating people with respect as you work through stuff. If you’re not aware, you become jr. high school.

  37. Carrie. You are absolutely right. The problem in many cases is that the board is not seeing the problems the founders can create and if they do,,are too fearful of rocking the boat

  38. Wow this resonates with me as I begin to plan to leave a ED position I have served in for 38 years, as the first director. I have told my board recruit new members to lead the transition, hire someone that will go out and network to build sustainability and bring new vision, energy putting their signature on the agency. Carrying on the mission would be my greatest legacy ? Thanks for affirming my thoughts and plans to ride into the sunset.

  39. @joangarry:disqus I see this situation happen all the time and watch (and have experienced) abuse and belittlement by donors to staff. Is this because of the of the money-power dynamic? People get very strange when it comes to this and lose site of the bigger picture of philanthropy. I think too many nonprofit leaders allow this kind of treatment to happen due to fear of loss of funding, reputation, etc. but it takes a major toll on staff at all levels.

  40. Gabrielle. I see it far too often as well – leading me to write this post. Nonprofit leaders should expect civil treatment, just as an employee should expect this from her/his boss. And there is no question that the root of this is a dysfunctional power dynamic. Boards tend to be constituted by senior folks in the private sector with big egos and often a certain degree of affluence. The bigger the ego, the more likely the situation is to exist. Why / how do these kinds of people get into board leadership? This is the question organizations need to really dig deep and ask themselves……

  41. I lived this and lasted a year. So wish I had seen this article then. I truly believed in the organization but it was not going to work under those conditions. Thank you for an insightful article.

  42. Humility and sharing, sharing, sharing.
    I started the organization with absolutely no experience in the non-profit world. It took off because I was inspired and saw an opportunity.
    It’s my job to provide the same inspiration to my board, staff and core volunteers, and empower them to make good decisions without me. Rather than the weight being all on me to carry a torch, we’re like a chandelier.
    And BTW I spend A LOT of time with my board, especially the chair.
    I could exit at this point and there would be a few hiccups, but everything would go smoothly, and that would actually be really rewarding to see.
    But I still really enjoy what I do and love the people I work with.

  43. Gabriel. As you can see from comments below, you seem to have the secret sauce. And that many founders drive away talented staff. I will be tackling this topic in an upcoming podcast – be sure to be on the look out. It will appear here on my blog but is also on ITunes – The podcast is called Nonprofits Are Messy.

  44. There are management life cycles in every organization.
    Founders who have the base idea for the mission and the need for that mission,
    Builders who set the business foundation and principles that will support the mission,
    Manager Operators who will use the foundation created by builders to keep the organization functioning on a level base
    Growth agents who will expand the mission and grow the organization.
    It is unusual to find all these capabilities in a single manager. Therefore operational success long term reverts back to having oversight board leadership that understands each of the cycles and the need to assure that the right people are in the right place at the right time. That is the hardest part of long term success.

  45. I just read that article…..How accurate! I have been hired as Head of FRD of a fantastic organization 8 months ago, with the promise of becoming its ED within a year ( I was the ED of an organization before that!). But it is clearly not happening… The founder keeps bringing in consultants, new employees thinking they are going to overcome the challenges our organization is facing except that…. He is mostly responsible for these challenges. He founded the organization close to 20 years ago and what a beautiful job he has done. But the organization is slowly agonizing, employees leaving… I am probably at the end as well. Thoughts?

  46. I currently took the role of ED in a “toddler” organization and I don’t see myself staying much longer. I have 20 years in the nonprofit world, with 10 as a ED. The current chair (who is also the founder) micromanages and doesn’t allow for me to make many situations compliant or focus on funding which currently is in need of attention. I feel more like a program manager than a ED and that I’m living in a nightmare!

  47. This is wonderful advice and your clear-headed style, directed commentary, and compassion all shine through. You rock! I’m a consultant to many non-profits – and Founder’s Syndrome is as potent an issue as Groupthink is for leadership. I also believe FS can exist in organizations in which the ED has been in place for half of the life of the organization, which I’m currently seeing at the place where I’m working in FRD. It is particularly challenging because in half of my life I help ED’s with staff issues, stress, getting out of their own way and in building teams – but when I work part-time job doing fundraising – I can’t tell the ED the things I would do more openly if I were her consultant. It’s making me sad that I ever left consulting in the first place – witnessing patterns I cannot interrupt and being frustrated by the ED’s “FS” behaviors though she’s not the Founder, she’s been there half of the organization’s life. I see her fear of new ideas – of change – and she sees it too but she’s also pretty clear about shooting down pretty much every new idea and driving the org by the force of her personality, mission, and vision. She’s a lovely person, and so I find it even more heart-wrenching because she doesn’t seem to see her role in boosting morale, reducing conflict, and sharing the vision among her people as well as implementing their ideas. Too many people become EDs early on in their careers without enough experience in managing others. Too many ED’s surround themselves with friends and too few fundraisers on their Boards. In another instance, I was on Trustee in which the Board Chair was personal friends with the CEO – he complained about her often – but she was always buying gifts for his kids – and he also hired his wife to work as a Development Consultant but then balked when I discussed concerns about the organization with the new Development Consultant. He told me that I was putting him a weird position since the DC was his wife. That the Board Chair should not have approved (nor he, nor the Board – I was absent the day they took that vote) his wife being hired in the first place if we weren’t to talk to her about challenges. That so few of the Board didn’t see this as a conflict for our public broadcasting station, for our CEO, and our head of Development, was enough stress for me. I left the Board shortly thereafter for not just that reason, but any number of other reasons volunteers burnout. From all angles – being on a non-profit staff, to being on numerous Boards, to being a consultant, I continue to see FS and the force of one person’s personality, as one of the biggest barriers to change. Thanks again for all you do!

  48. I co-founded a nonprofit with a more experienced individual. We both pulled hard together as a team with me doing the bulk of the boots on the ground, visible work. I was the face of the organization. I identified, recruited, and provided leadership training to a board of directors, provided the publicity, formed the community relationships and more. Even though I was the only paid employee and had a great team of volunteers who accomplished amazing things, I ended up having manditory weekly meetings with my unpaid co-founder who had no official position with the organization at all. They wanted to make sure the organization continued to go in the direction they wanted. It was a solid nonprofit and well respected in the community, but after three and a half years the micro management got to me. My cofounder refused to step back so I left. I had done good work. That was 20 years ago and the little upstart is still going strong. I loved that work and the people I worked with. I completely adopted the concept of leading from behind. This is another way founder over-reach can happen.

  49. Great article. Very much on point. I’m the founder of four animal charities so far. The first two I left as they became legally registered and Boards were formed. The third one is now at that stage. The fourth hasn’t taken off yet, so I’m about to focus my attention on that.
    It’s good to know that it’s normal to have issues between Board and founder. And it’s even better to know that responsibly passing the baton is actually a great thing to do—the icing to put on the beautiful cake I’ve baked.
    My only problem is that the reason I want to leave is over a serious ethical issue. Should I try to ensure everything is run above board, or do I accept that perhaps it’s just an issue that I’ve homed in on because it provides me with an excuse to leave (and get some rest)?
    Looking forward to checking out more of your articles, Joan.

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