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

founder syndrome

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

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

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

But then, a couple weeks after he started, Barry learned that the board felt the organization couldn’t let Mary 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 Barry to successfully move the organization into the future, he deferred to Mary in all things. After all, who knows better than Mary?

Barry wanted to get out and solicit renewals. Mary told him these are her relationships.

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

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

Imagine you were Barry. 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 Mary but still….

Reputation problem. Board exodus. Fundraising down. Mary 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.

THE TROUBLE WITH FOUNDERS

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

WHAT CAUSES “FOUNDER SYNDROME”?

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?”

HERE’S HOW ONE NONPROFIT AVOIDED “FOUNDER SYNDROME”

Seven years ago, GLSEN faced a potential “founder 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.

MY ADVICE FOR FOUNDERS

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.

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!!!

MY ADVICE FOR BOARDS

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. 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.”

MY ADVICE FOR THE NEW EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

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 it 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.

Related: How One Founder Avoided ‘Founder Syndrome’