Ep 17: How One Founder Avoided ‘Founder Syndrome’ – with guest Kevin Jennings

by Joan Garry

Perhaps the question I am most commonly asked is this: How do I make the switch from corporate to nonprofit? Bill Abrams knows a lot about this subject…


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“My biggest accomplishment is that when I left after 18 years, nobody missed me.” – Kevin Jennings

Founders are amazing. 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.

But sometimes a condition befalls an organization when a founder’s own identity becomes so intertwined with the organization the founder simply can’t let go, even when the time is right.

I call this condition ‘Founder Syndrome’.

My guest, Kevin Jennings, was a highly successful founder. But somehow, when left his organization, he completely avoided Founder Syndrome. His former nonprofit thrived under his leadership. And it’s thriving without him.

Kevin has an amazing history — in addition to being a nonprofit founder, he worked in the Obama administration, as a high school history teacher, as a faculty advisor to the nation’s first gay-straight alliance, and is the now the ED at a foundation. He has a lot to teach all of us.

So how did he manage to avoid Founder Syndrome?

Take a listen.

Who Is Kevin Jennings?

Kevin Jennings is currently the Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, a leading global foundation supporting efforts to create a world where human beings live in harmony with each other and the natural world. He has held this role since 2012.

Kevin is an educator, social justice activist, teacher, and author. He served as Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. Kevin began his career as a high school history teacher and coach in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. During this time he served as faculty advisor to the nation’s first Gay-Straight alliance, leading him in 1990 to found the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national education organization tackling anti-LGBT bias in U.S. schools, which he led for 18 years. Kevin has three degrees (and he is only in his 50s). BA Harvard, MA in ED from Teachers College at Columbia, and an MBA from The Stern School at NYU.

I apologize for bringing such an underachiever to you this week.

In This Episode:

  • How starting a nonprofit can be “a feat of astounding stupidity.” <tongue in cheek>
  • The most important thing that makes somebody qualified to lead a nonprofit
  • How important is nonprofit leadership experience when starting a new nonprofit?
  • Why you must “hire” your board just like you hire your staff
  • Kevin’s view on promoting from within vs. bringing in an outside leader
  • How to set up your successor so there’s no question who the board should hire next
  • Why performing a formal search process for a new leader makes sense even if the founder has already developed a successor
  • How does a founder recognize when it’s time to go?
  • How much notice founders should give before leaving
  • Is there an appropriate role for a founder to play after he/she leaves?
  • Advice for founders (and boards) who wish to avoid Founder Syndrome

Episode Links:

2 thoughts on “Ep 17: How One Founder Avoided ‘Founder Syndrome’ – with guest Kevin Jennings”

  1. Excellent insight, and thank you, Joan, for including all the questions that I would have wanted to have asked!