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Dealing with Founder’s Syndrome

Leaders with Founder’s Syndrome can cause great harm to nonprofits. Read on for tips on what you can do about it.
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It takes a special kind of person to start a nonprofit. Frequently driven by passion, conviction, or moral outrage, these individuals refuse to accept the status quo. They recruit friends and co-workers to meet problems head-on.

One of the best-known founders is Clara Barton. She risked her life to bring care and supplies to soldiers in the Civil War. In 1881, she founded the American Red Cross and served as its president for 23 years.

Millard and Linda Fuller rallied their friends to officially form an organization that would give individuals the opportunity to have decent, affordable homes. Habitat for Humanity was launched in September 1976.

Across the nation there are tax-exempt organizations of all sizes and types that were birthed by individuals with passion and purpose. Many of these founders are well known and highly respected throughout the community.

The world around us changes by the minute. Even before COVID, quickly evolving economies, technology, and changing demographics required nonprofits to adapt their methods to stay current.

But change isn’t always synonymous with founders.

Founder’s Syndrome occurs when a person, typically the founder, insists on running the organization according to their personal preferences—even if that style is not effectively accomplishing the mission.

A founder who clings to outdated approaches when others are ready to move on can cause great harm and upheaval. The syndrome can traumatize people and polarize an organization.

There are three classic symptoms of a leader with Founder’s Syndrome:

1. Dominance – In the beginning, the founder was likely the only employee, so they made all the decisions. As the organization grew, systems expanded, and it became necessary to involve more people in the decision-making process.

Insecure leaders insist on being at the center of all decision making. They make decisions without input from others, because in their minds, no one knows as much as they do. If these leaders delegate tasks, they frequently override the decisions of those under them.

Another aspect of dominance relates to board recruitment. A leader with Founder’s Syndrome hand selects board members. They pick their friends rather than allowing the board to make a collective decision. This keeps them in charge, ensuring a “rubber stamp” board, one that would never dare challenge their decisions. Loyalty to the leader (not the cause) is a top priority.

2. Denial – Freud described denial as a state of “knowing but not knowing.” Some leaders know there is a need for change, but they refuse to act on it. They believe the organization must embrace tradition at all costs—even if it drives them into oblivion.

When leaders are in denial, they refuse to acknowledge the fact that all organizations, regardless of size or scope, experience a metamorphosis that requires continual fine-tuning. The tune-up may involve adjusting or eliminating programs that are no longer needed or have become ineffective.

It also may involve a change in leadership.

For the nonprofit leader who declares “mission accomplished” when it isn’t, living in denial nearly always leads to discord and collapse.

3. Short-sightedness – Short-sightedness, or myopia, is a common eye condition that causes distant objects to appear blurred, while close objects are seen clearly. A leader with Founder’s Syndrome is unable to see the big picture. They are focused on right now rather than on the future. On the flip side, effective leaders are visionaries, always aspiring to reach new heights.

Myopic leaders focus on short-term rather than long-term impact. They want good numbers today, even if that number is not a real indicator of long-term success for people helped or the community.

Myopic leaders don’t consider other people or groups in the community. Conversely, effective nonprofit organizations do not operate in a vacuum. Instead, they are well connected and collaborative. These leaders realize the power of collective impact, always locking arms with others to achieve the greater good.

If your organization suffers from a leader with Founder’s Syndrome, don’t delay action.

1. Mission success must be the highest priority. If any person, regardless of rank or tenure, is behaving in a manner that is harmful to the organization, the board must protect the mission and act quickly—even if that person is the founder.

2. Be cautious when addressing the problem. Discussions about parting ways with the founder can be emotional. Some board, staff, and supporters may have a visceral reaction to the idea of this transition.

3. Honor the legacy of this person. If your board decides it is in the best interest of the organization’s future to part ways, it is important to honor the founder’s past work. Develop a clear plan that allows the founder to wrap up their time as the face of the organization and pass the baton to the next leader.

4. Seek a fresh approach. As your organization begins to cast a vision for its next leader, avoid Founder 2.0. It may be tempting to get a new leader that closely resembles the traits of the founder. But keep in mind that your organization has evolved, and your next leader may need an entirely new set of skills and qualifications to take you to the next level.

If you have any questions or need assistance, reach out to a professional at Forvis Mazars or submit the Contact Us form below.


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