Much has been written
about Founders Syndrome from the point of view of the board or an outside
consultant, focusing on infrastructure steps that can be taken to strengthen
But what about the founder
him/herself? I havent been able to find an article that helps Founders
understand what has brought about the changes everyone feels he/she needs to
make. Nor have I found anything that helps founders make those changes.
My interest in this
subject is not academic or professional. For me, this is personal.
I am a founder.
As many of our readers
know, in addition to keeping Help 4 NonProfits buzzing along, my partner and I
started a NonProfit organization that is quite extraordinary (arent they
all?). The organization - a Diaper Bank - provides diapers to those in need,
because virtually none of the safety nets provide for diapers or incontinence
supplies. And being the proud parents we are, if you would like to check out
the Diaper Banks website, you will find it at
Our dual role provides us with a unique perspective, the
ability to understand Founders Syndrome from both the inside and the
outside. Wearing our Consulting hat, we have been called in to address the
problems that Founders Syndrome has wreaked in other organizations. And
wearing our Founder hat, we have experienced much of emotion that creates this
situation in the first place.
And so we thought it might be helpful to share with
other founders the lessons we have learned along the way. These lessons are not
intended for boards who are wondering what to do about a founder who is hanging
on, although we know these insights will be helpful to boards as well.
The lessons that follow are instead written to founders
themselves, asking them to dig down deep to look first at what motivates the
behaviors that have become lumped together as Founders Syndrome,
and second, to encourage them to take the next steps - to help their
organization move to a place that isnt founder-driven, but
What Is Founders
Syndrome - The Nutshell Version
Founders Syndrome occurs when a single individual
or a small group of individuals bring an organization through tough times (a
start-up, a growth spurt, a financial collapse, etc.). Often these sorts of
situations require a strong passionate personality - someone who can make fast
decisions and motivate people to action.
Once those rough times are over, however, the
decision-making needs of the organization change, requiring mechanisms for
shared responsibility and authority. It is when those decision-making
mechanisms dont change, regardless of growth and changes on the program
side, that Founders Syndrome becomes an issue. We see this most
frequently with organizations that have grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a
$12 million community powerhouse, while decisions are still made as if the
founders are gathered around someones living room, desperately trying to
hold things together.
Founders Syndrome isnt necessarily about the
actual founder of an organization. The central figure could be the person who
took over from the founder. It could be someone who took over in a time of
crisis, and led the organization to clear waters. Or it could just be someone
who has been at the helm forever.
The founder could be the CEO. Or it could be
a board member, or a handful of board members who have either been there since
the beginning or have ridden the organization through tough times.
But the main symptom of Founders Syndrome is that
decisions are not made collectively. Most decisions are simply made by the
"founder." All other parties merely rubber stamp what the founder suggests.
There is generally strong resistance to any change in that decision-making,
where the Founder might lose his/her total control of the organization. Boards
of these organizations usually don't govern, but instead "approve" what the
founder suggests. Planning isn't done collectively, but by the founder. And
plans / ideas that do NOT come from the founder usually don't go very
In other words, regardless of the size of the
organization, everyone who is NOT the founder is relegated to the role of
support staff to the Founder. (If you ever hear a board say, Our
boards role is just to support the ED, that is one of many classic
signals that Founders Syndrome is likely at play.)
Some may ask, So whats wrong with
that? And the answer is simple: If the founder is hit by a
meteor tomorrow, the organization is not sustainable, and all the good work the
organization has done over the years is in danger of screeching to a halt.
Thats because organizations facing Founders Syndrome usually have
little infrastructure in place, because it simply hasnt been needed. In
these situations, the founder IS the infrastructure!
What Founders Need to
We use two analogies to describe our relationship to the
organization we founded. We try not to mix these metaphors, but sometimes it
happens. Here goes:
Once you have birthed
it, it is no longer your baby. Just as it is with our own children,
once they are born, they are their own persons. We can guide our children,
teach them, nurture them - but our son or daughter is a person in his/her own
right. As is our organization. Its not ours. It is its own
thing. We dont own it.
Once you give a gift,
its no longer yours. Ok - thats the other metaphor. We have
created this amazing gift for our community. Now that it is used and depended
upon by others - now that we have given this gift to the community, it is no
longer ours. It belongs to the community. Thats the definition of a
From these two facts - that the organization is a being
in its own right, and that that being belongs to the community, not us - come a
number of other facts many founders dont want to face.
1) Along with the
decision to bring a child into the world comes the responsibility to raise it
to live independently. We all know the old adage - that the only
certainties in life are death and taxes. Well the part we dont like to
admit to ourselves is that there is another certainty associated with the
death part - and that is that none of us knows exactly when our
days will be done. Because we know we are not going to live forever, and we
cannot know if our last day will be tomorrow or 50 years from now, it is
irresponsible to run our organizations as if we will, in fact, be around
forever. It is simply not fair to the organization, nor to those who benefit
from the work we do. The only responsible approach, therefore, is to raise this
child to NOT need us.
2) The world
doesnt owe you anything for having founded your organization. We
gave up our lives to create the organization we founded. We went without sleep,
sweated blood, and in our case, even went into debt. But the sad truth is that
nobody owes us anything for doing that. We did it because we cared. And
regardless of which metaphor you use - that of having a child, or that of
giving a gift - neither of them provides for a payback. Our payback
in having a child is in seeing our children grow and take on the world
themselves. And our payback for giving a gift is in seeing how
happy the recipient is to use that gift, hopefully for a long long
3) Its not about
you. Harsh, but true. Its hard sometimes to acknowledge that
regardless of how much we put into nurturing the organization we founded, in
the long run, none of that really matters. Its not about our emotional
needs - regardless of what those are. Its not about what weve
sacrificed to make it all work, or the recognition / gratitude we think we
should get. Its about the community, which is why we created this gift in
the first place. If we have not prepared the organization to survive (and dare
I say thrive?) without our presence, and we therefore cannot even think of
leaving, as the organization would crumble without us, then we have somehow
made it about us, rather than about the community.
4) Your vision
isnt nearly as important as the organizations vision and the
communitys vision. Yes, it was our vision that founded the
organization in the first place. But as the organization grows and matures,
that vision may not be all there is. The ability for the organization to
dramatically affect the community may be far larger than the vision we had when
we first opened the doors. Doing things the way theyve always been done,
and thinking the way things have always been thought is not necessarily the
best thing for the organization, nor for the community it serves. It is simply
what WE would do. So if we fear the vision would change if we werent
there, perhaps its time to let it evolve while we are still
So What is a Founder To
First, if you are the founder of a brand new
organization and you are just starting out, build it right. Build it to sustain
for the future. Build it as if you wont be there to see it through its
life. Think about the future while you are creating the organizations
If, however, the organization is an older one, and it
and you have become inextricably entwined, then there is work to be done. Some
of that work is organizational. Some is personal.
Lets start with the personal
1) Acknowledge that some day, the split will happen. The
only way to ensure that your legacy is an organization that serves the
community long after you are gone is to acknowledge, right now, that you cannot
be there forever - and that you never know when that forever will
occur. Take that to heart and be conscious of it as you plan for your
organizations future, and you will likely put the needed tools in place
to survive you.
2) Get help. Find a professional coach who can help you
work out the personal aspects of your eventual separation from the
organization, even if you are not going anywhere but are just thinking about
ensuring the organization is ready in the event you do. This is especially
important for those of you who dont believe you have Founders
Syndrome, but have heard it whispered about you. If you or your organization
show the symptoms listed here
(Click), then find a coach to work with - for the good of
those you serve.
Hint - if someone slipped this article onto your desk
anonymously, theres a good chance you should start looking for a
From the organizational side:
1) A healthy organization starts with a healthy board.
Whether you are a board member or the CEO, if the board as a whole is depending
on you for everything from the organizations vision to the connection to
the community, then its time to begin developing, training and
restructuring your board to be the ones to lead the organization. This will
likely take some recruiting efforts as well, because there is a good chance
many of the existing board members were hand-picked by you! (Thats all
part of the syndrome.) If the organization is to thrive into the next decades
and further, the board will have to understand its role at the top of the
organizational chart, and it will have to be populated by people who want to do
To help transition from a Founders
board to the next step in governing
2) Codify the vision and values that are at the heart of
the organization. Create a working credo that will guide both the boards
future decisions and those made by the staff. (For a sample of the credo we
created for the organization we founded, Click
Here.) There is nothing to say that the credo wont
evolve over time - ours already has, and likely will again. But the core of
what is important will remain, and that will be another part of your
3) Create a succession plan that proactively deals with
all the things you (or the board) is scared might happen when you leave.
Are they afraid that you have been the link to
the community, the public image of the organization? Then determine a way to
proactively deal with that, perhaps creating a speakers bureau or PR committee.
Are they afraid that most of the institutional
memory of the organization resides inside your head? Then find a way to
proactively deal with that - perhaps having you take time off to commit some of
that knowledge to paper.
Are they afraid that you have been the best
fundraiser they could dream of? Then find a proactive way to deal with that -
perhaps by developing an army of development volunteers with a passion for the
Whatever the fear, make sure your succession plan deals
with it proactively to ensure the viability of the organization for the long
term. While the main focus of this plan will be succession, the ancillary
benefit is that you will be building organizational infrastructure. And that
will provide benefit immediately.
4) As part of your succession plan, train someone now
who could replace you, even temporarily, in the event something happens to you.
This doesnt mean you are going anywhere soon. You may not be leaving for
the next 10 years! But if the whole organization relies on you for its
survival, and you really are hit by a meteor tomorrow, then what will happen?
Find someone you can share your institutional knowledge with, and train them to
share the load now, while you still can.
As a founder, I owe the community my organization serves
the obligation to ensure that the child I birthed is capable of living on its
own and benefitting the world into eternity. Just as we have the obligation in
real life to make plans for the future of our children in the event something
happens to us (life insurance, a will, etc.), we owe the community the pledge
that we will do the same for the gift we have given them.