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Dear Nonprofit Founder, It’s Time to Go!

Are you an executive director dealing with a nonprofit founder who just won’t get out of the way? What happens when your nonprofit founder simply won’t let go? The diagnosis is your organization has Founder’s Syndrome. It sounds like some horrible terminal disease. It isn’t, but this syndrome can definitely make your nonprofit organization suffer.

Founders certainly deserve much credit for their inspiration, passion, and drive to found a nonprofit and get it off the ground. However, there is a sticking point. The personality-driven skill set and management style needed to create an organization early on is not the same skill set needed to lead a mature organization. Now, that personality-driven aspect may be hampering your nonprofit’s growth. This leaves you between a rock and a hard place. As executive director, you and your board have the unenviable task of trying to eradicate Founder’s Syndrome.

nonprofit founder time to go

What’s a director to do?

First, let’s look at the symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome:

  • Is your founder and his/her skill set still relevant to the organization?
  • Does your founder try to maintain control of the organization through a small group that has allegiance to him or her?
  • Did your founder choose the board, and are they all personally connected to the founder?
  • Has your leadership team evolved as your organization has evolved?
  • Are family members and friends given bogus jobs with amazing compensation?

How to Avoid Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome

Checks and balances are the key to curing this illness. Luckily, there are many effective ways to accomplish a more even keel. First, ensure the board content is a healthy mix of “insiders” and “outsiders.” Don’t be afraid to bring in new people as the organization grows. After all, you need fresh perspectives and fresh talent. Furthermore, be open to changing people’s roles within the organization. Mix it up a bit.

Now, this is the hard part! As the organization grows, the founder’s skill sets may not be the right skill set. It’s not necessarily about insufficient skills, but simply that you require a different set of skills at this stage of the organization’s maturity.

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The founder may no longer be the most effective operations person. Instead, you may need a chief operating officer, or another senior team member suited for the role. Have a succession plan in place to bring in another leader. In fact, have a succession plan for the entire staff. Likely, this will send a subtle message that no single individual is indispensable. This planning will also prevent single-point failures down the line.

Even the Nonprofit Founder Needs an Exit Strategy

Always have an exit strategy developed for the nonprofit founder. Don’t develop this plan for the founder, develop it with the founder. Together, envision the leadership transition, and explore other roles the founder could fulfill in the organization. Broach the topic of the founder developing a different skill set to continue to evolve with the organization. Who knows? Maybe pursuing further education and training has always been on the founder’s wish list. If so, this could be a big win-win for your nonprofit.

If this one-on-one interaction is too stressful, consider having an outside trusted person provide the founder with honest feedback.

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The Impact of The Illness

Letting Founder’s Syndrome fester within your organization is much more costly than grabbing the bull by the horns and dealing with the situation. If there is nepotism or lack of financial transparency attributed to the founder, donors will notice and lose trust. And that means that your donations will likely dwindle.

Your staff can become demotivated, and your board members may flee rather than put up with the situation. Certainly don’t let the controversy reach a boiling point.

None of this turns out well. The organization is damaged and so are the reputations of the executive director and the board. Most of all, this casts an extremely negative light on the nonprofit founder, which is a shame given that he or she has invested so much heart into making the mission work.

Watch for signs of the illness and put the proper safeguards in place. This is not an all-or-nothing situation. A nonprofit founder’s role is like a flower – it can continue to blossom as the organization grows.


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