Founder's SyndromeNonprofit founders usually begin their social good work with the best of intentions. Meaning, they want to make a difference in the world and improve lives. However, after years—and maybe even decades—at the helm of any endeavor, something that isn’t so good can occur at the organization. In short, it’s called Founder’s Syndrome, and it can be a very tough challenge to overcome.

What is Founder’s Syndrome?

Founder’s syndrome or “founderitis” typically revolves around the cult of personality of the founder. However, there are also instances where an executive or president in the position for a long time causes “founder’s” syndrome. Nevertheless, founder’s syndrome exists when the leader has total control and the group is no longer advancing. Usually, founder’s syndrome also brings a decline in the reputation, fundraising, and status of the group. It happens because someone has stayed in the job way too long. And, the time has come—and gone—for this person to move on.

What Gets Missed in Founder’s Syndrome?

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of founder’s syndrome in the nonprofit sector. In writing this article, I have two in mind, but I could tick off some others.

  1. At one group, the nonprofit founder stayed on for years. He did great things to build the nonprofit. But, by the time he was 85, there were new board members and a new executive director. As a result, they wanted to take the nonprofit to scale. The nonprofit was doing great work in after-school education, and there was a need for expanded services. However, the founder would have none of it. It took more than five years to resolve the impasse. And, it took several outside consultants, a rotation of board members off the board, and a second, new executive director. Were it not for the advanced age of the founder, I wonder if he would have retired.
  2. At another place, the nonprofit founder was the one who created the programs. This charismatic leader developed an after-school mentorship program that was making a positive difference in the community. The children served loved the founder, and this helped add to the cult of personality. Eventually, board members learned that the personal funds and the money of the organization got co-mingled. In other words, there was no firewall between the two. One of the board members resigned, and other members worked to see if they could “patch things up.” In sum, the nonprofit experienced a time of utter chaos.

Creating a Legacy

The following are a few things you can do if you find yourself facing the challenge as an executive director.

  • Understand the nuance of the situation. Founder’s syndrome is an internal political and diplomatic situation than anything else. Remember, you’re dealing with someone who has total control of the brand. Usually, there are enablers at the board level. Thus, a lot of the work to overcome it gets done in the gray. As a result, resolving it is like is a game of chess and strategy. 
  • One prescription does not fit all. So, there is no one “correct” answer for any two nonprofits dealing with founder’s syndrome. You are dealing with peoples’ personalities, including the nonprofit founder or leader. You will have to be part doctor, psychologist, priest, and strategist­­­­––all while juggling the day-to-day demands of the group.
  • Hiring outside counsel is an excellent start. In other words, you need to get someone from the outside and who is objective. However, you may end up going through a few outside counselors. If the founder feels threatened, he or she will likely not “buy into” the first time a consultant presents a report he or she does not like. However, counsel can help with strategy. Also, they can provide recommendations that you might not have considered.
  • Successfully addressing founder’s syndrome is primarily a political and diplomatic matter. If you’re dealing with this issue, you need allies. Therefore, one of the best places to focus your energy is with the board of directors. They have a responsibility and power over governance. It may take time, but allied board members who care for the nonprofit and realize the group is falling behind will help lead the cause. And, with time, new members will bring new energy and ideas to the group.

Two Creative Solutions to Alleviate Founders’ Syndrome

Finally, if you’re looking for creative solutions, there are two you could consider. Nonprofit groups have used these solutions to offer the nonprofit founder a graceful “exit,” but also a chance to remain engaged. First, you can create a separate foundation that has an exclusive role to raise money for your nonprofit. Think of it as a “Friends of” group. And, consider making the founder the leader of that foundation. Secondly, you can create an emeritus board. Again, this group can include the top performers in terms of fundraising and supporters. Give them an annual fundraising challenge to raise. It helps keep nonprofit founders involved and engaged while out of the operations.

Realize, founder’s syndrome can be destructive for a nonprofit. And, depending on the group, it can take years to rectify. However, with a few dedicated members and senior staff who believe in the cause, it can get resolved. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but it’s a situation that gets remedied with adaptability, patience, and perseverance.


© 2020 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.