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    Posted April 28, 2015 by

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    How to Cure Founder’s Syndrome At Your Organization

    A few weeks ago I received a call from a good friend who has been serving on an international nonprofit board for over five years. The founder, who was innovative forward thinking–at the time–saw an opportunity and established this organization approximately ten years ago. For years, the nonprofit has expanded programmatically, due to the commitment, expertise and passion of the board and its volunteers. Its fundraising efforts are paltry at best and it’s in no way sustainable. Nerves are beginning to fray.

    Today, the charity, is painfully suffering from “Founder’s Syndrome”. Initiatives to build a sustainable organization beyond the current board and founder are stymied at every turn. Volunteers have become resentful because they find themselves doing excessive amounts of work and there is now a firm expectation by the founder that the “board will do as I say.” It’s difficult because the board members care about the work, but there is discussion about perhaps establishing another organization with the same type of mission to break the cycle of dysfunction.

    If you have been around in the business or nonprofit world for as long as I have, you’re bound to come across it sometime. Founder’s Syndrome, also called “founderitis”, happens when a business or organization’s founder possesses an excessive amount of power and influence. Oftentimes, this begins to cripple an organization and typically incapacitates its path to continued growth and sustainability. I have personally experienced it during the course of my own career in the nonprofit sector approximately five times.

    The other day, I received an email from an excellent and conscientious fundraiser. After an exhaustive job search, she accepted a role within a nonprofit and was thrilled because she thought she would enter into an organization where she would be able to grow. Instead, she informed me that as she approaches her six-month anniversary, she is actively looking for another position. Why? Founder’s Syndrome.

    She calls it, “Founder’s Malady”.

    In this situation, the founder has prevented a strategic plan, so there is no path or direction, and what’s worse is that the founder is “best friends” with the executive director who has been in the position for decades. So, what is happening? Senior leadership talks a good game, but they seem to want to maintain the same paltry growth, which is nonexistent. They have no interest in truly looking to change anything, or even come into the 21st Century. They talk about the future, and buzz around busily as if a lot of activity means progress, simply perpetuating the iron-grip of the founder and keeping to the status quo.

    As my friend aptly stated about the “virus”, “There are mutations of the virus but it basically manifests the same set of symptoms: organizational paralysis, repeating the same mistakes over and over while expecting a different result (also known as insanity) and an number of additional problems.”

    In my experience, if you happen to become involved with an organization suffering from founderitis, there’s really only one cure. A viable path has to be created for the founder to end his or her tenure as the CEO and/or chair of the board. This is much easier said than done, however, but I have seen it done very effectively.

    First, the organization’s leadership (i.e. board) needs to recognize that the organization is suffering through an acute case of Founder’s Syndrom. You first have to know there’s a problem. Yes, this may very well mean that you have certain board members having discussions that may feel akin to conspiring a coupe. Essentially, it is inevitable. If an organization is actually being harmed and there is an increasing likelihood that the nonprofit may not even survive past the founder, let alone grow, then there is an obligation to act.

    When I have seen this transition occur successfully, it has taken time, patience and persistence. In one instance, it took nearly three years of active discussions and strategy development. Once the executive director and/or some board members have started having conversations about the future of the nonprofit and determined that the vise-like hold of the founder had to be broken in order to end the dysfunction, grow and become sustainable, they had a number of fits and starts. It’s not easy.

    Strategic and well-timed conversations by key board members and the founder may do the trick, but this does not work in all circumstances, particularly if the founder does not see any reason or acceptable path to his or her giving up the reigns.

    In each of the cases where I have seen a successful transition, a position or route has been created for the founder that honors his or her service. For example, in one case, the organization began the tradition of board member emeritus. In another instance, the nonprofit created a separate fundraising foundation arm associated with the parent organization so the founder, who was a prolific fundraiser, can stay involved but no longer exert control in the governance of the organization.

    Two final activities were essential and became catalysts for change in the organizations where I personally witnessed the cure of Founder’s Syndrome. Outside counsel working on strategic and succession planning were crucial because they became the respected “external” voice. No one within the nonprofits had to be prophets within their own land, which we know, might not be heard. Secondly, new board members with strong mission alignment, resources and leverage were also recruited into the organizations so the balance of power slowly began to shift.

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    Posted: April 28, 2015

    © 2015 Linda N. Spencer and “Living For Purpose™” all rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Linda N. Spencer and “Living For Purpose™” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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