Of the many afflictions that can impede a not-for-profit’s growth, one of the more deadly is “Founder’s Syndrome.” This occurs when a single individual — typically the founder, executive director or other long-term leader — wields a disproportionate amount of power and resists efforts to redistribute authority. Fortunately, there’s a potential cure.

Note the symptoms

Nonprofits suffering from Founder’s Syndrome generally share some common characteristics:

  • The founder is “the decider,” which means all important decisions come from him or her, with little input from others.
  • Board members and staff are recruited by the founder and act primarily out of their loyalty to this person.
  • Ideas coming from sources other than the founder are dismissed.
  • The organization lacks a clear succession plan.

Founders’ reluctance to loosen their grip isn’t necessarily due to a power-hungry need to control. These leaders may fear that the nonprofit would falter without their continued connection. Some founders invest so much of themselves and their lives in the organizations that they simply can’t imagine a different path.

Action plan

The first step to resolving Founder’s Syndrome is to address it with the individual. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s critical. Members of the board or senior staff should acknowledge the founder’s invaluable role over the years, and then move on to discuss the importance of preserving the founder’s legacy when he or she inevitably can no longer lead. A succession plan is vital to preserving that legacy.

Offer your founder a central role in any transition process. For example, founders can be asked to document the organization’s institutional memory for the benefit of future leaders.

Your board may need to increase its accountability in the absence of the strong leader. And some board and staff members brought on by the founder may need to be replaced. Your board also should form an active fundraising committee so that a single individual isn’t responsible for driving donations.

With respect

Unless treated, Founder’s Syndrome can linger for years, putting your organization in a vulnerable position. We can help you approach an overreaching founder with sensitivity and respect and assist you in creating a succession plan.