I was approached to help an organization by an acquaintance. “It’s a classic case of founder’s syndrome,” she said. I knew immediately what she meant. I imagined that the founder was a bright and charismatic person who needed to do everything or micromanage everyone who tried to help. She wouldn’t settle for imperfectly completed work, and often ended up redoing the things she had delegated to others. She was probably so dedicated to the job that it was difficult to separate her work from her life. And the organization was always operating in crisis mode.
Wikipedia’s page on founder’s syndrome lists symptoms including that the organization is strongly identified with the leader, all decisions are made by this person in crisis mode without planning and little process, key staff and board members have all been selected by this person, outside consultants are seen as too expensive or their advice is ignored, and when things start to go south all that just intensifies.
It’s important to note a few things before moving on. First, the name “founder’s syndrome” might not be the most accurate. For one thing, not all founders find themselves in organizations with this malady; many founders establish and nurture very healthy and balanced organizations. Also, “founder’s” syndrome can revolve around other people in the organization, not just the individual who established the organization; any long-standing key player can be at the center of this complex.
But still, I can barely count the times that I’ve heard someone say “When I saw that article on founder’s syndrome I realized that’s what happened at my nonprofit!”
So as they say, it’s a “thing”, and it’s important to understand the damage an organization with this ailment can suffer. At minimum the nonprofit will hit a wall when it tries to grow beyond a certain point and fail to thrive. At worst, the organization can go up in flames, leaving behind a trail of frustrated and unmotivated volunteers, board members, and staff.
So what can a new nonprofit leader do to inoculate their organization against this affliction? Here are a few of my ideas:
- Learn to recognize the symptoms of founder’s syndrome and educate people in your organization about them.
- Repeat the mantra: My nonprofit is not me, and it’s not my baby. My nonprofit is everyone’s baby.
- Practice and encourage collaboration. Delegate work to others and find a way to be happy with the results most of the time (even when the results are not exactly what you wanted).
- Include your board and key staff in all major decisions early on. This models the expectation that everyone owns the organization, not just you.
- Acknowledge the contribution of others. Do this publicly. Make sure you yourself are not seen as the whole organization. Paint a picture that your organization is a whole bunch of people working together.
One last thing. While a crisis mode is necessary for founder’s syndrome to remain virulent, it is important not to mistake it alone for this organizational disease. Many, many nonprofits start in less than perfect ways and find themselves in a period of crisis that can last for a couple of years. Income doesn’t quite meet expenses, the roof leaks and doesn’t get repaired, there’s not enough cash to buy office supplies and half the donated pens don’t write. You get the idea. This crisis environment does not create founder’s syndrome on its own. It needs your help.
Another way to think of this period is as a honeymoon, the first years when everyone is putting in 110% because they’re still infatuated with the organization. This is great, and it may even be necessary, but it’s short-lived because 110% isn’t a sustainable. Aim for 90-95% in the long run.
So plan for this honeymoon period end. When it does, all key players should have drawn clear lines that protect their personal lives from being encroached upon by the organization. Without the crisis driven environment, the threat of founder’s syndrome will wither away.
So follow the above steps, and focus on building a sustainable organization.