Founders—the people who create nonprofits—are remarkable. They miss sleep to build websites, skip lunch to meet with potential donors or partners, and do whatever it takes to turn their dreams of a better world into reality, creating an organization in the process. They literally create something out of nothing with their drive and passion.
Yet as nonprofits develop from start-up to adolescent, many founders continue in their initial leadership role, preventing innovation and new ideas from emerging. Their strong voice stifles others and they claim to be the only one who really knows what’s right for the organization, making key decisions behind closed doors. They hold coveted funder and partner relationships to themselves, creating a cult of personality. They micromanage, leading to a staff that’s task- vs. idea- or project-driven. Their preferences for branding and marketing slowly become routine and lackluster as everything stays the same. And most of all, there’s no desire to create new systems or ways of doing things; status quo is the only way. If your nonprofit is facing these surprisingly common challenges, well then, you’re suffering from a case of Founder’s Syndrome, but the good news is there’s a cure!
Founder’s Syndrome can be devastating and long lasting for staff, donors, volunteers, and the entire organization. Here are two examples of Founder’s Syndrome I’ve seen personally:
- A nonprofit less than a year old whose founder refuses to show transparency with the board she created. They don’t know the budget, where the money goes, or have any input on events and programming.
- A well-established nonprofit, doing much good in the community, allowed their founding Executive Director to select and train her successor without any board input. This successor then selected and trained her successor! No search committee, no evaluation of other directors, no involvement from the board! Everything remains exactly the same for decades although the founder is long gone.
Okay, so maybe this looks familiar. Now… what can you do about it?
- Create a Culture of Expression
- Empower Everyone
- Encourage Collaboration
- Cultivate Clarity
Create a Culture of Expression
Nonprofits are about people—their needs and feelings—and everyone wants to feel valued and heard. Organizations that cultivate an environment of open expression benefit from innovation and the vibrancy of fresh ideas. Here are some ways to get started:
- Welcome ideas and input from staff and board members.
- Ask lower-level staff what they think about the latest marketing piece or the writing style of a brochure before it goes to print.
- Institute five crazy minutes where staff can express any idea no matter how bizarre—something really innovative might come through!
- Enshrine a respect for creativity and expression in your Values or Guiding Principles, and put them on paper, frame them, and post them up on a wall.
You lose the “that’s the way it’s always been done” mindset while validating staff and volunteers. It’s really a win-win!
Encourage staff, board, and volunteers to take on projects and run with them; this lifts up everybody. As volunteers and staff take on more responsibility, your impact will grow and your team will have a stronger sense of ownership over the work. Empowering people helps break through bottlenecks of responsibility, fosters independence among staff, and promotes fresh blood and energy. To begin empowering everyone, I suggest you:
- Bring staff members you wouldn’t normally invite to fundraising or relationship building meetings.
- Invest in training, conferences, coaching, and other professional development for staff.
- Encourage staff and board attendance at professional group meetings and events.
Really, there can only be a benefit here!
Remember that time you had a great project come together without any input from anyone else? Yeah, I don’t either. Whether its co-workers, volunteers, or even different organizations, working with others is critical to preventing stagnation. Here are some tips to get people working together:
- Create cross-departmental teams to work on projects.
- Offer “show and tell” where staff discusses projects they’re working on—this can result in interesting ideas and opportunities for cross-pollination.
- Extend your collaboration to other agencies and nonprofits—learn from each other while doing more good!
Collaboration fosters more openness, which encourages creativity and produces a more dynamic outcome. This isn’t like a high school group project, I promise!
Your mission and goals should drive all your activities, investments, and programs. Ensuring clarity about your purpose focuses your team and helps prevents extraneous ventures (AKA “mission creep”). Explain and reiterate your mission, goals, and process of decision-making regularly, and keep everyone focused on what matters most. Decision-making structures should be transparent, both in terms of who makes decisions and how they are made. Openness and transparency are key to fostering a culture of innovation. Here are some ways to get started:
- Put the mission statement on the bottom of every meeting agenda to ensure focus.
- Ask board members whether decisions are in line with the mission.
- Ask staff if programs are in line with the mission.
There’s nothing to hide!
Nonprofits that support new ideas and empower people to take responsibility are more innovative and generate more loyalty among their team. Encouraging collaboration within departments and across organizations prevents “group-think” and produces a bigger impact. Clarity of mission, goals, and decision-making keeps everyone on the same page and working together.
You got this!
Blue Avocado Quiz
Download this quiz here: Blue Avocado Founders Syndrome Quiz
Your Marketing Director has a new marketing concept she wants to explore. Do you:
- Tell her the marketing strategy has already been determined
- Ask her to present her idea to a team of stakeholders
- Ask her to present her idea to you
At a staff meeting an employee brings up an idea for solving a recurring problem in the agency. Do you:
- Ask him to elaborate on the idea and work with relevant departments to explore ways it could be implemented
- Ask him to present the idea to you
- Remind him this is not the time or proper procedure for presenting new ideas
A board member is concerned policies are too restrictive and the mission is not being met fully. Do you:
- Review the policies and procedures with her and explain how they are mission aligned
- Speak with her about her concerns and ask her to create a focus group to investigate alternative policies
- Speak with her about her concerns and work with her directly on creating new policies
1- 0 points
2- 5 points
3- 3 points
1- 5 points
2- 3 points
3- 0 points
1- 0 points
2- 5 points
3- 3 points
10-15 points: Great job! You’re on track to cure founder’s syndrome.
5-10 points: You’re on the way; review the points above to see where you could improve.
0-5 points: Founder’s syndrome might be impacting your impact! Where could you start with implementing the suggestions in the article?
Karolyn Benger is the owner of KB Enterprise, a nonprofit consulting firm in Phoenix, AZ. Previously, she was the founding Executive Director of the newly created Jewish Community Relations Council in Phoenix and served as the Executive Director of the Jewish Interest Free Loan of Atlanta. She has worked for a variety of nonprofit organizations including: the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, National Association of Blood Banks, and the Jewish Free Loan in Phoenix. Ms. Benger is a graduate of Emory University and taught at Emory University, Georgia Tech, and Emerson College. She is a member of the Arizona Interfaith Movement and currently serves as a mentor in the Jewish Women Leadership Institute.
Jason Chmura says
This is such an important article – because this happens all the time. Particularly with new nonprofit organizations. Thank you for sharing this. There is some great advice that I will definitely be leaning on as I support other nonprofits.
Karolyn Benger says
Thank you for your feedback and your work as a founder. Founder’s Syndrome does not refer to tenure alone. It is a specific phenomenon that occurs when a founder, oftentimes “long in the tooth” but it is not a requirement, prevents the free flow of information, halts innovation, and slowly stagnates the organization. Founders may do this whether they have been there a short or long term.
Corporations do not face this problem among their founders because they ultimately answer to the consumer. Should innovation and growth be prevented and stagnation develop their bottom line would be affected and a change would like take place.
In the nonproft world we cannot rely on market forces; rather, we rely on the relationships we build among staff, volunteers, board members, and the broader community. Based on their feedback, and those serviced by our organizations, we gauge if our finger is still on the pulse of those we serve.
Thanks, again for your comment and for being a great founder!
Sandy Priester says
I understand that sometimes founders get stuck in their ways. And yes, we definitely need ways to navigate that. AND…. many founders continue to be as innovative later in the life of the organization as they were the day they began the non-profit. I am one of them.
You don’t hear about this in corporations. People don’t write articles about the “owner’s syndrome”. If all founders and owners were pushed aside once the organization grows to a certain size we would not have Apple Corporation (Steve Jobs), Microsoft (Bill Gates), FaceBook (Mark Zuckerberg), and a whole host of other highly successful companies and non-profits.
Karolyn Benger says
Thanks for your feedback and thank you for being a great Founder! Founder’s Syndrome is much more involved than tenure. A founder who continues to innovate and grow with the organization does not exhibit the problems of Founder’s Syndrome. FS refers to a Founder who, in addition to retaining control, also prohibits growth and development of fresh ideas. In the corporate world, this form of stagnation would present itself in the marketplace — ultimately affecting the company’s bottom line. In the nonprofit world we do not have that sort of feedback and rely more heavily on the relationships we build among staff, volunteers, the board, and broader community.
Thanks, again for being a great founder!