Founder’s syndrome. It affects nonprofits and for-profits alike. And it can be crippling to any organization. Understanding what it is and how to avoid it is crucial to the future of your 501(c)(3).
Taken from that most-reputable of sources, Wikipedia, founder’s syndrome is defined as, “a pattern of negative or undesirable behavior on the part of the founder(s) of an organization”. While that can be true, we find that most cases of founder’s syndrome within nonprofits simply involve a founder with too much influence. In plain English, it means that the universe revolves around the founder…and not in a good way. Here is an example of the way it usually works:
Sam was an entrepreneur. In this case, a social entrepreneur. Sam had a passionate vision to start an after-school mentoring program for troubled youth. Early on, Sam was able to assemble a board of directors and a pretty good corp of volunteers. Due largely to Sam’s energy and vision, the organization experienced immediate success and grew rapidly. The organization became well known in the community and developed a good reputation. The members of the board pretty much deferred most of the governance responsibility to Sam. After all, it was his baby and he was making it happen.
A few years passed and the organization eventually began to plateau. Growth stalled, program development gave way to program management, and volunteers became harder to keep. Sam was still at the helm, but had reached the limits of his creativity and management skills. One thing that had not changed was Sam’s drive and charisma. A few of the board members recognized that Sam’s influence had become too dominant for the future of the enterprise, but didn’t want to upset the apple cart. Other board members were oblivious or didn’t care.
Unexpectedly, Sam died of a massive stroke. The board made an effort to salvage the situation by installing one of the long-term volunteers, Sandra, as the program director. But, given that Sam had done most everything management-wise, Sandra was ill-equipped to simply step into his big shoes. The board pretty much put it all on her shoulders since their own involvement had been token to begin with. The end of the story is pretty obvious: The organization began a rapid decline, Sandra resigned within a couple of months in frustration and the board, with no other recourse, closed the doors. But, it didn’t have to end this way.
Author Stephen Covey, in his classic, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, lists as one of those habits to “begin with the end in mind.” In the scenario above, Sam would have done well to honestly inventory his own skill set, purposefully recruit those who shared his passion and who possessed skills he did not. In addition, he should have insisted on board involvement and input by establishing a culture of contribution and commitment by practicing delegation of responsibility. Would those things have guaranteed a successful transition to a post-Sam world? No. But it would have set the stage to make it as likely as possible. At the least, the organization would have been much healthier and positioned for success.
For those founders who are control-freaks, the problem is much more acute…and solutions much more difficult. Potential board members and volunteers are wise to consider such before they agree to come on board.