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Founder’s Syndrome: The Third Sector’s Challenge

There’s a health condition affecting a significant number of community impact organizations. In fact, some organizations aren’t even aware of how severe their symptoms are of a potentially paralyzing, if not, lethal condition as it incubates.

The situation is called, “Founder’s Syndrome,” and, surprisingly, a person doesn’t even have to be a founder in order to have the syndrome.

The warning signs of Founder’s Syndrome is a deeply ingrained power grid that is more closely aligned to a person versus a purpose. The organization simply can’t function without that individual acting as the gravitational center for an entire solar system of people, programs and processes.

Full-blown Founder’s Syndrome is when the executive and the organization, along with everybody else, simply cannot conceive either being able to survive without the other.

A diagnosis of Founder’s Syndrome rarely comes as a surprise. Most people who founded nonprofit organizations are rebels with a cause. The fire that ignited their organizations has been stoked every single day they have been on the job. Over the years, board members have been “hand-picked” and term limits, if they exist at all, are guidelines.

Founder’s Syndrome is a default setting in the nonprofit sector because we all want to follow charismatic warriors who we know can change the world.

So, what can be done?

The first is to name its existence. Denial of Founder’s Syndrome and its powerful erosion to progress is what fuels the chronic nature of the condition.

The second is to affirm the syndrome is, in reality, two problems to be addressed not one. It is a pivotal moment in managing the syndrome when it is accepted that a separate strategy for evolving the individual is as important as a strategy for evolving the organization if both are to survive without the other.

The name of the game is view to Founder’s Syndrome for what it is – a symptom of something larger. 

The situation resulted from overlooking some critical details about evolving boards. Infrastructures, people power, and policies that propel a community purpose. Some simple, but game-changing examples to immediately change the course of Founder’s Syndrome include:

  • Revising the term limits policy and making sure it is being enforced; and that the specific terms are time intervals that invite reasonable turnover balanced with institutional memory.
  • Creating an equity statement and seriously adhering to it, especially as it relates to inviting diverse voices in decision-making, equitable policies and policy-making processes, and a culture of every person being engaged in cultivating a culture of belongingness; and
  • Devising an emergency succession plan that outlines what would happen if the organization were faced with an immediate and unplanned departure of the executive.

While these necessary transactional activities are critical to get underway; they are not enough. Founder’s Syndrome is not overcome by mere changes to policies, process procedures or planning.

Changing the course of Founder’s Syndrome means changing the culture. Among the most important steps I recommend to my colleagues and clients:

  • Refocus strategic planning into success planning. Create discussions about what a successful organization should look like that can then be supported by a whole new operating plan and structure. Bravely assess the current infrastructure as a starting place and not as a mess to be cleaned up. Recommend incremental and exciting enhancements that could include a chief operating officer, a co-executive director arrangement, or a smaller board with more empowered committees.
  • Create a separate success plan for the executive director which might include a temporary separation (sabbatical), a career counseling or personal coach, retirement planning support, agreed-upon timelines, changed duties over time, potential outplacement, and a reasonable compensation parachute. It is incremental versus detrimental.
  • Engage and empower a cross-functional Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Team to look at how a culture of justice and equity is a central thread in the fabric of the organization.
  • Undertake a comprehensive succession planning process for the entire organization focused on internal advancement, professional development, employee retention, volunteer recognition and advancement, and decentralized power structures that mobilize people to act for community good

The single most difficult aspect of my career has been watching career executives endure heart-breaking departures. Many didn’t know it was their last day until it was thrust upon them after decades of service.

There is still a lot to learn about this syndrome called “Founders” that we don’t know. The one thing we do know, however, is that there are far healthier outcomes for everybody involved when the focus is on evolving rather than eradicating.

About the Author:

Jeffrey R. Wilcox, CFRE, is president and chief community impact officer at Third Sector Company, Inc. based in Seattle, Washington. Third Sector Company is one the largest training and resource centers for transitional leadership solutions for community impact organizations in the United States.

CONTACT: Jeffrey Wilcox – jwilcox@thirdsectorcompany.com

Featured image via Unsplash