The Founder's Syndrome Chess Game and How to Resolve It

If you've been in the nonprofit sector for a while, you may come across a phenomenon called "founder's syndrome." It can be so destructive that afflicted organizations with this syndrome, which is also called "founderitis," can implode and close their doors.

What is Founder's Syndrome?

Founder's syndrome or founderitis typically revolves around the cult of personality of the founder of an organization. However, not in all cases is the syndrome attributed to the founder. There have been instances where it's been an executive or president of a nonprofit who has been in the position for a long time.

Nevertheless, founder's syndrome exists when the brand and all of the power is tied and centered around the leader. The environment becomes dysfunctional with the board not fulfilling its governance responsibility and the staff not permitted to object or debate. Ideas and initiatives stagnate if the founder does not support them. Essentially, the founder becomes the ruler of his or her fiefdom, and the interest of the organization become secondary.

What Is Missed in Founder's Syndrome?

Unfortunately, there are plenty examples of founder's syndrome. In writing this article, I have two in mind, but I could tick off some others.

1. At one organization, the founder stayed on for years. He did great things to build the group. But by the time he was 85, there were new board members and a new executive director who wanted to take the nonprofit to scale. The nonprofit was doing exceptional work in after-school education, and there was the opportunity and need for expanded services in the community. However, the founder would have none of it. It took more than five years for there to finally be movement forward, but it took several outside consultants, a rotation of board members off the board and a new executive director. And were it not for the advanced age of the founder, I wonder if he would have retired.

2. At another organization, the founder was the one who provided the programs. This charismatic leader developed an after-school mentorship program that was making a positive in the community. The children served loved the founder, and this helped add to the cult of personality. Eventually, some board members and an outside consultant learned that the personal funds and the organizational money of the organization were co-mingled. There was no firewall between the two. I don't know if the founder ended up leaving, but what I do know is that the consultant and one of the board members resigned, and other members worked to see if they could "patch things up." In other words, the board was there for the interests of the founder as opposed to the organization.
Overcoming Founder's Syndrome
If your organization has a case of founder's syndrome or is developing one, it's a challenging situation. Because it has to do with the cult of personality of the founder or leader, it's not a cut and dry case. But there are a few things you can do if you find yourself facing founderitis.

1. Understand the nuance of the situation. Founder's syndrome is more of an internal political and diplomatic situation than anything else. Because you're dealing with someone who has total control of a brand and the organization, and because there are enablers to this at the board level, the most important thing to remember is that a lot of the work is done in the gray. In other words, there are no black and white answers. Resolving it is like is a game of chess and strategy. It is important to know there will be a lot of delicate politics and diplomacy involved.

2. One prescription does not fit all. Because this is more like a chess game, there is no one "correct" answer for any two organizations dealing with founder's syndrome. You are dealing with people's personalities, including the founder or leader. You will have to be part doctor, psychologist, priest, and strategist­­­­--all while juggling the day-to-day demands of the organization. Make no mistake about it, as this progresses, you will find yourself with allies and others who are allied to the founder and his or her power. Remember, people naturally gravitate to the power center.

3. Hiring outside counsel is an excellent start. You may end up going through a few outside counselors because the founder will likely not "buy into" the first time a consultant presents a report he or she does not like. If you're reading this and you're a senior manager within your organization, you're probably a prophet in your own land--meaning, you're not going to be listened to concerning how to handle the situation. Will Rogers used to say, "An expert is a man 50 miles from home with a briefcase." So, be prepared to hire an outside expert, even if you're an expert yourself. The fact is that talented outside counsel can help you with strategy, and provide recommendations that are more weighted than any staff.

4. I've said that successfully addressing founder's syndrome is primarily a political and diplomatic matter. If you're dealing with this issue, you need allies. One of the most important places to focus energy is the board of directors. They have a responsibility and power over governance. I've seen instances where it has taken years, but slowly, a few key members who have recognized founder's syndrome but love the mission and the organization and have refused to leave it, have stayed the course and recruited (albeit slowly) new board members. And, with time, there's been a shift of allegiances within the board because they have recruited new members having had full and transparent--but side conversations--about the task at hand for the organization. In other words, the new board members have been informed by current members confidentially about the founder's syndrome and have operated to break the founder's control over the board.
Founder's syndrome can be destructive for an organization, and it can take years to rectify. However, with a few dedicated members and senior staff who believe in the mission and cause, it can eventually be resolved. I've also seen circumstances where push has come to shove, and the founder has agreed to have an external coach to help transition from complete control. I've also seen founders become emeritus board members and designated to be a "rainmaker" concerning fundraising. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but it's a situation that can be remedied with patience and perseverance.
Author of "Not Your Father's Charity: Grip & Rip Leadership for Social Impact" - Free Digital Download at

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