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Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome – Asset or Liability?

Wikipedia defines Founder’s syndrome as follows:

“Founder’s syndrome (also founderitis) is a popular term for a difficulty faced by organizations where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence following the effective initial establishment of the project, leading to a wide range of problems for both the organization and those involved in it.”

It is the charisma and drive of a passionate founder that gets the nonprofit going, and initially, this is exactly what is needed for launching a new nonprofit. Small, new nonprofits often operate on a shoe string budget, with the founder working countless hours to implement programs, perhaps with only a handful of volunteers. Passionate founders are people truly to be admired. Imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t have nonprofit organizations providing services – all of them started with a passionate founder.

However, over time as the organization grows, the founder’s passion can sometimes become a hindrance to the growth of the nonprofit in several ways, namely these three:

  • The founder wants to retain total control over every aspect of the operation, often to the point of making all decisions, big or small, without input from staff, volunteers or board members. The founder might even resist having more than a couple board members. This is a huge mistake – a board comprised of people with diverse backgrounds and skill sets can be the pro-bono advisors the founder desperately needs but doesn’t realize it.
  • Board members are usually personal friends of the founder who want to help, but are poorly trained in true nonprofit governance and feel intimidated by the founder, thus being rendered ineffective as a group. The founder might even reject their suggestions, and this could cause board members to feel slighted and resign from the board.
  • The organization lacks strategic planning and works in a reactive mode, rather than a proactive mode. Crises occur day-to-day and are handled as they come, funds are haphazardly raised when cash flow is poor, and there is no real organizational infrastructure.

So, to answer the question in the headline of this post, “Is Founder’s syndrome an asset or a liability?” – the answer often times is, “both.”  Founders and board members need coaching and training in nonprofit best practices for sustainable growth.  A nonprofit needs to operate like a business, with a sound model for service delivery for the long term that makes sense, proper budget projections, and strategic management.