Of the many afflictions that can impede a nonprofit’s growth and progress, one of the most deadly is the dreaded “Founder’s Syndrome.” Founder’s Syndrome strikes when a single individual — typically the founder, executive director or other long-term leader — wields a disproportionate amount of power. Worse, these founders resist efforts to redistribute authority or move them out of their current positions. It’s imperative that nonprofits take action to cure the ailment.

Founder’s Symptoms

Nonprofits suffering from Founder’s Syndrome generally share some common characteristics, including the following:

  • The founder is “the decider.” All important decisions come from him or her, with little input from others.
  • Members of the board of directors and staff are recruited by the founder and act primarily out of their loyalty to this person, rather than to the organization. Instead of governing, the board merely rubber stamps founder suggestions.
  • Ideas coming from sources other than the founder are dismissed.
  • The organization lacks a clear succession plan.

These conditions leave organizations in a vulnerable position. Among other risks, if something should happen to the founder, how would the organization carry on?

It’s worth noting that founders’ reluctance to loosen their grip isn’t necessarily due to a power-hungry need to control. Founders may fear that the organization would falter without their continued connection — for example, that donations might drop off if the founder isn’t associated with the organization anymore. Or founders might have invested so much of themselves and their lives in the organization that they simply can’t imagine a different path.

Steps to a cure

The good news is that Founder’s Syndrome is treatable. The first step is to address the situation with the founder. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s critical. Members of the board or perhaps senior staff should begin by acknowledging the founder’s invaluable role over the years. They can then move on to discuss the importance of preserving the founder’s legacy when he or she inevitably can no longer lead.

A succession plan is a vital ingredient in preserving that legacy. If no one in the organization wants to tackle this discussion, a professional coach or consultant could be retained.

Founders should be encouraged to play an active role in the transition process, rather than to have it foisted on them. One important contribution they can make is recording their institutional memory. The vast knowledge of these leaders must be documented so the organization can continue to benefit from it.

The board may need to increase its accountability in the absence of the strong leader to whom they’ve been accustomed. Board members must seize the reins and educate themselves about the organization in any areas where they’re lacking. This may require replacing existing board members. (Appointing new staff may be advisable, too.)

The board also should form an active fundraising committee so that a single individual isn’t responsible for driving donations. An army of passionate volunteers could be deployed as a bulwark against donation decline.

Get healthy

Unless the board or senior staff recognizes the “illness” and proactively addresses it, Founder’s Syndrome can linger for years, affecting the organization’s general health and possibly leading to its demise after the founder’s departure. To avoid this fate, the board and staff must act for the good of the organization in the long run, while handling the founder with the sensitivity, dignity and respect he or she has earned.