Do you know of a nonprofit with a founding father who just won’t let go of the reins?
Many organizations run into a dilemma in which the original person instrumental in getting the nonprofit off the ground resists delegating key responsibilities to other staff members — or helping the organization transition to a new leader. That nonprofit is likely suffering from an ailment sometimes called “Founder’s Syndrome.”
Is your organization vulnerable?
Nonprofits suffering from this affliction generally share some common characteristics: For example, the founder wields a disproportionate amount of power. And he or she recruits board members who may act primarily out of their loyalty to this person, rather than to the organization; instead of governing, the board merely rubber-stamps the founder’s suggestions.
The founder also might make all the important decisions, failing to encourage input from other sources by mentoring promising subordinates. Perhaps worst of all, the founder impedes, or fails to cooperate with, efforts to form a clear succession plan.
These conditions leave organizations in a vulnerable and risky position. If something should happen to the founder — retirement, death, disability or something else — 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, they worry that donations might drop off if they’re not reaching out into the community anymore, or that others in the organization lack the background to make savvy decisions. Or founders might have invested so much of themselves and their lives in the organization that they simply can’t imagine a different path.
How can you treat the “syndrome”?
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.
Here are some other advisable actions:
Form a succession plan. A succession plan is a vital ingredient in preserving the organization. If no one in the organization wants to tackle this discussion with the founder, a professional coach or consultant could be retained.
Encourage founders to be active in the transition. Don’t just foist a transition onto the founder. One important contribution founders can make is recording their institutional memories. The leader’s vast knowledge should be documented so the organization can continue to benefit from it.
Ask the board of directors to step up. The board may need to step up 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. Bringing on new staff may be advisable, too.
The board can form an active fundraising committee so that a single individual isn’t responsible for driving donations. An army of zealous volunteers could be deployed as a bulwark against donation decline.
Entering Phase 2
Your organization’s founder likely has invested the proverbial blood, sweat and tears into launching your not-for-profit and overseeing its growth. That person, ideally, should become part of the plan as you create a road map for the organization’s future. Planning for the second generation of nonprofit leadership is in its own way just as important as creating a start-up nonprofit — be sure to allow your organization the time it needs to ready itself for that next stage.