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How To Tell if You Have Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome: Signs, Symptoms, and Cures

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Nina

Passionate entrepreneurs with big ideas create nonprofits with the goal of making their local community — or the world — a better place. Those individuals put their own time, money, and energy into the organizations, so it is only natural that they start considering them "theirs."

But what happens when the nonprofit grows? New people bring new opinions. Sometimes, this can cause tension between the senior founder and the newer employees. When this disagreement occurs, it can quickly become an unhealthy and unproductive working environment

Keep reading to get some nonprofit resources on how to identify and cure the Founder’s Syndrome phenomenon.

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What Is Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome?

Frequently described as a "resistance to change," Founder’s Syndrome occurs when board members or chief executives take on a disproportionate amount of responsibility when it comes to making decisions about the organization. This can mean that they veto every idea that is not theirs or that they make decisions without consulting other leaders. 

founders-syndrome-nonprofit-how-to-cureEmily hasn't heard of nonprofit founder's syndrome before...but she's ready to learn!

This phenomenon can create conflicts of interest, steamroll other executives, and shorten the organization’s lifespan.

How Does Founder’s Syndrome Start?

Founder’s Syndrome starts gradually as the organization hires new employees or shifts current employees to other roles. These types of transitions can make a passionate member of the leadership team feel like they are losing control of the organization

What Are the Symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome?

The symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome vary from organization to organization, but they frequently present as the items on this list:

  • Overlord behaviors: A founder might experience a personal attachment to the organization, treating it as their own castle that they rule.

  • Outdated thinking: A founder refuses to grow and change alongside the organization, focusing only on the past where they made the sole decisions. They might make references to prior scenarios where they looked impressive to bolster their own credibility.

  • Reluctant appointments: A founder is hesitant to give anyone else a leadership position because it jeopardizes their legacy and legitimacy.

  • Too many hats: An executive with Founder’s Syndrome has a tendency to involve themself in every aspect of the nonprofit’s operations, despite not having education or experience in that field.

  • Silenced employees: An organization’s employees quickly come to the realization that they cannot challenge the founder. This creates an unhealthy work culture where employees feel like they cannot speak their mind.

Who Can Get Founder’s Syndrome?

As the name suggests, Founder’s Syndrome is most common among the founder(s) of an organization. However, any staff member who has a decision-making role and has been around since the organization’s founding can suffer from it.

Pro Tip: It is not uncommon for Founder’s Syndrome to become a HR problem. If you or your staff experiences inappropriate workplace behavior, such as belittling or yelling, report it to your organization’s HR representative. 

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How To Cure Founder’s Syndrome

The good news about Founder’s Syndrome? It is curable — so long as an organization takes steps before it gets out of hand. 

Craft a Succession Plan

A succession plan keeps the organization running smoothly in the event an executive or founder leaves. Even if you do not plan on using it right away, the act of creating one can prevent nonprofit burnout for both the offenders and victims of Founder’s Syndrome. 

Knowing that the founder’s tenure is going to end eventually reassures the victims that the future of the organization is not always going to be unhealthy. Additionally, it helps the founder see that the organization can survive without them, which alleviates some of the pressure that they feel to be solely responsible for the organization’s goals and results.

Call for Backup

When you see your coworkers at your job every day, it can be hard to stay objective. If you notice persistent or worsening signs of Founder’s Syndrome within your leadership team, it may be time to hire an outside consultant to address the problem. 

There are even some nonprofits that help other nonprofits with this very phenomenon! They can gather a committee to talk to you and the perpetrator and come up with actionable solutions. Using these fresh eyes as a resource, you can look at the situation in a new way and show the perpetrator that you are not trying to attack them.

founders-syndrome-nonprofit-final-thoughtsSalma is calling for backup on founder's syndrome.

Compartmentalize Responsibilities

Many founders never fully rid themselves of Founder’s Syndrome. In these difficult cases, it helps to divide the roles and responsibilities so that no one has all of the decision-making power.

A system of checks and balances ensures that this Founder’s Syndrome does not have an impact on operations. You can develop this system by:

  • Drafting an employee handbook that implements guidelines and rules for each employee to follow

  • Restructuring departments to clearly identify who works where

  • Implementing a way to report incidents when sufferers of Founder’s Syndrome cross over into territory that they are not responsible for

Pro Tip: If Founder’s Syndrome is plaguing a chief executive, a board member, or another leader in your nonprofit management team, busy work can be your friend. Offer the founder small but meaningful tasks to do. At the very least, it makes them feel useful and keeps their level of involvement in each department’s affairs to a minimum. 

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Final Thoughts

Working for a nonprofit with a Founder’s Syndrome problem is a tough situation to be in. It poses risks for you, the organization, and its other employees and stakeholders. However, with our above tips, you are well-equipped to alleviate — or at least address — this problem.

Enjoyed the article? Download it to keep or share with others!

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FAQ

💡What is Founder’s Syndrome in a nonprofit?

Founder’s Syndrome occurs when a founder or another leader takes on a disproportionate amount of responsibility when it comes to making decisions about the organization. Find out more. 

🔑 Who can get Founder’s Syndrome?

Anyone at a nonprofit can get Founder’s Syndrome, but it is most common in executives, such as board members, directors, and founders. Find out more. 

📝 How do you cure Founder’s Syndrome?

Crafting a succession plan, getting outside help, and compartmentalizing responsibilities are three steps you can take to address Founder’s Syndrome. Find out more.

 

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Nina
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