Founder’s Syndrome

Many nonprofits are created by committed and energetic leaders who devote their time, energy, and money to realize their vision and dreams. These founders usually have clear ideas about the future of “their” organization.

When an organization is created, the founder usually assumes the role of either chief executive or the chair of the board. As the first chief executive (and ex officio member of the board), the founder has an opportunity to help build a board of like-minded friends or associates who share his or her vision for the organization. As the first board chair, he or she can work to ensure that a chief executive with similar aspirations runs the daily matters of the organization. Either of these scenarios usually works well during the first phases of an organization’s lifecycle.

In some organizations, however, this stability later erodes. Original board members rotate off the board and new members with new ideas join. External conditions change, requiring the organization to adapt. Internal differences of opinion surface as to what the next steps should be. The founder may find him or herself trying to defend or preserve the original vision and mission of the organization. Change is inevitable, however. Otherwise, an organization may stagnate physically or conceptually. To thrive, organizations need to be receptive to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

“Founderitis” and “founder’s syndrome” are terms often used to describe a founder’s resistance to change. When founderitis surfaces, the source of the dilemma often is a founder’s misunderstanding of his or her role in an evolving organization.

Information can sometimes make change less threatening to a founder, as can open, two-way communication between the founder and other interested stakeholders. This can lead to compromise becoming the mode of operation.

It is important to note, however, that in a nonprofit organization, the board – not the founder – is responsible for setting the guidelines and direction of the organization. Rubber-stamping a founder’s wishes is rarely best for an organization over time. If a founder is no longer able to abide by the organization’s guidelines and direction, to support the board’s decisions, it may be difficult for a founder and board to continue a mutually acceptable working relationship. It then may be time for a founder to step aside, as hard as it may be.


101 Resource | Last updated: June 21, 2016

Resource: Moving Beyond Founder’s Syndrome to Nonprofit Success