Transferring Not-for-Profit Leadership

Founder’s Syndrome and Not-for-Profits

By Mike Klein, CPA

mbkFounder’s Syndrome is a term that describes the challenge a not-for-profit organization could encounter when the time comes to transition its leadership functions from its founder to new management. The ailment occurs if the original leader has resisted delegating key responsibilities to other staff members — or helping the organization transition to a new leader.

It’s worth noting that founders’ reluctance to loosen their grip isn’t necessarily due to a power-hungry need to control. Founders tend to care deeply for their organizations and 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. They may be concerned 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.

Is your organization vulnerable?
Not-for-profits suffering from this affliction generally share some common characteristics: For example, because the founder has earned the trust of board members through their long-time relationships working together to advance the organization, they may be reluctant to give up their reliance on the founder for advice and guidance through decision making.

Another characteristic is the founder may not have transitioned day-to-day decision making to his or her subordinates, more out of habit than disregard for their leadership skills. Nevertheless, the appropriate mentoring and sharing of power necessary to prepare a successor and a strong leadership team is not occurring.

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?

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 impose 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 Two
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.

Founder’s Syndrome is a difficult ailment to manage. The best advice we can offer is, “Don’t go it alone.” One of the best benefits of working with a consultant is he or she can help with the difficult conversations. Ciuni & Panichi, Inc. offers a wide range of not-for-profit consulting services, including executive coaching, board development and engagement, strategic fundraising, and marketing. To learn more, contact Mike Klein, CPA, MBA, at 216-831-7171 or mklein@cp-advisors.com.