Diagnosing Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome: 7 Common Symptoms (and Tips for Prevention)

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Full disclosure: We’re not fans of the term “founder’s syndrome.” On the contrary, we love nonprofit founders. By definition, nonprofits would not exist without them and their entrepreneurial spirit.

The best entrepreneurs start with a vision, and they inspire others with their passion to realize that vision. The best nonprofit founders do the same. But there is a lifecycle to every nonprofit — and every founder’s relationship with their nonprofit.

To put more bluntly: Every founder leaves. Before they leave, however, their relationship to the nonprofit must evolve.

If a founder resists this evolution — if they try to control too much or stay on too long — they can end up hurting the organization. This is the so-called “founder’s syndrome” that board and staff are sometimes quick to point out when a leader is struggling with the growth of their nonprofit.

Whether you are the founder, a board member, or other nonprofit professional, watch for these seven symptoms. By addressing them early, you can ensure the founder-organization relationship continues to work for and not against your mission.


Symptom: Believing the Founder “Owns” the Nonprofit

Founders often have deeply personal reasons for starting nonprofits. Typically, the individual has an expertise expressly relevant to the nonprofit’s mission; or they have a passion about an issue because they've been personally affected by it. Sometimes it’s both. They may also self-fund the nonprofit or have exclusive access to the seed donors.

All of these things contribute to a sense of ownership. But unlike a for-profit business, the founder has no ownership of the nonprofit. Responsibility, yes. But that’s very different because ownership implies control, and responsibility does not.

Some founders can have control issues that will eventually interfere with the growth of the nonprofit. Some boards aggravate these problems by buying into the idea of founder ownership.

Both the founder and the board must recognize that they share responsibility for the success of the organization. If their roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined from the beginning, conflict is almost inevitable as the organization grows beyond the founder’s ability to control it.


Symptom: The Founder Is Synonymous with the Organization

During the start-up phase of a nonprofit, a founder wears many hats. As a result, they’re often the face of the organization. It’s very easy for the community to start to identify the founder with the nonprofit they represent. If the individual also has control issues, this tendency for the founder and the nonprofit to become synonymous grows even more likely.

It's important for the founder and the board to work hard against this natural tendency to equate the founder with the nonprofit. For the nonprofit to grow and thrive, the story of the organization must be bigger than just one person. We have seen too many nonprofits struggle or even fail because their story ended with the founder-nonprofit relationship.


Symptom: “My Way or the Highway”

Given the drive it takes to get a nonprofit off of the ground, founders can sometimes lead with a certain amount of ego and hubris. If the founder isn’t careful, a culture of “my way or the highway” can develop simply out of necessity.

To avoid this, first, founders must be open to support and sharing responsibility. Second, founders must choose competent board members and support staff and not settle for the low hanging fruit of friends and family. Third, boards need to respect founders’ entrepreneurial spirits and help channel them in a productive way.

Drive and ambition in a founder can be a real asset to an organization; they don’t have to become problems of ego.


Symptom: A Board That Compliments (Not Complements) the Founder

If there’s one single piece of advice we could share with a founder, it’s this: Build the board the organization needs.

While there’s often overlap between needs of the organization and the founder, it’s vital to recognize the difference. The best nonprofit boards provide governance and support. They’re not a bunch of yes-people who are only there to endorse the founder’s decisions. Nor are they there solely to police or reign in the founder.

Good governance requires a board that can provide structure and perspective that complements the founder’s skill set to support the organization’s mission and growth. The board should be good at strategic planning; they should represent the community and provide a wide range of perspectives. Board members can provide business advice or other expertise to a fledgling nonprofit staff. They can also help identify blind spots or gaps in the nonprofit’s (and founder’s) proficiencies.

Ideally, the relationship between founder and board is a constructive, balanced partnership. Neither is at the behest of the other, and both care more about advancing the mission than getting their own way.


Symptom: Not Running Your Nonprofit Like a Business

In The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber describes three essential roles (or skill sets) required for the success of any business: the entrepreneur, the manager, and the technician. The entrepreneur is the visionary, the manager keeps the organization running smoothly, and the technician is the doer who provides the actual service of the organization. These skill sets may be found within the same person or spread across the whole team, but all three are required.

In our experience, founders often excel as the entrepreneur and the technician. These two skill sets often drive organizational founders of all kinds: You know how to do something well (technician), and you have a vision for how to bring that service to the world in a new or better way (entrepreneur). And honestly, that’s enough to get a nonprofit started.

To keep a nonprofit growing, however, you need a competent manager — a skill set often lacking in even the best nonprofit founders. As a result, some may feel insecure about management responsibilities. They resist this job because it’s not what they love to do. Worse, some look down at business skills as part of a “lowly” for-profit mentality.

However, when a nonprofit starts to take off, if there isn’t a formal structure in place, it can struggle beneath the weight of its own success. Founders and boards alike need business training and management skills so they can establish policies and procedures that will support the organization as it grows. It’s too easy for even a well-meaning founder to become a tyrant or tenderfoot without policies to guide how they manage staff.


Symptom: Letting the Founder Flounder

Succession planning is extremely important. As stated earlier, every founder eventually leaves. But there’s a period of time before a founder leaves where the founder is outside of their comfort zone yet can still be an asset to the organization.

Just because a founder is beginning to struggle doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to leave. A savvy founder who understands the lifecycle of a nonprofit can grow with that nonprofit and continue to contribute. It’s only when a founder resists the organization’s transition from one phase to the next that they become a liability.

The board can also be a problem if they expect the nonprofit to be a fully mature organization right from the start. But a board that understands the nonprofit founder's lifecycle can help them be the best they can until it’s time to transition.

Sometimes it’s even possible to identify in advance where the founder might begin the personal development process before it’s needed. A bit of honest assessment and foresight can prolong a founder’s contributions to the nonprofit and make the eventual succession process much smoother.


Symptom: Not Training the Whole Team

Just as the founder may require additional training, so too may the board and staff. If there’s no one else on the team who can do what the founder does, then the environment becomes fertile for founder overreach.

For example, a nonprofit in the growth stage should not rely on the founder’s own money or money connections for all of its fundraising. You either need to bring on skilled fundraisers in-house (on the board and on staff) or work with a professional fundraising agency or consultant. Best of all would be for the founder to have a plan from the start for how to expand financial support beyond their circle of influence.

One of the ways strategic planning helps prevent founder’s syndrome is by identifying what needs to be done in order to cover all of the needs of the organization. That includes both hiring people with the right skills and investing in professional development as the organization grows.


Final Words

If the founder and board take time to understand the lifecycle of a founder’s relationship with the nonprofit, they can prevent many of the problems that fall under the heading of so-called “founder’s syndrome.”

A founder whose passion is truly for the mission will prepare themself and the organization to outlive their own involvement. A board that cares about the cause and respects the founder’s contributions will support their journey and help them build a proud legacy. And together they can ensure the nonprofit has the leadership it needs to continue to grow.


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