We've all seen it: an influential, visionary, and bright leader who helped found the nonprofit. Either s/he won't go away or relinquish the reigns when it's clearly time to do so, or they have moved on but reach back in to ensure ’their baby‘ is being cared for in a manner they deem warranted. Of course, a delicate line must be walked between telling him or her to hoof it and diplomatically indulging their input…particularly if they wield significant influence.
Ironically, I’ve seen very few cases of this in my career. When I did, it was always an ugly affair with founders threatening to persuade friends to cease financial support of the nonprofit in question. A rather foolish move when one considers how this would impact the ability to continue providing needed or valued services to the intended community.
If you find yourself in the position of witnessing the decline of an organisation you started - this is not to be confused with ire that your fiefdom has ended – sit down in a sincere discussion with the board chair. Should you be in the position to help by recruiting additional staff, directors, or donating money, commit to at least one of these steps before offering to micromanage from the omniscient perch of an advisory council position.
There is a flip side to Founder’s Syndrome, and I know it well from both personal experience and observation. This is a situation where the founder(s) are almost desperate for intelligent, visionary, and accountable leadership to take the reins so s/he may move on. Instead, there is a revolving door of directors who begin as quite well-intentioned and revved up individuals, rife with promises about what they’ll bring to the table. Over time, it becomes apparent neither talent nor will is present, much less resilience. This is also where one learns of those who joined to polish up the CV.
When the realisation hits, a founder who actually cares about meeting mission objectives will spend time coaxing follow-through from those who’ve repeatedly dropped the ball, or adopted criticism or process in lieu of execution. Under these circumstances, it isn’t unusual for founders to take on more tasks or curtail time-wasting actions in favour of ’executive decisions’, thereby earning a Founder’s Syndrome charge. In actuality, that founder has accepted s/he will be left holding the bag and opted for two weeks’ notice versus two days.
If you’re truly guilty of this syndrome and know it, pivot that energy into a more helpful role so the current leader and board can succeed with mission-critical efforts. Should you be the rare person who is oblivious to your status as an interloper, ask a straightforward friend or colleague and suck in your breath to prepare for the blow. For those who unfairly tag leaders with this label to escape the truth of their less than present or effective leadership, try some deep introspection and ownership. Organisations are sustainable when they have the resources to continue meaningful work. If you’re not part of moving the momentum forward, you’re a hindrance and part of the problem. Shape up or ship out.
--From "How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Nonprofit Hell"