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Founders Syndrome: Has Your Nonprofit Been Infected?

Updated: Apr 27


Last week, Amy shared some great advice about what to do if your nonprofit is going through a leadership transition. There are few things scarier than new leadership coming into an organization - while it can be a moment full of new ideas and fresh energy, it can also mean restructuring and changes to our day-to-day lives. Her advice will leave you well-prepared to navigate any possible outcome.


New leadership is scary…but what happens when new leadership is NEEDED but doesn’t happen?


Enter Founder’s Syndrome.


Founder’s Syndrome reflects the stagnation, lack of new ideas, and general malaise that can come over an organization when its founder maintains disproportionate influence. Wikipedia defines it as “the difficulty faced by organizations, and in particular young companies such as start-ups, where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence following the effective initial establishment of the organization, leading to a wide range of problems.”


In the nonprofit world, founder’s syndrome touches on a difficult reality of our work. Every nonprofit was started by a person - or people - with tremendous passion for a mission. Maybe it was the culmination of their life’s work, or maybe something in their own life inspired them to get involved. Through their hard work and vision, they built an organization that proved its ability to address a community need and survive the test of time.


Unfortunately, sometimes you reach a point where passion isn’t enough. The ideas that started the organization may not be the ideas it needs to go to the next level. The organization stagnates because it’s caught between the reality that existed when it was started and the conditions that will allow it to grow (or stagnate) moving forward.


This puts staff in an incredibly uncomfortable position.


How do you lead from below and highlight long-term needs when the person in charge is the face of the mission and the organization? How do you balance your genuine respect and admiration for the founder with a desire to see new ideas and new energy added to the organization?


There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but there are some things you can do to provide leadership - and prepare yourself professionally - when founder’s syndrome sets in.


  • Build Trust - Founder’s syndrome isn’t an incurable condition. The right people, by building trust and advocating for new ways of thinking, can move leadership past a phase of stagnation. Build strong relationships with stakeholders and leaders at all levels so new ideas can have a voice.

  • Keep the Mission First - If you disagree with a founder’s vision for the organization, remember you have one very, very important thing in common: you’re both doing the work because of the mission. Trust that everyone’s intent is good, and operate from there. If you genuinely operate out of concern for the mission you’ll be better able to move a founder in the right direction.

  • Don’t Create Dissent in the Ranks - We’ve all been there…there’s frustration with leadership, and the workplace is consumed by gossip and complaining. Resist the urge to join in that. Find constructive solutions, communicate with colleagues at all levels, and don’t contribute to anything that will turn a work environment toxic.

  • Know When it’s Time to Walk Away - Communication, commitment to mission, and a positive work environment can help an organization move forward while the founder is in charge. If problems are intractable, though, it may be time to find your next opportunity. Don’t race for the door at the first sign of founder’s syndrome, but don’t stay in a role too long, either.


No founder stays in a role forever, and evolution in some form is inevitable. That said, leadership decisions are frequently out of our control. That can create situations that are frustrating, and at times, scary. If you recognize these things happening in your organization, don’t resign yourself to them. Be an active participant in the mission, and when you can, share your ideas as a stakeholder in the work.


Is your organization struggling to navigate a leadership transition…or the need for a leadership transition? Our Team Kat & Mouse nonprofit fundraising consultants is here to help!



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