Confessions of a Nonprofit Founder who had Founder’s Syndrome

Confessions of a Nonprofit Founder who had Founder’s Syndrome


I just read an article about Founder’s Syndrome in the Nonprofit Quarterly that I found really puzzling. The author appears to be attempting to show that Founders’ Syndrome is often misdiagnosed or over-diagnosed and that those misdiagnoses can cover up other underlying problems, presumably unrelated to the founder.

Confessions of a Nonprofit Founder who had Founder's SyndromeI actually believe that the reverse is true – that it’s more likely that its being under-diagnosed (so I don’t think it needs to be “rediagnosed”). And that it is a very serious concern in the nonprofit world. Rediagnosing “Founder’s Syndrome”: Moving Beyond Stereotypes to Improve Nonprofit Performance


I had Founders Syndrome. Yup. Every last symptom. I had never heard of it when I was running my nonprofit from 1996 – 2003 (notice how I automatically say MY nonprofit?) so I didn’t see any “stigma” attached to it at the time – as the author continually references. But it’s really hard to imagine someone “labeling” me, let alone that label causing any problems. If I had known about it, I would have absolutely welcomed more information and the opportunity to attempt to fix it. I’m a troubleshooter – it’s what I do.


To me, starting up a nonprofit isn’t technically any different than any start-up when you have that really entrepreneurial founder (a person who has the drive and determination to actually start something are different, in a GOOD way), who then struggles as the business grows. The skills to grow a company are different from the skills to start a company. Personally I love the start-up part, the creativity and flexibility needed to develop programs, set up systems, helping people directly, but I hated the bureaucratic parts that came with the territory as the nonprofit got bigger – the challenge of developing sustainable income, managing lots of staff and all that awful paperwork that came with larger grants.

A Public Problem

The problem is that with all that blood, sweat, and tears, the INVESTMENT you make as a founder of a nonprofit is different from a for-profit because you never get to own anything. You won’t get bought out by a larger company and pocket a chunk of cash. You really can’t make any more money than whatever salary you pay yourself and it better not be too big or you will not get donors on board. You have no job stability because technically the board can fire you at any time. In a for-profit, you have a choice as to when you go public – if ever. The nonprofit is “public” from the beginning.

Mine Mine Mine

I think founders do have ulterior motives. If we really just wanted to help people in the purest sense, we would find a nonprofit and volunteer. If we thought we had a unique idea that no one else was doing, then we would approach a nonprofit doing something similar and pitch the idea (and this is the best nonprofit birth control advice ever). But we don’t do that. We want to create something of our own, put our stamp on it, be in charge of it, be in control, and/or create a job/career for ourselves. So I think there is always something pretty self-centered about it – even though we have good hearts and want to help people.

Passing the Buck

All that control does come with a price. Because when problems arise down the road with the nonprofit it is FAR MORE LIKELY that the founding Executive Director IS the root of the problem. They do the hiring, they most likely select the board members, and approve all fundraising, marketing and program activities. Who in the world can they pass the blame on to? The economy? I don’t think so – plenty of nonprofits are doing well in this economy.


It’s very easy to delude ourselves into thinking that the nonprofit really IS our baby, that we really do own it and that we really do have job security. The best way to assure that is to surround ourselves with that “yes” board. That was the hardest decision I ever had to make – to invite new board members that were not directly connected to me in any way. And just because I used the word “deluded” doesn’t mean I think it’s a psychological disorder. That’s just the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I haven’t seen any references to it being an actual disease or a psychological issue OTHER than the Nonprofit Quarterly article that continuously uses the words “disease” and states:”founders may be psychologically unable to see that they are separable from the organization.” REALLY? That’s a psychological issue?

Our Nature

Just because you can find examples of non-founders that have one or more of the “symptoms” – which I am now going to call “characteristics” – doesn’t mean that Founders Syndrome isn’t a serious concern in the nonprofit world. I work with lots of nonprofits and I rarely see a thriving, growing nonprofit with an original founder at the helm. Not because original founders have some kind of “disease” or any real “syndrome” but because it’s just human nature for us to want to stay at the helm (to keep our baby/investment) as long as possible. It’s really easy to get stuck and be unable to recognize that we really are the underlying problem.

Next In Line

A lot of the article focuses on the fear that founders are being labeled, stigmatized, misdiagnosed or mistreated and yet there is agreement that succession plans should be in place. So, if everyone is in agreement that a succession plan needs to be in place, isn’t that the same thing as saying – once they’ve served a certain number of years of service, they need to go? That sounds reasonable to me. Even if this “labeling” or “stigmatizing” was going on – is it happening to brand new founders? Or to founders that have been around for a few years who may need to go?

Reality Check

I think the solution is to focus on training new nonprofit founders to understand the realities of long term nonprofit management of an organization that they do not own and never can own – and how to develop a transition / exit strategy that they keep in mind from the moment they start all that hard work. We need to help not-so-new nonprofit founders recognize when they are stuck, and why, and help them either obtain the skills they need to move forward or recognize that they are no longer effectively guiding the nonprofit into the future. It’s time to transition out so that the GOODNESS that was started has a better chance to help even more people.

A Mission Focus???

The article author also talks a lot about focusing on the mission – that many problems could be solved if the mission was forefront rather than the founder who may have Founder’s Syndrome. They even quote a study (that the author found “inconclusive”) that showed founder-led nonprofits had smaller budgets, were less likely to have board term limits, had board meetings less often – but the author instead focused on the fact that Founder-led boards were more likely to have reviewed the mission in the last year and were more likely to set the board agenda ahead of time. Really? Doesn’t that seem fairly inconsequential compared to the other parts?

If the founder is really a problem, having the board focus on the mission won’t do anyone any good. The author states “a mission-centric board will hire people to fill gaps in the founders’ skills. It will also institute financial and other controls to protect the organization, because the leader may be concentrating more on the mission than the details.” Except that a founder-driven board is not likely to be able to focus on the mission or any of those other fabulous details unless the founder is ready to do the same thing.

A new Diagnosis

Spending so much time trying to backpedal on Founder’s Syndrome and all that negative talk about  “labels” and “stereotypes” can be just as detrimental, deflecting away from the fact that Founder’s Syndrome is a BIG problem. In fact, I might say it’s delusional to think otherwise. Hmm…I think that would be Head Buried in the Sand Syndrome…

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