An organization still run by its founder has to deal with transition issues not faced by other groups. The founder may be the personification of the organization and its artistic mission, and the board is usually reluctant to make the first move toward change.

Founder’s syndrome has the following symptoms:

  • A strong leader who builds an organization from scratch finds it difficult to delegate responsibility or develop staff that could potentially take over.
  • The founder alone knows where every penny of every grant went.
  • The mission, the vision, the story, the administration, the fundraising, the programs – the whole organization – is embodied in the founder.
  • The artistic product starts to suffer, the audience might start slipping away, and the demographics become less favorable.

Sometimes the founder steps down gracefully, but for most organizations, getting the founder to accept the change is the most difficult problem of the transition. An organization whose founder stays too long can start to decline. It is easy to recognize founder’s syndrome when you see it. The problem is compounded when the board is complacent, too loyal, or unwilling to take charge of the organization.

The board has to be able to recognize a problem and take strategic steps to find its way out of the situation. Founder succession can be handled well if the board focuses on what is best for the organization, remaining sensitive to the feelings of the founder but facing the issue directly.

Boards find this difficult, but if the culture of the organization has been to think strategically, a succession plan will be part of the group’s long-range planning.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

What are founders thinking?

Many founders find it threatening to think about their successors, and some avoid or even sabotage planning for an organizational future that does not involve them. Meanwhile, many charities continue to depend heavily on the fund-raising prowess of founders, as well as their other skills, and that can keep organizations from making a healthy transition to a new leader.

see a Sample Self-Evaluation for Director (PDF)

Should the founder remain on the board?

No!  Founders of nonprofits often assume that they will be on the organizational board after leaving, but that can put the incoming executive in the uncomfortable position of reporting to a former leader who continues to call the shots. When founders are asked to leave an organization’s board or staff, often they want to be a consultant to the organization, thus prolonging their departure.

What can happen if a leader stays too long?

Individuals with long organizational tenure can be an asset, but often become a detriment to the organization. For example, one executive director who had been on the job for nearly 40 years recruited a board with no term limits, consisting mostly of friends he had known since childhood. This situation is extremely difficult to overcome.

Should the founder continue after a replacement is named?

It is a good practice to discourage or limit contact between the new director and the founder. To illustrate why this is not a good practice, the founder of an opera company said she would be there for two weeks after the new person came. Four months after the new director came, the founder was still coming in every day. Eventually, the nonprofit’s lawyer ordered her off the premises.

What are the most difficult issues for the founder to face?

For many departing founders and longtime executives, the most difficult issues to confront are the personal ones. They have to think about their future. Emotionally this is very difficult to deal with. If they have lived and breathed their jobs for all the years they worked for a nonprofit, then it is difficult to imagine not having it in their lives.

Are there training opportunities that address founder’s syndrome?

Yes.  To assist founders and nonprofit boards, some grantmakers and consultants offer training. Some workshops help founders enhance their management style by turning over control of certain operations. Others help executives decide whether it is time for them to leave.

What is the best way to confront the issue of organizational transition?

Boards should consider developing a succession plan. This process may allow the founder to consider when to leave the organization. This process could also teach executives how to strengthen operations to prepare for and to survive their departure.

What happens if the founder wants to continue to work with the nonprofit?

Although this is not the best idea and should be discouraged, those leaders who want to keep working with their organizations after leaving their job must have a mutual agreement among the departing and incoming leaders and their board regarding their involvement with the organization.

Is there any way that founders can continue working with their organizations?

Even in the best circumstances, continuing to work at their nonprofits is difficult for most founders. It is a real challenge both professionally and personally to let go of something that has consumed them for many years.

Is there a graceful way to send them off?

It is important to acknowledge the contributions the founder has made to the organization.  Find a way to publicly acknowledge their work and thank them for their service.  Give them an award at a major event and issue a press release, so the break with the organization is known in the community.

Adapted in part from Succession: Arts Leadership for the 21st CenturyIllinois Arts Alliance