Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Founder’s Syndrome

Many articles have been written about founder’s syndrome. This occurs when a founder of an organization can’t differentiate him or herself from the entity. We mentioned founder’s syndrome in an article on the life stages of nonprofits in a 2004 newsletter. We thought this would be a good time to remind our readers about this problem, which affects many Alaska nonprofits.

Founder’s syndrome can be an issue for businesses, but it can really be a serious problem for nonprofits. Since Alaska’s nonprofit sector is young, compared to most other states, we have numerous organizations where founders are still involved – I should know, I am one.

A founder is any individual who was involved in the initial visioning and start-up phases of a nonprofit. A founder could be one person or many people – as it was with Foraker.

At Foraker we have observed that nonprofits without staff rarely survive the departure of their founder. Therefore, having a competent staff can be essential to sustainability. In addition, we have observed that if the founder never lets go, or when a founder leaves too soon, it can also create significant issues for the organization. The trick is to have founders stay long enough to nourish their new creation, find the right staff and board to transfer ownership to, and then leave.

That is much easier said than done.

My first professional career was in children’s mental health. One faculty member at the program where I worked was Margret Mahler. She was a protégé of Freud and creator of what is referred to as Object Relations Theory. This theory states that infants are symbiotic with their mothers, both physically and psychically. During the early years and throughout childhood, the child and mother go through a predictable pattern of separation and eventually to individuation, meaning that the child has successfully become autonomous from the mother.

Events during this period, as well as the emotional security of the mother, greatly affect the child’s ability to become a functioning adult. Since life is unpredictable, and we are all challenged with issues related to ego, none of us is truly “whole.” However, when the mother can stay centered and provide consistent attention; when the child transfers some of his or her dependence to other family members and then to friends; and when the environment does not offer an unexpected catastrophe during a critical phase, a human, in theory, can grow into a self-actualized adult.

It is our assumption that in the nonprofit world a founder is the mother and the child is the organization – with the same symbiosis at play. Founders become one with the entity they “birth.” Through time, if the nonprofit is to succeed, the founder must let the “child” develop new support structures – a board and a staff. Eventually the founder must let go so the nonprofit can thrive. If this does not occur, the “child” could depend on the “mother” forever. When the “child” remains dependent too long, this transition is even harder to navigate.

Nonprofits created by another entity, like a national organization or a governmental department, can create unique issues. Institutional founders often let go too soon. Like an orphaned infant, a new nonprofit that is not nourished long enough by its founder, or “mother,” may suffer from “failure to thrive syndrome.”

“Failure to thrive” has been witnessed in orphanages. When infants do not receive enough TLC in their early months, some can die from lack of attention. Others don’t gain weight and can become developmentally impaired. Regardless, they are never what they could have been with good mothering.

The same is true for new nonprofits. Only founders can give the new creation the TLC needed through its early formation. However when a new nonprofit and its founder recruit the right board and then, when the time is right, hire the first executive director, they have taken the first steps in preparing the “child” for success.

Most nonprofits are founded by someone with passion to make a difference. Therefore, we don’t see much “failure to thrive” in the sector. We’re more likely to see the opposite – over dependence when founders hold on too long. As the “child” grows and matures, the “mother” is reluctant to let the organization increasingly depend on others, like the board, and start to rely less on her.

Imagine, as a parent this is like letting your child become loved by others such as a childcare provider, a first teacher, a coach, or a mentor. It usually makes us feel good that someone else sees the special qualities in our child, but at the same time it can be hard to accept that one of these new friends may be described as “cooler” than a boring, old parent.

If a founder is not in touch with his or her own ego, it is far too easy to think that only she or he has what is needed to truly keep the organization headed in the right direction.

In last month’s article, we referred to the ISER study, which suggests that we have many, many nonprofits in Alaska compared to national statistics. This makes it harder and harder to find enough of the right people to serve on boards. One consequence is that we see a scarcity of the right, best board members. Some people sit on too many boards and don’t have the time or motivation to serve each well. Unfortunately some people abdicate their board responsibility and allow other members, who seem willing to do more than their share, do it all.

Founders may be the worst offenders of doing too much.

We describe founders as “zealots.” They are, after all, “super human.” They created something from a vision – that can be a pretty heady thing to do. It is way too easy to fall into the trap of feeling indispensible. Founders often want everyone else to let them be in the center. Whenever this happens, the organization is in peril. In addition, too many boards and staff encourage the founder to not let go.

There are so many real life examples of this situation in Alaska – I may run the risk of having some of those founders email me as soon as they see this article because they will assume I am writing about them. However, this example is from another state, even though it could just as well be from here.

This founder, we will call her Mary, was the epitome of a community activist. She was a long-time advocate for women’s rights. She served on numerous committees, marched in parades and protests. It was obvious to all that she cared deeply about this issue. (We use the word zealot for a reason.) Mary had financial resources. She came from a family with money and she had a professional career. She was not looking for a job, unlike some founders – she just wanted to make a difference.

About ten years ago, Mary began to support women from immigrant communities. Many of these women struggled to keep their children centered in their traditional culture while working in numerous jobs to financially support the family. And like women in most families, they were doing all they could to keep peace in their family and community when the inevitable conflicts arose from the process of assimilation into a new culture. Mary was in her element when she discovered these women. They were impressed with her commitment to them and many were amazed, based on their traditional cultural role for women, that she was so assertive, competent, and driven to help them succeed.

After a year of working through existing nonprofits to focus on immigrant issues, Mary decided that the only way she could do what was needed was to form a new organization. It seemed that the existing nonprofits had too much bureaucracy to allow her to do what she (alone) knew was best.

Since Mary had her own resources, initial programs were established for which she alone provided the funding. However, in a short amount of time, through her connections and ability to write good proposals, Mary found quite a few willing institutional funders, foundations, and corporations willing to help her support this new organization’s important work. She recruited a few of her friends and some emerging leaders from these immigrant communities to serve on the founding board. They got their tax status and started to independently deliver services.

In 20 months from the founding, the board (Mary) determined that the organization could no longer stay effective operating only with volunteers. It was time to hire their first executive director. After a brief search they found Patty, a very capable individual with ten years experience in the sector as a program director working with disadvantaged populations.

It seemed that the new organization was well on its way toward a successful individuation from its founder. The board members showed up for meetings, programs were having impact, the staff had grown to three full-time employees, and Mary began to let go. However, after Patty was in the job for almost two years, the initial grants expired and the best intentions of the board to assist her in raising more money from the community failed.

Mary assumed that no one else could solve this problem and started showing up at the office each day. She began to second-guess everything Patty was doing – after all, if the organization was not thriving, it had to be Patty’s fault, or so Mary assumed. Mary provided some needed funding, micro-managed more, and within a few months asked for an executive session of the board. While most of the board felt Patty was doing a good job, no one wanted to stand up to the founder – so Patty was fired.

It took a little longer to find the next executive director. After four months of Mary running the day-to-day operations as a volunteer – while remaining on the board and working at a full-time job – John was hired. John was much younger, had less experience, but had graduated a couple of years before from an Ivy League college. He struggled to learn the job. To maintain programs Mary stayed overly involved for the next three years – never allowing John to run the organization. As she changed, she inadvertently changed the focus of the organization. Whenever she heard of potential funding, she found a way to make it fit the mission of her organization – creating mission drift. (This is very common in founder’s syndrome.) Mary used her influence to get more funding. However, it wasn’t long before some of those funders noticed that things were not going very well.

The rest of the board allowed Mary to stay involved at this level. Eventually she began to tire and let go again, just long enough for John to fail. Then, of course, she had to come back to save the organization, yet again. During this time many of the better board members resigned and little was done to build the competence of the succeeding members. By the time John left, there was little resource in the board and all of the original staff had resigned. Mary was burned out, but unwilling to acknowledge defeat. So she persevered – like a zealot or like a masochist – and with her own money, she hired the next executive director.

The next ED was new in town and did not understand what had happened up to that point so was enthusiastic in the job. That enthusiasm lasted about ten months, when micro-management got the best of her. She resigned.

Today, the organization is gone. Some of the services were absorbed by one of the organizations that Mary partnered with ten years ago, other services are no longer available. Mary still blames the executive directors for the failure.

This story is typical of founder’s syndrome. Most founders are entrepreneurs. That strength allows them to dream big and make things happen. Unfortunately for them, the sector cannot rely on entrepreneurs alone. To sustain, nonprofits must create a management system based on shared power. Board members must own responsibilities for governance. Competent staff must be engaged to run the day-to-day operations. The staff and the board must work together as partners. All of those activities are not what most entrepreneurs like to do. That is why I believe founder’s syndrome exists.

The skills needed to create something new are not always the same as the skills to sustain an organization. Maybe if an entrepreneur is interested in creating a vision without the full engagement of others, he or she should opt for a different tax structure. Maybe becoming a charitable organization in order to get grants is not the best path for many of these new organizations. Maybe we need these entrepreneurs to envision what could be, pilot projects, and then let more traditional nonprofits take over the ideas that seem viable.

People with a vision for creating something new may benefit from the critical thinking of someone who can ask these hard questions. Many big foundations invest in civic entrepreneurs. Being innovative in this way can be a good thing. However, those innovators need candid feedback from one(s) they trust about when to let go. Sharing power with a board or an ED is not easy – but it is necessary.

In the next few years, with the funding crisis, the “crash of the herd” and the need to restructure (which we outlined in our January 2011 newsletter) maybe we can find a way to better balance the need for new visions with the capacity of the charitable community to sustain those visions.