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Founder's Syndrome or Growing Pains?

Posted by Stephen Lemire on July 30, 2012 at 10:35 AM

I have been the first executive director employed by a small staff professional association several times. This has given me the distinction to work closely with many founding boards of directors to bring their visions to life to create self-sustaining membership organizations.
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When looking back at the founding boards that I worked with, there were many characteristics which they had in common as a group: a clearly identified shared vision; a collective need which must be met; a way to provide mutual support; an opportunity to develop best practices; and a method to create an organization through economies of scale.
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Yet, when looking back at the founding boards, there were many characteristics which were dissimilar when evaluating the individual founders. Some were primarily driven by the identified mission, but others have participated because they were entrepreneurial, visionary, wished to network, had an opportunity to showcase skills, or were purely driven by ego.
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Founders, collectively and as individuals, serve many important roles in helping a new nonprofit get established. They are idea-brokers as they spread the word about what they wish to accomplish; they are catalysts to get people energized around their vision; they are fund-raisers as they generate needed resources; and they are partners with the executive director to put plans and strategy into action.
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Most times, a majority of the founding board members are not the directors who will have a long-term role with the nonprofit. For example, many of the founders will lose interest once the organization has been established, feeling that their vision is on course to being achieved. Others will participate less as they find the entrepreneurial challenge less exciting and will only be interested in offering ideas, rather than a willingness to follow through on them like they once did. These examples are the types of growing pains that a new nonprofit may experience and are quite common and natural.
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However, when certain board members are providing a diminishing return on their level of commitment, the organization can experience an uncomfortable level of founder’s syndrome. Some of the visionary directors can become disruptive to the organization’s development if they “don’t let go” and recognize that the newly established nonprofit requires different skills from its directors.
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Many of the founders can adapt, yet there are several types that try to hold on: the elitists who feel that they have a proprietary responsibility; the “status quo-ers” who don’t want the nonprofit to change rapidly; and the managers who have been the founders that have had operational duties which they do not wish to turn over to staff. It can be symptomatic for the nonprofit when the nomination/election process is closed and does not well represent the organization’s constituency and committees are repeatedly filled by the same handful of founders.
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The founders who stay for the longer term provide a necessary transition (and translation) to new board members about the vision, provide the organization with an institutional history, and have many of the skills still needed for the board to be successful. The founders who have been replaced needed to be swapped out for those with new skills and ideas to help the nonprofit evolve to its next growth stage.
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Occasionally a founder needs a nudge to recognize that they have provided an invaluable service to the nonprofit but their continued participation is becoming disruptive. A strong president, with the support of the executive committee, can have firm, yet delicate, conversations with this individual asking them to step down. In the event that it is an officer, the remainder of the board must rely on its bylaws to enforce changes when appropriate.
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The transitioned board now has a role of oversight and governance as the nonprofit matures. Soon they will ultimately become true ambassadors of the organization as they raise more funds, advocate on policy issues, and perpetuate the board through self-evaluation, skills-based nominations, and open elections.
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Categories: Board of Directors, Nonprofits, Associations

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