What is founder’s syndrome and why does it affect so many smaller arts and non-profit organizations?
Founder’s syndrome occurs when a founder of an organization is not able to transition leadership style as the organization matures and grows. The founder continues to operate in the same manner as he/she did in founding the organization, seeking to personally manage every aspect of a growing organization.
The strong entrepreneurial personality that developed a new organization may be unskilled at or unwilling to delegate. The tireless worker that was willing to pull all-nighters to get in last-minute grant applications may be unable to schedule work or effectively manage their time. The genius that came up with spontaneous project ideas may not be willing to work on long-range plans or within budget guidelines. All of the affects of founder’s syndrome results in limiting the growth and effectiveness of organizations and often creates toxic environments for workers, artists, clients.
We naturally see more of this in smaller organizations because it is such a strong factor in limiting growth. It is more prevalent in the non-profit sector because while for-profit organizations can be affected by founder’s syndrome, market forces exert limiting pressures on poor leadership. The for-profit company that cannot grow and change often fails while others are forced to change their ways or leadership to remain competitive. By contrast non-profits are less subject to market forces and may have difficulty discerning reasons for organizational stagnation or failures. Non-profits are governed by unpaid community volunteers who may feel unable to pass judgment on the workings of an organization that is outside their area of expertise and where evaluation may be more qualitative than quantitative. Volunteer Board Members customarily spend little or no time observing the day-to-day workings of the organization. They may also be friends of the Founder and so not impartial. They may have been convinced by the Founder that any inquiries about management is “meddling”. Staff and volunteers in the arts and non-profits tend to be very high-minded and mission-driven. This results sometimes in a willingness to tolerate a sick work environment in a mis-guided idea that it is “for the good of the cause”.
How does Founder’s Syndrome develop in organizations?
Founders alone cannot create an organization with Founder’s Syndrome. It takes a step-by-step, person by person tacit agreement to cede power to the Founder by Board Members who should be providing governance to the organization. It also requires funders, volunteers, staff, colleagues and other stakeholders to decide to continue to support the sick organization or to leave silently. Over the years it there may be numerous loud and clear signals that there is something terribly wrong in the organization but no effective action is taken to address the problem or to provide help to the Founder to assist them in developing a more effective leadership style before they stifle or bring ruin to the organization they founded.
What are the symptoms of founder’s syndrome?
1. There’s a “friends of the founder” Board of Directors. The founder has recruited the Board of Directors him or herself (normal in the initial stage of an organization) and the Board has never taken over authority for recruiting new members themselves based on the needs of the organization. Board members are vetted by the founder and Board Members that try to counter the Founder’s wishes are quickly ejected. The Board sees their role as supporting the work of the founder rather than stewardship of the organization’s Mission and sound governance of the organization’s work and resources.
2. Decision-making within the organization is all controlled by the founder. Staff either don’t know what’s going on or plans suddenly get de-railed by a decision of the founder. Ideas that come from elsewhere than the Founder don’t go very far. Staff become discouraged about offering innovative ideas, stop being pro-active and may even be afraid of the founder.
3. Organizational information such as newsletters and brochures contain a lot of information about the founder: personal letters from the founder to supporters, news of the founder’s awards, achievements, pet projects. Board members and staff seem oddly uninformed about the details of project plans, budgets, and any results or evaluation. Staff cannot articulate processes, statistics or evaluation methods.
4. The founder often talks about “my vision, my program, my goals” rather than “our goals”. When asked about rationale for methods it is not unusual to hear, “we have always done X” or “I believe it is best to do Y”. There is no process for new ideas and methods to be introduced.
5. There is a resistance to any changes that might create a real or perceived loss of control, e.g. a founder that is uncomfortable with technology will resist the implementation of a user-friendly website that a staff member might be able to create and manage because she/he will feel unable to control the content.
6. Information hording can occur because information is power. The more threatened a founder is by a staff member, the less likely the founder will be in sharing information with that staff member.
What are the options for an organization That Identifies having a Founder’s Syndrome problem?
1. If the Founder recognizes the problem, get them help through professional leadership counselling.
2. If the Founder does not recognize the problem you’ll need buy-in from more than one organizational level to effect change. Without support from Board, Staff, and Funders you will not be likely to succeed. Staff driven efforts alone result in Board backed firings that can ruin careers and even the health of staff members summarily dismissed for the efforts to alert the Board to the dysfunction. Board-driven change processes that lack staff and funder buy-in can result in funding cuts, and/or sabotage at the staff level and ultimately Board fatigue, resignations, replacements. Funder led calls for reform without organizational support can result in financial hits for the organization but no real change. The organization will find new funding partners or fail, but will be unlikely to effect real change to suit a funder unless there is recognition of a problem.
What are the implications for staff employed in an organization with Founder’s Syndrome?
1. Recognize that you are in a very challenging environment and you may not be able to effect change. Go easy on yourself.
2. Consider your options and prepare your exit strategy even before it’s necessary.
3. It is unwise to try to effect change in the organization unless there is a Board initiated effort for organizational change.
4. If you elect to stay in the organization focus on small goals or achievements within your area of responsibility with minimal opportunities for friction with the Founder.
5. If you choose to whistle-blow, be prepared for a very difficult time and possibly lasting career damage. It might be personally advantageous to simply resign.
6. Work within the non-profit sector to promote awareness of this problem and protections for workers.