Founder’s Syndrome

Finding the Key: Working With Non-profit Founders And Helping Them Redefine Their Role In Fundraising
by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

Vision. Passion. Zeal. Commitment. These are but a few of the key ingredients that drive visionary non-profit leaders to recognize and fill voids in the non-profit arena and have led to the creation of important agencies that have transformed our communities.

Working with non-profits of different sizes, interests and missions, and specifically their leaders, for several decades, we have witnessed a distinct phenomenon among the founders of organizations. While many non-profits have existed for decades and function to achieve their distinct purposes and serve diverse constituencies, many of the non-profits established in the last 5-10 years seem to function much differently (as expected) than the more established agencies they complement. What we are witnessing now results from the evolution of non-profits moving from start-ups to their next period of sustainability. Today, “founder’s syndrome” seems to characterize these agencies where the originators should be ready to move on and distribute responsibilities to others, but may have resisted this imperative need for change.

Non-profit founders have invested immeasurable amounts of time, resources, and emotion into the creation of their charity. They developed and nurtured an idea, approached the purpose with entrepreneurial vision and a business plan, and grew it until it reached maturation. But what comes next?

Like an overly-protective parent that does not want to let go, founders, too, have a difficult time transitioning so that others can build on the important formative steps and propel the agency forward. We understand that this is difficult, but it is a necessity.

As parents and business owners, we know just as well as anyone else about wanting to be in control, but sometimes we must change our behaviors and alter our strategies. Clearly, the founder knows the organization inside and out; they have developed the vision for how their non-profit should function, but that does not necessarily mean that other individuals, whether volunteer Board members, professional managers and administrators or fundraising management specialists, may not have valuable insight or skills to employ.

When we work with founders, we too often see fear and the reluctance to develop a new formal strategic plan, consider succession and carry the agency forward. The fundraising activities of the agency needs to be framed carefully if the finances of a thriving non-profit are to grow, and too often we see a failure or reluctance to tackle this aspect of organizational life.

While we emphasize the important role that “founders” play, as they must be active and visible participants in the fundraising process (some try to stay away from this completely, while others want total control); we also show them that they alone cannot successfully implement a strong fundraising agenda without the help of others. We work to develop a fundraising team with varying roles to cover important functions, such as communications or major gifts, and stress the importance of participating in training sessions. Most founders can tell you just about anything about their organizations and advocate for support but many are unsure of the proper steps to take when cultivating a donor and requesting financial support, often making the “ask” more about personality than about needs and mission.

One of the reservations some founders convey in the fundraising discussions relate to self benefit: might potential donors be reluctant to make substantial commitments if they perceive financial benefit directly to the founder? Are there internal controls that ensure professional management and appropriate oversight?

We are working with a prominent American congregation today where the founding rabbi – an incredibly successful and dynamic leader – is considering his ultimate retirement concurrently with negotiations taking place about his emeritus status, where he will continue to receive compensation. Many members are not comfortable with supporting a campaign to fund the emeritus position yet they hold the individual in very high esteem. Even with that being said, the rabbi is not prepared to make a public case for obtaining funding for his personal salaries and benefits. How to handle this?

What about other agencies in the Jewish community where men and women remain in leadership – either as executives or board members – for many decades? The plus side of the discussion is passion and commitment. The negatives include the centrality of personal investment and the personality of the founder him/herself. Unfortunately, that often results in freezing others out of positions of responsibility or not embracing changes that can develop new approaches, different philosophies, or more contemporary thinking.

When is it time to step aside, retire, or just open up access to others for leadership and decision making? There is no simple answer to this question, but with a perspective that embraces change, we suggest that time limits for Board positions are as important as introducing certain leadership restrictions for those who create the strong non-profits.

We look forward to hearing from founders about this – and other – issues in the coming days, especially as we turn the pages from 2010 to a new calendar year.

We stress these key thoughts for organizational founders or any non-profit worker or volunteer who is challenged by an authority figure’s non-profit management style. The founder must:

  • be an active participant and leader in the fundraising program;
  • act as an overseer of daily activities but not the sole worker;
  • be open to outside counsel and advice, especially in terms of fundraising strategy;
  • stay abreast of important trends in the philanthropic arena and be willing to modify your strategy according to this;
  • be cognizant of set timelines and set realistic goals; and
  • recognize the importance of the team and the important role that each individual plays.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.