When the Creator is Also the Undertaker

Founder’s Syndrome: When the Creator is Also the Undertaker

Many non-profit organizations are created and founded by people with vision, passion and commitment. The combination of these qualities is what enables a person to implement their ideas and to bring them to fruition in a real way. A person may be motivated by a personal situation or they may see a need in the community. There is a decision to respond and develop an organization that will meet the need that has been identified in the community.

For example, a parent of an autistic child who has experienced the frustration of lack of adequate services may be motivated to establish a non-profit organization to advocate for more comprehensive services or establish a non-profit organization to provide needed support services to the children and their families. Utilizing our example, the parent may choose to start an organization that will provide both advocacy and support services and that will maintain a dual focus on the needs of the children, their families and the recognition of these needs in the broader society.

This is just one of many such examples where people who are faced with personal situations and identify the lack of adequate services decide to assume responsibility. They are motivated by their own personal situation and they begin to form an organization that will respond to the need. They exhibit an unusual level of passion for the specific cause because there is not only an intellectual understanding of the needed services, but a personal connection to the specific issue and the challenges they face in their lives.

Founders tend to move ahead quickly and amass the necessary resources and seem to exhibit unending energy as they establish the organization, raise the necessary funds, put together a staff, and implement the programs. Often these “movers” seem to accomplish a great deal in a very limited amount of time and they will work tirelessly in doing what has to be done. There is no question the organization has their imprimatur and is very unique.

For example, a woman sold her hi-tech company in the 1980’s for a small fortune. She had dealt with cancer in her family and was well acquainted with the lack of support services for cancer victims and their families. In responding to this need, she set up an organization that aimed to meet the needs of people with cancer that were being either ignored or not understood by the medical establishment. She devoted herself to setting up the organization and implementing the services.

Within a very short amount of time after the organization began to function she realized she was overwhelmed by the increasing requests for service and the financial pressures she was feeling to sustain the organization. This meant she had to rethink the role she was playing as “founder” and director and she decided to restructure the organization and share the responsibility with other people. Of course this also meant giving up total control over what happened in the organization.

This brings us to the issue of “founder’s syndrome” and how those people who give birth to organizations can become the stumbling block to its growth and development. When someone gives “birth” to an organization and invests their time and energy in creating an institution it can be very difficult for the person to share decision-making. Sharing control with other people is often hard for the person who has made their vision a reality.

When the founder does not want to share the governance, decision-making, and administration then the organization becomes at risk because the entire operation is dependent upon one person. The situation can be felt in the area of sustainability because it means that insuring the financial stability of the agency also relies on one person efforts. When people do not share in the decision-making it is less likely that they will pledge their ongoing financial support for the organization and its programs.

The most challenging aspect of founder’s syndrome is in dealing with the issue of turning over the responsibility for the organization to someone else or empowering a board of directors to search for a replacement. When the founder is no longer able to fulfill all the obligations necessary in directing the agency but is truly ambivalent about “turning over the reigns” then the organization is headed for a real crisis. It is very difficult for people who have invested themselves in the establishment and running of a non-profit agency to pass on the directorship to someone else if they are experiencing founder’s syndrome.

When the organization is headed for a clash between the founder’s visions and commitments and what is needed to sustain the organization the organization’s continuity can be at risk. This is the reason that founder’s should feel a sense of accomplishment and at the same time provide for the agency’s future by sharing in the governance through a functioning board of directors. The board can then work to provide for financial sustainability and administrative continuity through an organized and professionally implemented search process for a new director.

Dynamic organizations reflect their leadership and if a founder provides for a succession process then the non-profit will continue to function. However, if the founder cannot see beyond the present then in addition to being the creator the founder may also be the undertaker as the organization ceases to function effectively and efficiently in fulfilling its purposes and providing services to the community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.