Founder's Syndrome


Founder’s Syndrome is a popular term for a difficulty faced by organizations where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence following the effective initial establishment of the project, leading to a wide range of problems for the organization.
— Wikipedia

    The symptoms of a nonprofit organization that is suffering from "Founder's Syndrome" are as follows:

  • The Founder believes that because they have given birth to the organization, their voice is most important in regards to its growth. No one from the board gets a word in edgewise. 
  • There is an imbalanced ratio between how much the board is directing the CEO and how much the CEO is directing the board.
  • There is an absence of consistent accountability for the Founder/CEO's performance. Nobody gets to tell the Founder how to do their job.
  • The growth of the organization has become stagnant because the vision has not be challenged or adjusted to maintain relevancy.
  • The integrity of the organization has been compromised because the Founder has been allowed to have full reign to do things as they see fit - even when it engages in ethical violations.  

 Founder's Syndrome is a serious condition if left untreated. The good news is that the prognosis with treatment is positive! An nonprofit organization can reverse the damages caused by Founder's Syndrome and even establish a healthier course for it's future.

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    Here is the prescription:


Members of the board must collectively agree that their chief priority is that they fully engage and direct the Founder/CEO in order to maintain health and propel growth in the organization. 

       In other words, the board needs to speak up and say the hard things. The board cannot allow itself to be  bullied by the Founder, nor can it allow the Founder to lead as "King" or "Queen" of the organization . It is the board's  job to govern and to make sure the organization is moving forward. In order to do this, members of the board must be willing to challenge the Founder/CEO whether they like it or not.

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The board must be directly involved in a process that annually evaluates the Founder/CEO's performance which is tied to their compensation.

       The Founder/CEO must be held accountable and it is the board's job to hold them to task. Evaluations must include measurable annual goals with concrete deadlines. The results of the  annual evaluation conducted of the Founder/CEO's  performance should also determine appropriate compensation. Fair is fair.


STEp 3: 

The board needs to get involved in helping the Founder/CEO transfer their leadership at the appropriate time so that the organization can continue to grow.

     The board must be proactive in helping both the Founder/CEO and the organization in the inevitable process process of transference of leadership. Timing is everything and often nonprofit boards are beginning this process way too late. Boards should be actively identifying and developing new leaders that will posses both the heart of the organization's vision as well as a new perspective to propel it's mission forward. The board is responsible in helping the Founder recognize the timing of this transference. In addition, the board should be involved in the preparation needed for the Founder/CEO to release their position. The board must be empathetic and well insistent in this process.


          Founder's Syndrome is lethal to any nonprofit organization however the cure can be applied with good results. As the board embraces their role in directing and engaging the Founder, they will see the organization grow healthier and stronger for it's future.

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   If your organization is suffering from Founder's Syndrome, I would love to help you!  I am passionate to see nonprofits fulfill their mission and achieve sustainability in the present climate. So, don't hesitate to reach out:

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 Todd Polyniak is a partner at SAX and is an expert in Not-For-Profit financial health for over 30 years. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @todd_polyniak.