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Are you suffering from ‘Founder Syndrome’?

Wendy Ward


Leader on top of his pedistal

It can be a wonderful feeling when your charitable organisation grows out of its infancy. When it reaches a point of expansion and growth; when it becomes a recognisable entity in its field and third parties happily signpost beneficiaries to it for support.

Every medium-sized or large charity has faced this tipping point. A stage where the daily operations and overall running of the charity exceeds the time and mental load capacity of the founder(s).

If an organisation is medium-sized or larger in size, it’s clear that this hurdle didn’t hold it back; however, it’s surprising how often this scenario negatively impacts the growth of some charities. It’s a situation that plays out in some businesses, too—where the person who started the company can’t let go of any aspect of its operation, and who, in the end, stifles the organisation’s progress and growth.

Launching a charity and getting it off the ground is something to be lauded. It takes a lot of passion, focus and determination, and not everyone can do it. It’s natural to feel entrenched in your good cause when you’re the entire reason it exists.

If it comes to a time where the founder can no longer cover every aspect of its running, it’s a good sign, not something to fear. It’s a sign that the founder’s idea works, that there’s legitimate demand for its support, that the organisation is worthy of the funds it raises. It’s clear that people can see the outcomes the charity is aiming for and they believe it’s a cause worth getting behind. It’s become a cause people can trust, and it offers its beneficiaries support they feel able to take up. All of these elements are things to celebrate. Wouldn’t any founder want to duplicate their charity’s support and reach more people, if they’d achieved these goals?

It takes a strong person, a determined personality, to push past early problems. They need to be committed and remain passionate about their cause. The trouble comes when this overarching control and dominance prevents other people from joining the fold and utilising their skills.

The next stage

To get past this tipping point, more people need to be involved—they really must, because there are only 24 hours in any one day. A single person cannot do everything when a charity is on the precipice of growth.

Collaboration is vital. A dictatorship is not. Even if the founder brings people on board, if they’re only there to fulfil the founder’s sole vision, this could definitely stunt the charity’s growth. The founder needs to respect the talents, knowledge and experience new trustees/staff could bring to the organisation, and their skills that could make it grow.

No trustee will join a charity if their input is unlikely to be valued or which may even be ignored. The staff will likely be subject to constant turnover, too; both of these issues can damage the reputation of the charity and affect the consistency of its support.

Sweating the small stuff

A sign that Founder Syndrome is in play is when the founder(s) and/or trustees are too involved in the day-to-day operations of the charity. If they have to sign off the content of every flyer, for example, or they’re overly concerned about the positioning of a couple of tables at a small-scale event…they’re likely to be too close to the charity’s activities to see the wood for the trees.

If the founder’s mind is filled with these kinds of worries, how will they ever be able to see past them to work on the charity’s five-year plan, for example—or on recruiting new trustees, seeking secondary locations/areas to support, or making valuable connections with large donors?

It’s not that the small stuff doesn’t matter, it’s just that these tasks can be done by anyone—and can be done just as well as if they were done by you, if you recruit the right people. A founder’s time is to steer, to plan, to devise, to push…their thoughts need to be focused on growth, not on which colour napkins should be used, or the accidental lack of an apostrophe in a social media post.

Ask for feedback

A dictatorship is where the founder rules with an iron rod. A dictator dishes out orders, does not tolerate any weaknesses and they do not take any criticism. This is not the sign of a good or effective leader—whether they’re running a charity, a business or a whole country.

No one knows everything, and for that reason, it’s wise to look to others for advice in areas that are not your strongest. A good leader recognises that we are all growing, and they strive to be the best version of themselves they can be, in order to be the best leader they can be. They actively want the organisation they oversee to improve, to adapt to influences and external changes, to continually strive for better efficiency. The only way this can happen is to constantly evaluate its position. This also involves inviting feedback on practically every aspect, including the person/people at its helm.

Few people enjoy criticism; however, if feedback is seen as encouraging and intended only to improve things, it’s difficult to think of it negatively.

An effective founder will continually ask for the thoughts of the people they work with—from their board of trustees to their staff on the front line, to the third parties they deal with. After all, who amongst us truly believes they’re the finished article, that there’s no room for personal growth?!

Consider also, that you may not always be around. No one knows what’s around the corner. At some point, you may need to take a step back, for whatever reason. In that instance, the last thing you would want is for the charity to stop (or fold). Ensuring it can manage without you is a wise move on many levels.

If you suspect you may be suffering from Founder Syndrome, in any capacity, get in touch. I’ve seen it happen many times, and I’ve also seen the difference it’s made to charities once the situation has been recognised and resolved.

Remember the cause you’re fighting to change. Remember what’s truly important. Think of how many more people’s lives you could improve/change if you focused solely on your charity’s growth.

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