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Overcoming Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome

By Nell Edgington

October is breast cancer awareness month, but this year the former breast cancer darling, Komen Foundation, is trying to regain public support amid several missteps caused by founder’s syndrome. Nancy Brinker founded the Komen Foundation in 1982 and led it to become the largest, most beloved breast cancer nonprofit, until she overstayed her welcome. Now Komen is trying to shake up leadership amid a public backlash against the organization because of a series of poor strategic decisions. But it may be too little too late.

Founder’s syndrome is a real problem in the nonprofit sector. It happens when the organization’s founder, or a leader who has been there for a long time, becomes the sole decision-maker. And even if a nonprofit isn’t suffering from founder’s syndrome, they likely don’t have a succession plan in place for what happens if or when their leader leaves. But the Social Velocity recorded webinar, Moving Beyond a Nonprofit’s Founder can help.

The lack of a succession plan or an over-reliance on a founder puts a nonprofit’s future at great risk. Nonprofits must learn how to vest leadership not in one person, but in the broader organization.

Founder’s syndrome is when the original founder of a nonprofit (or a leader who has been there for a very long time) creates a culture where:

  • Power and influence all reside within the single founder
  • The brand of the organization is inextricably linked to the personality of the founder
  • Staff are powerless to speak up and be heard when they disagree with certain decisions
  • The board of directors merely rubber stamps founder decisions and have no real authority over and provide no strategic direction to the organization
  • Decisions are rarely tested or debated

In a healthy nonprofit environment, staff are allowed (even encouraged) to push back, ask hard questions, have their dissenting opinions heard.  And the board of directors has the ultimate strategic and fiscal authority for the organization. As a group, they debate and grapple with big strategic decisions. And, as a group, board and staff together are charged with achieving the mission.

When founder’s syndrome is present it can spell crippling trouble for a nonprofit. As we have witnessed the past year with Komen, founder’s syndrome can fundamentally weaken an organization. It can make the organization’s funding and brand name overly reliant on one person. It can cause a lack of critical and innovative thinking. Ultimately, it can mean that the organization becomes less about social impact and more about the personality of the founder.

The Moving Beyond a Nonprofit’s Founder on demand webinar will help nonprofits to:

  • Recognize the signs of founder’s syndrome
  • Move organization leadership from one person to a more sustainable, diversified leadership model
  • Create an effective succession plan
  • Communicate the plan to funders and other external stakeholders
  • Secure consistent, long-term leadership for the organization
  • Integrate your succession plan into your strategic plan

Moving Beyond a Nonprofit’s Founder On Demand Webinar
The registration fee will get you:

  • A link to a recording of the webinar, which you can watch as many times as you like
  • The PowerPoint slides from the webinar
  • The ability to ask additional follow-up questions after the webinar

See a list of all of our live and on demand webinars here.

Photo Credit: Nancy Brinker on Capitol Hill via The Washington Post

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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3 Comments to Overcoming Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome

Rev Don Spitz
October 15, 2012

People give Susan G. Komen money to fight breast cancer and Susan G. Komen gives some of that donated money to the babykillers at Planned Parenthood. I don’t think people who give money to Susan G. Komen to fight breast cancer, know their money is going to an abortion organization that kills unborn babies.

Nell Edgington
October 16, 2012

Reverend Don,

The money that Komen gives Planned Parenthood goes for breast-screening exams for poor women. See this article from the Atlantic: These women would have no other opportunity to have mammograms. Therefore it is an excellent use of Komen’s money to prevent breast cancer.

[…] effective, responsive and innovative team came head-to-head with a classic malady in organizations: Founder’s syndrome. The visionary founder and Board chair for the organization, though he was ostensibly behind the […]

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