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nonprofit founder’s syndrome

Kick Your Nonprofit Succession Plan to the Curb

There is a lot of talk about succession planning in the nonprofit sector, but for the most part, it’s approached in the wrong way. The problem with traditional succession planning is that nonprofits take a too narrow view of nonprofit leadership. It’s not enough to have a strong nonprofit executive director or CEO and to create a “succession plan” to guard against their eventual departure. Instead nonprofits need to develop a new approach to leadership that brings many people together to drive strategy.

In order to have truly sustainable and effective leadership a nonprofit must integrate four key elements into the leadership of their organization:

  • An Empowered Executive Director or CEO
  • Emboldened Staff (beyond the nonprofit leader)
  • Invested External Stakeholders (funders, regulators, policy makers, collaborators)
  • Elevated Board of Directors

These four groups should each have a role to play in any strategic decision the organization makes, like this:

If you develop an integrated leadership model like this, the organization is not overly-reliant on any single element to keep it going. So in the worst case scenario if your executive director leaves tomorrow the organization would be able to continue on until a new executive director replaced her. Similarly, an integrated leadership model like this guards against the debilitating challenges that founder’s syndrome, or the over-reliance on one leader, can pose for a nonprofit.

In order to determine whether your nonprofit has an integrated leadership model, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Does your staff feel comfortable speaking their mind at staff and board meetings?
  • If your executive director left tomorrow would your nonprofit survive?
  • Does your board get excited and engaged at most board meetings?
  • Do they have and express diverse viewpoints?
  • Do they drive the strategic direction of your organization?
  • Do you have a real strategic plan that drives the day-to-day work of the organization?
  • Do funders, board, stakeholders have relationships with staff members beyond just the executive director?

If you answered “No” to many of these questions, you may need to strengthen these four elements so that your nonprofit has a sustainable leadership model. How do you get there? You:

  • Create a groundbreaking board that focuses on strategy, not weeds, and structures itself for engagement.
  • Create and monitor a REAL strategic plan.
  • Evaluate the performance of the board and the Executive Director at least annually.
  • Conduct annual, anonymous 360 staff evaluations, where each staff member (including the ED) evaluates herself, any of her direct reports, and her supervisor.
  • Have staff contribute at board meetings and encourage their relationships with board and external stakeholders.
  • Make external stakeholders (funders, policy makers, influencers) a key part of your organization by including them in committees or meeting with them regularly to solicit thoughts and feedback.

The nonprofit organization of the 21st century must be led by a diverse and distributed army of people both inside and outside the organization. Relying on only one person to lead is setting the organization up for failure.

Photo Credit: stephclark

 

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Overcoming Nonprofit Founder’s Syndrome

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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How Founder’s Syndrome Hurt the Komen Foundation

Last week’s stunning PR nightmare at the Susan G. Komen Foundation is a textbook example of how not to run a nonprofit. Komen decided early last week to pull all funding from Planned Parenthood and then went radio silent in response to an increasingly angered social media network. Finally they flipped their original decision while firing the anti-Planned Parenthood vice president for public policy, Karen Handel.

Komen’s PR response was woefully inadequate, their social media efforts were non-existent compared to Planned Parenthood’s, and their board decision-making process was flawed. And all of this follows their brand-busting decision last year to partner with KFC.

Obviously, the organization is not making good decisions.

But few people are placing the blame for these missteps where it should probably go, at the top. Karen Handel herself argued that she wasn’t the only decision maker, “I clearly acknowledge [my role] in the process, but to suggest I had sole authority is just absurd. The policy was vetted at all appropriate levels.”

I wonder if Komen isn’t suffering from classic founder’s syndrome. 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

Komen was founded by Nancy Brinker when her sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer in 1982. For such a massive organization (a 2010 budget of $400+ million), the Komen Foundation only has 9 board members, most of whom are friends or family of the founder . The organization’s structure and behavior have all the signs of classic founder’s syndrome.

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 trouble for a nonprofit. Far beyond the PR nightmare we have witnessed the past week 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.

What has played out with the Komen Foundation over the past few months should be a cautionary tale for other nonprofits. To be strong, effective, innovative and sustainable, a nonprofit must encourage a culture of group ownership. It remains to be seen if Komen learns from their mistakes, but at the very least perhaps other nonprofits can.

If you want to learn more about overcoming founder’s syndrome and creating a succession plan for your nonprofit, check out the Moving Beyond a Nonprofit’s Founder webinar.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey

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