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25 November 2022    |    Blog

Lifting the lid on founder syndrome

Charities that could be doing brilliant work are so often held back by the very people that had the vision to set them up in the first place.

Photo by Pablo Varela on Unsplash

I first came across founder syndrome when I was a volunteer. I wasn’t a total newbie to charity, I had worked in the sector for a decade, but always in larger organisations. I decided to volunteer with a tiny charity during my maternity leave (to pave the way for becoming a consultant) and this was where I first felt the full force of Founder Syndrome. 

Here was an organisation doing great work, with a CEO who had set up the charity following personal experience of the issue, but they were getting nowhere. There was no clear direction for the charity and the CEO seemed to prefer getting involved in small everyday tasks than getting on with the big picture stuff that was really needed. 

Now that I’ve worked with a lot of other small charities, this syndrome is something I see a fair amount, and it always leaves me feeling downhearted. Charities that could be doing brilliant work are so often held back by the very people that had the vision to set them up in the first place. CEOs who had to do everything to start with can’t seem to help themselves from continuing to get overly involved in tasks that should be done by others – things like admin, fundraising and finance. Founders can be resistant to change that others feel needs to happen, especially when it comes to opening up services in new directions. Worse, founders are prone to seeing any challenge as a personal affront.

I’m sad to say that in my experience I rarely see these situations being dealt with well. I’ve seen bloody coups where founders find themselves being kicked out of the very charity they started, and I’ve seen charities limp along for years, hoping and praying that the CEO will leave. And I’m certainly not alone. Nearly every charity consultant I speak to about this, has their own founder syndrome story to tell. I’ll bet anyone reading this blog will have their own examples.

So, the question is – what is the big secret with all of this? Why do people not talk about it more, or find ways to tackle founder syndrome fairly and well? 

I have a couple of ideas why these conversations can be so very tough:

I have long dreamt of helping charities experiencing founder syndrome to deal with it in a positive way. I am keen that the people who have been visionary and committed enough to set up a charity are not treated badly, but I also want organisations to be able to move on, flourish and reach their potential. Alongside my consultancy I am currently training to be a counsellor and I realised that perhaps what Founder CEOs need is some confidential time to explore what leaving the charity would mean for them personally and professionally, and how they could best leave their baby behind. 

However, part of the puzzle was missing, I needed someone else to help make my vision a reality. Enter stage left – Lori Streich! We met at a Consultants for Good networking event and clicked – I quickly realised that she was my missing jigsaw piece. Her board and governance experience coupled with my counselling skills blend together perfectly to ensure that both the charity and the Founder CEO are able to take the next step forward.

Having spent the last couple of months developing the project we are excited to launch Positive Succession addressing this exact problem. If all goes to plan, perhaps in the future we may all have a few less horror stories to tell about founder syndrome. 

Claire Nethersole, CN Fundraising Consultancy