How to spot founder's syndrome

Running a charity is hard. I take my hat off to all those non-profit founders who bring their vision, energy and drive to create social change. However, when assessing charities and deciding which ones to fund, the term ‘founder’s syndrome’ often comes up.

There are lots of inspiring charity leaders and there is nothing wrong with a charity having a compelling and persuasive founder involved – often they are absolutely vital for attracting support. The problem occurs where the founder has too much power. But how do you spot it?

This is what sets off my ‘founder’s syndrome’ alarm when assessing charities:

On paper:

  1. There is a high turnover of Trustees or conversely, the same Trustee group staying for years and years. The first pattern suggests challenges to the status quo fail and the second can indicate that no challenging is taking place.
  2. There is no formal plan – because there is no point having one, it is in the founder’s head and subject to change as they decide. In fact there is generally a lack of formal structures e.g. performance management, Board skills audits.
  3. The charity is not part of any external quality assurance schemes or formal partnerships.

On a visit:

  1. They don’t listen – they tend to avoid direct questions and tell me what they think is important.
  2. They meet you on their own – they don’t bring in a Trustee, finance director, frontline worker or a service user to speak with me.
  3. They lack awareness – founder’s syndrome is much talked about so if you are a founder meeting with a funder it should not be a surprise that they will ask about succession planning, governance, or exit strategies and you should be happy to discuss these.

I am not saying any one of these or all of them means there is definitely a case of ‘founder’s syndrome’ but it does set me off on a line of questioning about decision-making, conflicts of interest, performance management etc.  And neither is this confined to founders – there are other non-founding leaders with the same issues of control.

At a recent charity, I met with the founder who, before I even asked, had told me his exit strategy (after 10 years), the work he and the Trustees were doing on succession planning and stated his wish “I want the charity to flourish without me”. Now, that’s the way to do it.