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Founder’s Syndrome and Fundraising

passIf you are the founder of a nonprofit organization, work for a founder, or followed a founder into the executive director's chair, I don't need to tell you what Founder’s Syndrome is. You have your own stories.

Out of nothing, the founder created an organization. It fills a need, serves clients, and balances its books (more or less) every year. The founder made it happen. This can lead to an adventurous “why not?” spirit that is a joy to behold. It can also lead to Absolutely Bonkers Sabotage Behavior (ABSB) when the founder moves on.

Three true stories:

  • Founder retires, unhappy with the direction current staff are taking the organization. She stays on as board member, and orchestrates the firing of all staff.
  • Founder has never taken a salary and has funded the organization’s budget through her contributions from her friends. After she retires, the organization burns through two executive directors in two years, and then closes.
  • Founder, with three years left to stabilize organization before her retirement, decides that if she can replace all board members, she will be able to get the organization on solid ground.

You get the picture. Inspiration, commitment, and (sometimes) ABSB.

So, what does this have to do with fundraising? Everything. An organization needs money to keep operating, even during a leadership transition. And a new executive will be evaluated, among other things, on fundraising success.

Here are some tips for avoiding the ABSB meltdown:

If you are a founder:

  • Meditate. Go for longs walks. Visualize thriving without the organization. Visualize the organization thriving without you.
  • Figure out how you can be most supportive to your successor – probably by giving her the keys, introducing her to donors, and going on a very long trip somewhere without phone or internet access.
  • If there are donors that only you have a relationship with, introduce them to a board member so there will be a strong bridge to the new executive.

If you are a board member:

  • Be a champion of transparency. Make sure there is a solid development plan for the year after the founder leave. It should include conversations with top individual donors.
  • Find out if there is information about donors in the executive director’s head that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Hard-to-quantify details (like who enjoys a lengthy chat and who wants a brief update) is absolutely critical.
  • In conversations with candidates for the executive director’s job, probe deeply into fundraising experience. If a candidate has had success with securing government grants, does that translate into seeking grants from foundations? Maybe. If a candidate comes from an organization with a broad membership base, does that equip him to solicit gifts from major donors. Not necessarily.

If you are a staff fundraiser who bridges the transition from founder to second executive director:

  • Imagine what role the executive director should ideally play in fundraising. Make sure your voice is heard in the board discussions about job descriptions and candidates.
  • Prepare a comprehensive orientation memo for the incoming executive director: income sources, the roles different board members have played, profiles of the top ten donors.
  • Step into your power. This is a time when your leadership is really going to shine.

Come to think of it, meditation, long walks, and conversations with friends and colleagues are a good prescription for anyone involved in that transition. Absolutely Bonkers Sabotage Behavior is not inevitable. If everyone is smart, your organization could experience Absolutely Magical Growth Behavior when the second executive director assumes the helm.

Paul Jolly

The preceding is a guest post by our regular contributor Paul Jolly, founder of Jump Start Growth, Inc. Paul worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth. He began his career serving various Quaker institutions, then moved to The Wilderness Society, and then the American Civil Liberties Union. In every instance, he has zeroed in on gifts from individuals at the top of the giving pyramid. The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are outside of the philanthropic mainstream. His successes include leading three capital campaigns for organizations new to major gifts fund raising, securing millions of dollars in bequest and planned gift commitments, and bringing new life and laser-sharp focus to disheartened development departments.

Topics: Fundraising