When a Nonprofit Founder Decides Not to Move On

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Not too long ago, I read on a social networking platform about a nonprofit candidate who would become the executive director of an organization where the founder would remain. I’ve written about this in the past, but this particular situation grabbed my interest because of what the board allowed to happen. I thought it was interesting, and a recipe for trouble.

Situation

The candidate to become the new executive would be succeeding the founding executive who would move into a part-time and paid position within the charity. There were a couple of the red flags that I saw in the post being made.

  • The board told the candidate that he would have authority, but was not permitted to let the founder go if did not work. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound to me like authority if you are not permitted to fire someone if the fit isn’t right.
  • The part-time paid role of the founder was yet to be determined. That seemed like a significant problem in the making because of the lack of clarity. I wondered, who would be creating the job description for the new role of the founder? Would the new executive have any authority over it, or would it merely be the responsibility with no power?
  • The candidate was informed that although he would be able to delegate responsibilities to the founder, once the position was created, the board was not sure if the founder would execute. Well, there are a whole host of issues with that fact. So, it seemed the board was telling the candidate that while he was responsible for the proper management of the organization when it came to the position (paid) of the founder, all bets were off.
  • Finally, the board informed the candidate that they expected him to be a leader and figure out how to work effectively with the founder. That is truly fascinating! In effect, the board creates a situation where the founder is paid to have a role within the organization–and not do the work, if he so chooses­­–but the responsibility all falls to the new executive to “make it work.”

If you were reading that post as I did, what would you have advised the candidate?

I will tell you what I would say.

RUN!

Go as fast as you can, as far as you can.

Same Old

I’ve written in the past about Founder’s Syndrome, which is when the power (implicit or explicit) revolves around the founder and his or her cult of personality and influence. As I’ve noted in the past, “The environment becomes dysfunctional with the board not fulfilling its governance responsibility and the staff not permitted to object or debate. Ideas and initiatives stagnate if the founder does not support them. Essentially, the founder becomes the ruler of his or her fiefdom, and the interest of the organization become secondary.”

What I want to tell you here, however, is that the situation as described above is a recipe for trouble, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Confusion

When the founder remains within the organization, it makes the job of the successor infinitely more difficult because he or she is navigating a political landmine, and that’s not fair to the organization. In the scenario of the founder and executive now becoming a part-time employee, the chances of alliances by some board members and staff who are still loyal to the founder increase exponentially. And, all that creates is confusion, and candidly, a problem for the organization that is not conducive to good governance and the operation of the nonprofit.

If you’re a board member at a nonprofit and the time has come to move to a new leader, do the organization a favor, don’t allow the founder to remain on staff. Consider giving the founder an emeritus role on the board, but don’t create a situation that will sap the collective energy of the organization because of political toxicity that could develop. And, if you’re a founder, if I can do it, you can do it. When the times comes that you need to step aside, do it. It doesn’t mean that you can’t create something else or figure out other ways to do what you love. Take your energy and what you’ve learned and channel it positively.