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PND Talk: Founder's Dilemma

March 14, 2014

In the fourth installment of our PND Talk series (you can find the others herehere and here), Anonymous outlines a situation with which too many nonprofit executive directors are familiar: the founder who can't or won't relinquish the reins of an organization or agency that has outgrown his or her capacity to manage it.

Fortunately for Anonymous, our late, good friend (and all-around wise person) Carl Richardson was on hand to help and responded with some practical advice that surely must have helped. But see what you think. And then use the comments section at the bottom to share your thoughts and advice....

Founders_dilemmaHELP. I'm working with a great organization that is experiencing a huge growth spurt -- and approaching a total budget of nearly $1 million. But the founder is still "running the show" as if it were a tiny volunteer-driven operation. He inserts himself into everything, from giving staff directives, to changing information on the Web site, to starting new programs without consulting with anyone. Basically, he is an extremely impulsive person and is unable or unwilling to hand the agency over to a professional staff (though he claims otherwise).

A few months ago I stepped in as ED with a twelve-month contract. But despite the fact that we've made some amazing progress, I am not sure I can "save" the organization -- and am beginning to believe I helped create a monster.

We have plenty of board members who are willing to roll up their sleeves, and new blood willing to help. But through his actions, the organization's founder makes it clear that he is in charge, and after a while people get discouraged and become unwilling to engage.

This founder was the sole support of the agency for nearly a decade, and I understand and appreciate his commitment and compassion. Yet the agency has grown beyond his capacity to run - and not just because he has a business to operate as well.

I have dealt with difficult founders before, and I hate to walk away. But I fear for its future -- and my reputation!


There is an old saying, "Never try to teach a pig to sing." The reason is because it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

I'm not sure there is anything you can do to either stop your founder or "save" your organization. In your founder's mind, the organization is still his. He still enjoys the adrenaline rush that comes with making decisions and giving orders. He's still "having fun" running the organization.

Looking at it from his point of view, your founder runs his own business to make a living...and to be the "guy in charge." He's governed to some extent by the ebb and flow of income -- if he gets out of the way and lets everyone do their job, he makes money; if he doesn't, he loses money. If he makes erratic decisions without paying attention to their implications, he also loses money. Simple.

In the nonprofit world, your founder doesn't have that kind of control. He put together the organization's first board (he reads that as "hired" the first board). He either dreamed up or found people to dream up the programs or otherwise respond to the problem he sought to address. It doesn't matter whether or not he actually created the programs -- in his mind, he found the solution and it is "his solution."

He has spent his career being the guy in charge. Do you really think he'll settle for anything less with a charitable organization he started just a few years ago? The nonprofit is a testament to his benevolence, his generosity, his altrusim and compassion. Based on your descriptions of his actions, I don't think he can walk away from that.

You have to help your founder make a leap of faith. You have to show him he can be the guy in charge by getting out of the way and allowing the organization to grow and find its own path.

Now for the hard part: You have to decide how badly you need this job. If you can walk away from it, then here's what you should consider doing:

1. Make a list of how the organization's services, programs, and revenue are being compromised by your founder's decisions.

2. Get some facts and figures about the negative impact he is having on the organization -- missed grant opportunities because you were chasing something down for him, a board member who left because of him, etc.

3. Gather all this together in a coherent business document.

4. Arrange to meet with him, and set aside a couple of hours for the meeting. Don't try to do this in fifteen minutes.

5. Lay the facts out before him. Gently explain to him how he might personally suffer from his actions (e.g., if the institution becomes embroiled in controversy, or it fails to fulfill promises/commitments he has made).

6. Offer him something bigger than mere participation in the day-to-day activities of the organization. Create a position for him that offers prestige, the possibility of action, and decision-making responsibilities. For example, ask him to head up a strategic planning committee, then plunge into an active strategic planning process. Don't say, "But we've got organizational plans already." You won't have plans if the organization implodes before your eyes.

7. Beforehand, arrange with the board to have a special ceremony to honor him.

8. Give him ninety days to change his behavior. Don't try to intervene when he falls off the wagon; just observe.

9. If at the end of ninety days your founder has not made honest attempts to modify his behavior, relinquish your position with the organization. This is not a fight you can win. He will continue to hamstring and "save" the organization until he has either exhausted his fortune or exhausted the organization's ability to serve a charitable purpose.

My guess is that it will not come to your having to quit. What's more likely to happen is that sometime over the next six to eight months someone close to him (e.g., a friend, your board chair, his spouse) will talk to him and get him to see he's killing the organization.

I mention all this to help you prepare for the worst case. Only one person can manage an organization. Lots of people at all levels can fill leadership positions, lots of people at all levels can help make strategic decisions. But only one person can be "the guy (or lady) in charge." It's either you or the founder. Be prepared when the board picks the founder, regardless of his flaws.

I spend a lot of time working with organizations whose founder can't make the turn, so to speak. In most cases, the consequences are not pretty: staff turnover, chronic lack of quorum at board meetings, poor fundraising results, declining staff morale, etc. I'm the guy they call in those situations, and sometimes I'm able to help.  And sometimes there's nothing anyone can do.

Good luck, and let me know what happens.

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