Founder's Syndrome

Most founders don't want to talk about. Many founders aren't even aware of it. But all founders of nonprofits will be susceptible to it at some point in time. It is a condition that has been appropriately, though somewhat painfully termed, Founder's Syndrome. It is a difficult condition for all involved parties, especially if everyone but the founder knows that it exists.

I am a Founder's Syndrome survivor. I have fought internal and external battles to ensure that I overcome it.  It is not a favorable condition, and it is not an easy one to admit having, nor to be cured of.

I don't have children, but I  have birthed a vision into the world to empower communities to work together against the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa. Since the age of 21, I have poured everything, and I mean everything, that I had into ensuring that the vision could become a reality. It was a 24/7 kind of job that didn't sleep, and so neither did I. It felt incredibly sacrificial and was genuinely satisfying. Whatever it took, I gave what I could. It defined me, it filled me, it fueled me and it guided me.

Like those who I have seen raise their children, there comes a time when the differentiation of child and parent happens. We all know that it must happen, and it is best for the child and hopefully ultimately for the parent as well. But the process is painful because it feels like a part of you is being cut off. The living, breathing, vibrant part of you. You are still the child's parent, but you have to start letting go.

About two years ago, I began a conversation with my board about Founder's Syndrome and ensuring that we, as an organization, are aware of its implications especially as we are growing. We have been on a slow and healthy process of taking the training wheels off. We have rotated off all of our founding board members after they faithfully served two terms of three years each, and have invited new voices into the board room. We have hired employees who come with new energy, different perspectives and a wealth of experience. We have spent a lot of time re-defining my role and Jars of Clay's role in ensuring that it aligns with the future growth and vision of the organization. There is inevitable grief involved as you watch your small start-up grow up, and as you continue to hand off responsibilities to people who can steward them better than you. It is humbling, difficult, painful even.  And yet, it is incredibly gratifying. And it is the right thing to do.

I am blown away by the quality of people who are serving this mission across Africa and here in the US. I am honored to have such an incredible team and, as a result, a very promising future for this mission. I am confident that if I had not made the conscious decision to let go and let others in, we would not be tasting the fruits of flourishing growth like we are today.

For anyone who is a founder or working with a founder, I highly recommend a resource provided by Board Source called Moving Beyond Founder's Syndrome to Nonprofit Success. For founders, may you find the courage toward self-awareness and change. And for those working with founders, may you give grace as they move through it.