Challenges for Boards: Founder Syndrome

The relationship between charity trustees and staff is critical.  When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t it can destroy the charity. There are a range of causes for these relationships breaking down, one of which is an issue that we’ve observed many times. Ownership, or more accurately the perception of ownership from the charity’s founder. So called ‘founder syndrome’.

The founder’s story
You may have observed the scenario.  One person with the energy, commitment and passion needed to get things started does what they do best – they get things done. Without their hard work and dedication there would not be a charity. Many people have benefited from their work and we should all be truly grateful that they had the vision to kick things off.  So far so good.  We need leaders to feel a sense of ownership but what happens if the founder continues to exhibit the same leadership styles once the charity is well established? Could the strengths of the founder become their Achilles heel?

Strengths and weaknesses
It’s helpful reflect on where the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, or indeed organisations, lie. In seeking to understand this we have found the core principles of the Lifo (Life Orientations) approach very helpful and enlightening:

An individual’s weakness is the overuse of their strength i.e. one’s strengths and weaknesses are the same

If a person’s key strength is their attention to detail, then the overuse of this strength can lead to a lack of vision or becoming bogged down in the minutia.  If energy and passion are a key strength, then overuse may cause the individual to be over-bearing, not listen or be closed to new ideas.

Relating this back to the charity, as the organisation grows and develops the skills required from the leaders will change.  With many organisations the founder can become the limit to growth. But how do we know?  How can we distinguish between the wonderful founder who’s doing a great job (either as CEO or as a Trustee) and the founder who is a limit-to-growth?

Symptoms of founder syndrome

At the Trustee Fellowship we have observed many charity leadership teams (Trustees & Executives) working well together with power suitably balanced across the roles.  We have also observed over-controlling ways of working that suggest founder syndrome. In the mildest case we observe the founder dominating discussion. In the more serious examples it can be manifest in bullying towards other trustees or employees.

A question of legacy

Whether a trustee or a CEO, we are in our role to support the beneficiaries of the charity.  The charity will exist after we have moved on, so a key question for each of us to ask is:

What kind of charity will we leave?

This encourages us all to ask not only the ‘what’ question but to also address the ‘when’ question.  As a trustee this is particularly important as our tenure should be determined by terms of office. What will we hand over and when?


As a charity trustee or charity employee we do not own anything in the charity. Rather, we are entrusted with the assets of the charity for a limited time and required to use these assets to serve the charity’s beneficiaries in the best way that we can. At some point we will be required to hand back the assets. If we are witnessing an imbalance of power consistent with founder syndrome then we have a responsibility to call this out.

Many trustees seek external support to work through the issues and achieve an agreed way forward, others feel comfortable taking on the challenge internally.  Whatever your chosen way forward, an imbalance in power is not helpful and is likely to detract from a focus on the charity’s beneficiaries.

Trustees need to be courageous and prepared to address challenging issues.  Perceived ownership and an imbalance of power is one of these issues.

Good luck!

Nigel Kippax