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What About Nonprofits & Succession Planning?

Updated: May 28

At a recent speaking event, a CEO asked me what wisdom the Cultivating Impact 6-Step Method for Succession Planning mg nc might provide for nonprofits. As usual, I’ll answer with a true story...

Eric founded his own nonprofit. Working there was a joy. But when he handed it over to the person brought in to replace him, the organization floundered. It was then that Eric learned about “founders syndrome.”

Founders syndrome happens when a nonprofit organization centers around the founder excessively. This can hinder the growth, effectiveness, and sustainability of the nonprofit.

Some common symptoms of founders’ syndrome include:

  • Lack of delegation

The founder may have established the nonprofit and played a pivotal role in its early success. Delegating authority and responsibilities become a challenge as the organization expands. This causes a concentration of power in the hands of the founder, limiting the input and decision-making abilities of others.

  • Resistance to change

Founders often have a strong personal attachment to their organization and its original vision. They may be unwilling to accept changes, even if needed for the organization’s progress. This resistance impedes progress.

  • Lack of succession planning

Founder’s syndrome is often associated with a lack of succession planning. The founder may not have adequately prepared for their eventual departure or the transition of leadership to a new generation. This can create uncertainty, internal power struggles, and a leadership vacuum when the founder eventually steps down.

  • Difficulty building a strong board

Founders often surround themselves with people who are more loyal than independent. This limits the board’s ability to provide oversight, strategic guidance, and to hold the founder accountable.

  • Stifled professional development

Founder’s syndrome can impede staff development. The founder’s resistance to new ideas limits others’ leadership roles.

Eric accepted a leadership role at another nonprofit, working for its founder. But when the founder left, Eric was not chosen for the role, because he wasn’t a member of the organization’s denomination. He watched as the organization faltered and failed.

Determined to use his insights from leading two failed nonprofits, Eric accepted a leadership role at another one. This time had to be different.

Eric learned from his past mistakes. He realized he had not recognized his limitations, encouraged openness to change, and led in succession planning.

The nonprofit prospered wonderfully under his leadership, as Eric regularly used what he learned from the previous two failures. When a health issue forced him to plan his exit, he approached the board about hiring his successor.

For six months, Eric shadowed his successor, making himself available when he was needed. The new leader brought in some of his own people, multiplying their impact. Seeing the organization grow under the new leader felt good.

Like for-profits, non-profits also need succession planning. They too can follow the Cultivating Impact 6-Step Method for Succession Planning.

Step 1: Recognize Your Impact

  • Are your values, vision, and mission clear?

Step 2: Develop Your Business as Mission

  • What is the impact of the organization that makes it worth continuing?

Step 3: Build Your Team to Maximize Impact

  • Are all the right people in the right places to maximize their impact?

Step 4: Exchange the Baton

  • Is everyone on board for the next leader?

  • Is the Founder

    • letting go?

    • cheering on their successor?

    • giving up daily leadership?

    • staying in touch as the backup?

    • in a role that maximizes their leadership?

  • Is the new leadership honoring the founder?

Step 5: Multiply the Impact

  • Is your impact increasing?

Step 6: Finish Well

Continue to:

  • Increase income

  • Bless the community

  • Advance your purpose

  • Celebrate shared values and mutual commitment

Nonprofit leadership can be the most rewarding and difficult. Are you suffering from or because of founder syndrome? Email me at and tell me where you are in the process. I would love that!

Harry T. Jones

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