“Your Own” Nonprofit: The Language of Founder’s Syndrome

Be Mine

November 17, 2012; Source: CBS-Detroit

At first glance, it’s not particularly newsworthy that a Detroit nonprofit hosted a half-day seminar on starting a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The organization offering the Detroit training session was the Minerva Education and Development Foundation (MEDF), which identifies itself as the Detroit alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. The MEDF was founded in 1992 and has distributed over $300,000 in grants, scholarships and sponsorships, according to its website. Its mission is “…to focus and drive charitable giving to support philanthropic initiatives in the areas of educational and economic development.”

This group’s seminar was picked up by CBS-Detroit with the headline, “Starting Your Own Non-profit Subject Of New Seminar.” Such a headline sends an unfortunate message, implying than an individual or a small group can have their “own” nonprofit. By law, nonprofits are “owned” by no one. Instead, nonprofits are “owned” by the community at large and operated for the public benefit in trust by their boards, staffs, and volunteers.

The individual who starts a nonprofit is often visionary, entrepreneurial, and motivated to help the community. At the same time, that individual needs to understand that the nonprofit form of corporation, including its vision, values, and mission, can’t be “owned” by one person. If this isn’t clearly understood from the outset, sometimes these organizations and their founders encounter difficulties related to what’s known as “founder’s syndrome.” Founder’s syndrome occurs when an “owner’s” wishes and perspectives supersede organizational needs and community needs.

We support the concept of educating those interested in starting a nonprofit organization. It’s a serious undertaking. It should be approached with deliberate effort, a willingness to involve others, and a passion for mission balanced with a humility in understanding that there is a lot to learn from a variety of people and sources. People seeking to start “their own” nonprofit begin from a disadvantaged position in a competitive marketplace. –Michael Wyland

  • Michelle Nusum

    When I faciliate workshops for would-be nonprofit founders, I often find myself disappointing about 50% of the group very early on when I inform them that in starting a nonprofit they do not become an owner. I specifiy that no one can own it. I also inform them that they can be “voted off the island”. This is usually when I see their jaws drop. Then I bring them back by reminding them that in starting a nonprofit it is about the mission, the work, and their desire to do good. It should not be about their desire to get rich or not have to work anymore (yes, I’ve heard that one!).

    I feel it is critically important to the sector to weed out those who want to start a nonprofit for the wrong reasons as soon as possible. I urge anyone who wants to be an “owner” or “get rich” to consider starting a for-profit. Most are happy to hear that they have that option. Then they ask about getting a grant to start their for profit.

  • Frank Martinelli

    Michael, Thanks very much for your column and Michelle, thanks for your comment. Just when we’re beginning to figure out Founder Syndrome, its roots, and ways to address it and prevent it, the seeds of another generation of founders with founders syndrome are being inadvertently planted. While we don’t want to be guilty of hanging on one ill chosen word, there really is such power in the pronouns people use. I’m suspect when I hear a founder (or for that matter any Executive Director) say “my nonprofit”, “my staff”, “my mission”. I’m ready to listen up when I hear them talking with real passion about “our nonprofit”, “our staff”, “our mission”. And who does “our” refer to? – The board, the customer, the community we’re presuming to serve.

  • Heidi Johnson

    As one of the founders of a non-profit, which provides non-denominational chaplains to Childrens Hospital LA, I am often asked about how does one start such an organization? My response is always this, with 1.9 million non-profits in the United States alone, do not reinvent the wheel.

    People should be leveraging and partnering with other struggling small non-profits before attempting to begin another. If there is not a 501c3 that is supporting your specific cause, then get as many people as you can to start the process because it takes a village of compassionate people to make it happen.

  • Joe gilliom

    Great point. Wish there were a platform for potential board members to better understand this. In addition they
    ((Board members) will be involved as a team so founders do not feel so independently attached.
    The founders syndrome has the catch 22 of feeling like the only one committed to 100%