“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


Michael Wyland

Michael L. Wyland, CSL, has more than thirty years of experience in corporate and government public policy, management, and administration. An expert on nonprofit governance and public policy issues, he has been featured and quoted extensively in media including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, Washington Post, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and The Nonprofit Quarterly. He currently serves as an editorial advisory board member and contributor to The Nonprofit Quarterly, with more than 100 articles published since 2012. Michael is a partner in the consulting firm of Sumption & Wyland. Founded in 1990, the firm provides board governance consulting, public speaking and training, and executive coaching to nonprofit organizations. Sumption & Wyland has assisted more than 200 nonprofits with strategic planning services from pre-retreat research to staff-level implementation assistance and effectiveness monitoring. Speaking topics include board-CEO partnerships, nonprofit executive transition issues, and overviews of the nonprofit sector of the US economy. Michael was born in Washington, DC and raised in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Prior to co-founding Sumption & Wyland, Michael managed the computer operations for an independent oil & gas investor in Dallas, Texas and served as a staff assistant to a U.S. Representative. During his college years, he spent one summer working at the US Department of Labor and one summer working at the US Department of Justice. His past volunteer service includes various leadership positions at the local, state, and national level with the Young Republicans. He has been the secretary and president of a condominium homeowners association and the treasurer of a professional association serving computing professionals. He served as a Trustee and Vice President of Sertoma Foundation, and has been elected president of his local Sertoma club twice. In 2014, Michael was elected Chair of the South Dakota Commission for National and Community Service (Serve SD), on which he has served since its founding in 2011. He is currently working as a senior advisor to establish a national charity dedicated to the elimination of prejudice, expanding the scope and reach of the 120-year old Pi Lamba Phi fraternal organization. Michael's writing for NPQ often addresses healthcare policy and governance, scandals involving nonprofits, and the governance and policy implications of nonprofit stories in the news. He was widely quoted and cited for his work analyzing the governance issues related to the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State/Second Mile scandal in 2011. More recently, he has written more than 30 pieces for NPQ relating to the IRS scandal. In addition, he presented a paper at the national 2014 ARNOVA Conference about the IRS scandal and its implications for regulation of political activity by nonprofit organizations. Michael lives in Sioux Falls, SD with his wife, Margaret Sumption, and their dog. They have one adult son. In his leisure time, he likes to read histories and biographies, play golf, cook, and be a companion to his wife.

  • 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%