Founders and Other Gods (Apr 04)

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How many times have we heard an organization’s founder referred to as a problem? On the one hand we love and admire the drive and passion of our founders and on the other hand they sometimes make life so hard for those around them. Little wonder. In their paper entitled Practical People, Noble Causes, Stephen Thake and Simon Zadek describe entrepreneurs, or those we might normally think of as founders:

“Entrepreneurs are analytical in that they can identify deficiencies in systems. They are eclectic and borrow concepts from other disciplines to devise solutions. They are no respecters of the status quo. They are often seen as irritants and trouble-makers, for they are typically magpies, drawing ideas and practices from one part of society into another, remoulding society in new and imaginative ways in the process. At times of change they are seen as catalysts with an independent existence.”

There is no surprise that some of these characters might spell trouble within a growing organization.

I was also recently struck by a research paper entitled “Social Entrepreneurship and Social Transformation: An Exploratory Study” produced by the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. They looked at seven very high impact projects projects that had produced significant political, economic, or cultural change in their environments and the founders had stayed involved over extended periods — in one case for 50 years.

Founders are clearly very important to nonprofits, just as entrepreneurs are to the business sector. For this reason, I am glad to pass along a wonderful article called “Founders and Other Gods,” by Deborah Linnell, from the Spring issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly. It is one of the best discussions of the ups and downs of founders I have yet read.

We would, as always, love to hear what you think about this article. How much of it rings true and what would you add or argue with? We’d love, especially to hear from founders, themselves.