From Founder to Executive Director to Board Chair

Sections of this topic

    My response to an email from an Executive Director….

    You indicated that it is your “goal to eventually turn over all operations to [your VP] and assume a position as Board Chair … [so] that [you] might be able to continue to form the basic direction of the intended purpose of the organization.”

    Non-profit organizations go through distinct stages of “life,” much as we do. The first, which I refer to a the Childhood of an organization, is the period beginning with the (usually small) group of volunteers who have the “vision,” and where those volunteers do it all. They give of their hearts and their time, and often sacrifice to make it happen.

    In the final stage of an organization, which I call Maturity, the mission is clear and ingrained, Board Members are selected for their expertise in various areas that allow them to formulate/evaluate adherence to policies, oversee corporate finances, engage in strategic planning, and help to provide/obtain much of the funding for operations.

    The stage in between those two, the period of growth and painful change, I refer to as Adolescence. Part of what makes this period painful is that the 501(c)(3), in order to qualify to keep its IRS status — and probably its State non-profit status, must have a functional Board of Trustees.

    By law, it is the Trustees who are responsible for the proper operation of an NPO and for oversight of its mission, policies and finances. That raises the question of who gets to be Board Chair.

    Most State laws require a vote by Board Members (or members of the corporation — if you have such) to select officers. Most States also require term limits for Board Members, and for officers.

    I often note that the phrase, “Founder’s Syndrome,” is used in the context of describing what’s wrong with an organization. That “syndrome” is characterized by the founder acting to dominate/control the activities/mission of an organization.

    The law, however, gives that authority to the Board-as-a-whole — a Board that can change the organization’s mission with a (majority) vote. And a founder who “bullies” Board Members or doesn’t allow them to give all they can, creates an environment that weakens the NPO and doesn’t allow it to meet its potential.

    The very nature of a 501(c)(3) organization is that it meets the needs of its community as determined by a Board that represents that community.

    A large percentage of the horror stories told in the non-profit community involve a “founder;” but, there are also those founders (not all are evil) who are comfortable playing the limited role allowed by law. Either as Executive Director/CEO or as a Board Member serving a limited term.

    Like a child, NPOs also have to be allowed to grow — to change their nature — to mature. If someone (like a founder) with the vision can adapt to a changing world, the community benefits from that person’s wisdom and from an evolving NPO serving its needs.

    You’ve helped to create something of great benefit to your community…. But the hardest concept to accept is that a NPO is not the property of one individual, but of the community.

    And, again, “Who gets to be Board Chair?” — the person elected to that position by the other board members !!

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