Many nonprofit founders struggle with the decision of what to do once the startup is launched. The basic options are to join the board (often as chairman) or fill the executive director position. The differences between the two options are far more significant than just whether they are paid for their work. The power balance and responsibilities of the roles are quite disparate, and founders need to be realistic about which role will do the most for the organization, not just for themselves.
Generally, nonprofit board members are not paid for their work, but that doesn’t mean their workload is light! The nonprofit board is responsible for all governance of the organization — setting policy, developing the strategic plan, managing the executive director — but they are also primarily responsible for sustaining the financial needs of the business.
Board members must be very comfortable dealing with the “big picture” and staying out of the details. They must be willing (eager is better) to spend an inordinate amount of time networking. And not just the easy networking with folks they already know, but the intensive shake-and-howdy with targeted individuals required to solicit and secure funds for the nonprofit. They must be extremely articulate and possess a deep understanding of what the organization is trying to do and how they are trying to get it done. Board members are the public face of the organization and must always be ready to represent in a positive light.
Executive directors are in the trenches of the organization. The leadership skills required of the top staff position lean more toward classic business fundamentals. They must be comfortable with the planning, marketing, and financial management basics every business needs. Their time and task management skills must be outstanding to stay on top of all aspects of the nonprofit. Their communication skills must be superb as well — it is up to the executive director to ensure that the board has the information they need to effectively govern.
Many founders are eager to take on the role of executive director in order to stay involved with the day-to-day activities of the nonprofit. Even if they are the most passionate about the operations, it is critical that they acknowledge the importance of business fundamentals in that position. For founders who elect to hold a board position instead, it is critical to trust the staff to handle the details of operations. A board members’ role is at a higher, “big picture” level than the executive director. Confusion on this distinction tends to lead to serious trouble with Founder’s Syndrome.
Founder’s Syndrome is a real threat to a growing nonprofit. This phenomenon occurs when the founder attempts to maintain complete control of every aspect of the organization. FYI, for-profit businesses frequently run in to comparable problems, but in those cases only the founder himself is affected…and most often doesn’t ever realize what the problem is! In the nonprofit sector, Founder’s Syndrome leads to obvious difficulties — it is harder to find quality board members, harder to draw significant donors, harder to acknowledge and implement needed changes in the policies, programs, or operations.
The best way to avoid the slippery slope of Founder’s Syndrome is to acknowledge the necessity of stepping back once the nonprofit is launched and choosing a role within the organization that fits the founder’s skills, interests, and personality.