When Founders Stick Around

I shared a story about a board that needed to become more professional in how they chose board officers. From its founding, the organization was very casual about how who stepped into leadership. As a result, they did not always get individuals best suited for each role. And, they discovered that a casual process can create uncomfortable situations.

Organizations and boards go through stages as they grow and mature. The way things are done and the roles people have change over time. In this post, I share a story from an individual who was the second Executive Director of an organization and her challenges dealing with the Founding ED and Emeritus board members who resisted change. In her lessons learned, she calls on boards to act.

Are Your Organization’s Founders Undermining Progress?

From a board member somewhere in the US

The organization was a small ethnic-based organization helping with domestic violence. The community we served was mostly first-generation immigrants. I was the second Executive Director. The Founder, who was the first ED, was still very involved. People would bow to the Founder – they used an honorific name to show admiration — Teacher. Because in our culture, being a learned person was the highest rank.

New ED and Board Chair Brought in to Professionalize the Organization

The organization was trying to grow up. They brought on a new Board Chair who had lots of experience with nonprofit boards. She knew the professional way for boards to run.

They hired me to be ED because I am completely fluent and natural in the English-speaking world. I was born in our home country but came here when I was small. I went to a good college and a good grad school. They needed someone who could meet people and raise money. Also, the new Board Chair was trying to change the culture. She and I were a good team.

My job was difficult and amazing. I had to do everything from cleaning the toilet to paying the taxes. The good part of the job was working with the families. And the staff were great. While I was ED, I doubled the fundraising, doubled the staff, got state and federal grants.

Founders Have a Different Mindset and Impeded Progress

The hardest part was that I had to deal with two bosses – the Board Chair and the Founder who could not walk away. There were 1.5 staff people when I started. They wanted to call me by a respected title. But I just wanted to be called by my name. I wanted to get away from the traditional ways of doing things and to professionalize the organization. The Board had the idea that the staff were like nuns who took a vow of poverty in order to do good. As a result, they underpaid the staff. I came in with a different mindset. There was a culture clash between the Founder and some of the long-time board members and me.

My first week I had a meeting with the Founder at the offices to learn about the history and all the things that were going on. She talked to me in our native language using the words you would use for a servant. She ordered me around. She did that for weeks. Then I very politely asked her not to talk to me like that. She got up and left and gave me the silent treatment for a while.

I kept my head down. And with the staff, we did the work. But there was always this drama of the Founder’s special needs. Even though we did not play along with all the proper obeisance. I worked long hours. Having the added emotional chaos was hard. It was hard on my family and hard on my husband.

The new Board Chair had a similar challenge because the past two Board Chairs were emeritus board members. They both had been Board Chair for a long time. Because of the respect they garnered, having them around made it hard to do new things. Other board members deferred to them. That was wrong. There is a place for past Board Chairs to serve the organization for sure. But not on the board itself. They have too much gravitational pull and take too much mental space. It makes it hard for the staff and new board members.

Now, years later, the Founder sings my praises. We are on another board together, so we were on equal footing. I became an officer of that board. And she was proud because someone from our community was an officer.

Lessons Learned

Protect the New ED from the Founder: The lesson I learned was to beware of the Founder. My advice to someone who is following the Founder — don’t take the job if you don’t have a lot of experience. I was really young. It was my first ED job. If I had the experience, I would have tried to put up a wall to protect me from the Founder. The board should have helped. I would advise the Board Chair or board in this situation to create a committee to deal with the Founder or put the Founder in a role that was separate from the new ED.

Find a Role for Former Board Chairs: Another lesson would be to find a way for highly respected, former Board Chairs and members to be connected that is not being on the regular board. They can still help the organization on committees, with connections.

4 Comments

  1. Lots to learn from and good advice here. Does not hurt to ask founder for advice often

  2. Carol Ryan

    Thanks Janet. This reminds newer board members to feel empowered while also learning from those who came before.

    1. Janet Levinger

      Good thought. It does go both ways.

  3. […] love to share good stories. After my last post (about a founding ED who would not let go), a reader reached out to me to share a very different […]

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