Debra Allcock Tyler: Founder's syndrome - myth or reality?

Don't confuse the day-to-day battles and disagreements of the workplace with the 'bubonic plague' of this alleged syndrome

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

In my very, very long career in the voluntary sector I have frequently heard reference to this plague of destruction, this bubonic curse that is called "founder's syndrome". Apparently it begins innocently enough with someone caring passionately about a problem and putting their heart, soul, energy, wallet and often their home into setting up a charity to find a way to help solve the problem.

Because nothing great can be achieved alone, they set about finding folk to help them with money, premises and time. As they garner more support, they start to employ people who, of course, come with their own opinions about how the cause could best be served. Sometimes these don’t align with the views of the person who set up the charity. So then there are discussions, disagreements and so on, and eventually something happens. The protagonists agree or they don’t, changes happen or they don’t, and some folk move on and others don’t.

And that happens in all charities all the time, whether the founder is there or not. We have charities in the UK that are hundreds of years old and I can absolutely assure you that the same battles over direction and decisions occur even though the founder died years ago. People working together who care about something fall out. Of course they do. They’re supposed to. It’s just people being people. "You’ve been around too long" is a common refrain and a really silly one. I’ve known folk who have been at the same charity for years and it really works, and others where someone new has been "flown" in and they’ve been shockingly awful. Your effectiveness as a charity has nothing to do with how long anyone has been in post. It’s about your ability to align opinionated, disparate folk behind the common cause.

There are tens of thousands of incredibly important small charities in the UK that are able to achieve great things precisely because of the passion of the founder. In fact, folk who stick with a cause over time, especially a difficult one, are vital to our communities.

Don’t confuse tensions about strategic direction or the way the charity operates with who did or did not found it. If you’re failing to win an argument, consider that maybe that your argument isn’t strong enough or your persuading and influencing skills need work. Is it possible that you’re the one at fault?

Here’s the thing: without the founder there wouldn’t be a charity. We should honour and be proud of those citizens who take the reputational, professional and often financial risks they do to help others or to serve a cause. Are founders sometimes ignorant arses? Hell yes. But so are staff and trustees who are not the founders. Do they sometimes make bad decisions? Of course. So do you. Ask yourself, what gives anyone the right to say to a person who has poured their life and soul into something they care passionately about that they have a "syndrome" and should leave? Find a way to work with them, or walk away.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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