A Note on Founder’s Syndrome

This is a time of major change in my life. I am changing jobs—going from one full-time job in the social service field to a couple of part-time jobs in education. I have left the board of an organization that I co-founded with a few friends. My youngest living child has started high school. My oldest is starting college. Transitions like these are similar to walking a tightrope over a chasm with spikes at the bottom.

There’s this balance you try to manage. How much help should I provide and how much room should I leave for my children to make mistakes? How much information should I give and how much should I not say so that people feel free to explore their own vision? Can I offer some advice without someone taking it personally? If I think X is a huge mistake based on my experience with Y, should I say something or leave it alone and hope it turns out for the best? Do they even want my opinion?

I now have 19 years of parenting experience as well as education in child and human development. Despite this, watching my daughter spread her wings is a challenge. She has grown into a beautiful, responsible adult and that comes with a mix of pride and discomfort. I’m not entirely sure how much she still needs me. My gut tells me that she still does need me, but the needs are changing and I should just roll with it.

I also have more than 15 years of experience working on, for, and with nonprofit boards. I have seen numerous founder transitions and know that they almost always come with a hefty dose of tension and hurt feelings. I confess that I’ve been guilty of thinking that founders just ‘couldn’t let go’ when they tried to provide information to help the new board. It’s a little odd to be on the other side of that particular coin.

The truth is that letting go of an organization you’ve founded is much like watching your children grow up and move away. You want to help. You want to make sure that all of the relevant information has been offered (Don’t take toast out with a fork. Remember that the organization has had this discussion before.), and at the same time, you want to let things take their own course. Growth and change are good things. You know this.

Yet, at some point, you realize that your opinion and your information isn’t really wanted and may not even be welcome. Anything you say will translate to “You don’t know what you’re doing or talking about” regardless of how and when you say it. Someone will fire back with “Well, you didn’t do things the right way, either!” Just as it’s hard to swallow this from the growing child who you know honestly needs and deserves the chance to do things their own way, it’s hard to realize that what some folks mean by “Thanks for all of your hard work” is “We’ll take it from here.”

Where things get dissimilar is the after. You know as a parent that your child will always need you in some way. They’ll get their first major job or they’ll have kids or their bank will charge them a fee they don’t understand and they’ll call on you. Even if they never come home, they’ll always come home.

The things that you’ve built or molded or created, in past jobs and volunteer efforts will either move on without you or disappear entirely. They will never come home. To the people moving forward, this is exciting. To the founder, it feels a lot more like grieving than growing.

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