Urban Legends: The Founders Edition

It’s October, which means you can hardly walk down the street without seeing skeletons, ghosts and ghouls on front lawns and in store windows. Amusement parks and movie theaters host “Fright Fests” where people pay to be terrorized by the stuff of nightmares. But you know what keeps many nonprofit directors awake at night, giving them cold sweats and sending hair-raising chills down their spine?

Founderitis. This disease, also known as Founder’s Syndrome, is the most terrifying of all ailments to a nonprofit organization, and its cure is difficult to come by. For how do you handle a founder who is misunderstanding his or her role in an evolving organization? And even more frightening, if not diagnosed early and treated properly, the impact on the organization could be deadly.

Normally on our blog, we give you tips for how to handle situations and make improvements. But this is a paranormal blog. And our mission is simply to bring you true, bone-chilling tales of Founderitis—think of them as “Urban Legends from the nonprofit world.”

*The stories are true; the names have been changed. (And we may have taken a few creative licenses with the details for your entertainment…)

**For an even more chilling effect, experience the stories through our AUDIO CLIPS.

THE FOUNDER WHO REGENERATES

The scariest thing about the Terminator movies was that those cyborgs were impossible to eliminate (especially that liquid metal guy in T2). Long-time employees at The Skynet Foundation can relate.  At first, everything seemed normal. Their Founder, Sarah Conner, was the chairman of the board. But year after year after year, while other boards at organizations around them were refreshing, Sarah remained the chairwoman. It was as if she had drunk from the fountain of youth, except that she was really super old and not youthful at all. She just. Wouldn’t. Leave. Skynet started to stagnate, desperate for new leadership. (Someone who wasn’t afraid of “the interwebs” or insist that board meetings be held at 4:30 so she could be home in time for “The Wheel” and “Jeopardy!”)

So, the leadership team designed a nefarious plot to have her removed. But just as they were about to put their plan in motion, she whipped out… the bylaws!! The ironclad paperwork clearly stated her lifetime appointment. There was nothing they could do. Years later, Sarah finally passed away, and Skynet reveled in the opportunity to get new leadership. But the bylaws, like a bad dream, returned. And they dictated that once the Founder passed, her spawn would take over the chairmanship. FOR LIFE. Legend has it, Sarah’s final words were: “I’ll be back.”

THE FOUNDER WHO TERRORIZES

Maybe it was “all work and no play” that made this Founder go mad. Whatever the reason, Jack, the Founder of the Overlook Organization, had the employees there wishing he was “a very dull boy.” There was nothing unusual or out of the ordinary with Jack or his decision to step away from Overlook. However, a full year after Jack left the organization, it was as if he became possessed.

One day, a part-time employee of Overlook was working at her second job when her boss told her there was a call for her on the main line. When she picked up, Jack was on the other end, his voice cold and filled with rage. Before she could inquire as to what the call was about, he began screaming at her about how poorly she was doing her job for Overlook. When she hung up, she was visibly shaken. The calls continued. He stalked all of his former underlings at the organization, reprimanding each one for failing his company. By the time his raid of tyranny ended, they all dreamed of escaping to a deserted mountain lodge.

 

THE VENTRILOQUIST FOUNDER

Even the creators of the delightful Toy Story 4 agree: ventriloquists and their dummies are scary AF. This spooky tale supports such claims. The Founder of the Marionette Alliance, Edgar Bergen, was also the board chair and paid CEO. One day, Edgar announced he was hiring a new ED, Mortimer Snerd. While no one could quite put their finger on it, there was something off about the new hire. At first, it was little things, like the fact that his resume indicated no previous NPO leadership experience.

Then things got more eerie. Mortimer would start saying things—the exact same things—that Edgar had previously said, his eyes hollow and lacking emotional connection to the words. The employees got suspicious and decided to do some digging. One night, Mortimer was talking on the phone to a grant writer, but his voice sounded strange and distant. The employees searched the office, pulled back a curtain, and discovered Edgar, pulling the strings attached to Mortimer and talking about mission outcomes! It was then that the employees had the chilling realization: “The call was coming from inside the office…”

 

THE FOUNDER WHO SABOTAGES

Did you ever wonder how things might have been different for poor Drew Barrymore if only she didn’t answer the phone in Scream? Sydney Prescott, ED for the William Loomis Foundation, wondered the same thing about the donors who picked up the phone when Bill, the Founder, came calling. While she didn’t always see eye to eye with Bill, she thought they had a civil working relationship. Apparently, she was dead wrong.

While reviewing her Annual Giving Report, Sydney felt the blood drain from her body and her limbs begin to go numb. The numbers were far lower than she had anticipated. The bile rose in her throat. Where had she gone wrong? She tried to steady her trembling hands as she reached for her cell phone to call some of the donors whom she had expected to give. No one answered. Finally, someone picked up. “Sydney, I think you should know that Bill called me--called lots of people, actually. At first it seemed as if he just wanted to know if I liked scary movies, which was weird, but then it segued into whether or not I liked YOU. And that devolved into him telling me all the reasons he doesn’t.” The truth hit her like a dagger in the chest.  Sydney hung up the phone. And screamed.

 

THE FOUNDER WHO HAUNTS

The boy in the Sixth Sense saw dead people. He couldn’t escape them. They were everywhere.

Cole Sear, the ED of See Me, See You, felt the same way about Malcolm, the organization’s Founder. Malcolm was a great man, whom everybody loved. But when he left his NPO, people wouldn’t stop talking about him. They would go on and on about how much they missed “the good old days” when Malcolm was around, and how they lamented the way things were being done currently. And making things even harder for Cole was that Malcom kept hanging around, not in an official capacity, but in a, “just dropping in to say hi” way. No matter what Cole did, he couldn’t escape from Malcolm.

Then one morning, he arrived at the office to find a life-size portrait of the Founder hanging in the entry way. No one knew how it got there, and the overnight security camera footage was mysteriously scrambled. Founders can sometimes unwittingly haunt organizations even after they’ve gone. Living up the expectations of the departed can be rough. Especially if, (spoiler alert) like Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense, they don’t know they’re dead.

Some say it’s a figment of the imagination. That Founder’s Syndrome isn’t real. There’s no such thing as Founderitis. Well, we’ve seen evidence to the contrary, and what we’ve seen has frightened us to the core.

Does your Founder give you nightmares? Maybe it’s time to look for someplace new. Check out our current searches.

Are your board members starting to feel and act like Zombies? Maybe it’s time to get some coaching or plan a retreat.

Founderitis isn’t the only thing that can ail an organization. Need a diagnosis? We can help with your strategy needs.

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