From Founder to Executive Director

Dear Kim:

I am the founder and president of a nonprofit. We are talking about the need for an executive director. I am the natural candidate for that paid position but I worry about going from president to being employed by the very people I have been working with on a volunteer basis. Any insights?


Dear Nervous:

I can see why you are jittery, as a situation like this has the potential to be difficult. However, I have often seen these situations work out very well, if you are sure that you want to be the executive director and are clear about what that job entails.

The secret of success is easy to say and hard to do: although you are the founder and president, and you may become the executive director, you are NOT, and I repeat, NOT, the owner of this organization. The organization needs to have an identity that is not only bigger than you, but is separate from you. Further, the transition you will make is a transition for everyone. The other board members have to get used to having staff, having a different board president, and having you in a staff position. You will have to get used to letting the new board president run the meetings and manage the board, and you have to get used to working for the board. Where these situations go wrong is when everyone defers to you and looks to you for all direction and leadership. You can still lead and still put forward your ideas, but make sure the vision and mission of the organization are created, implemented and shared by everyone in the organization. Don’t expect the transition to happen overnight and make sure you and the board members build in time to discuss the process of making this transition, so it is as smooth as possible and so that problems are raised immediately and handled quickly. I would also discuss your fears with the other board members now, before you take on this job, and see what concerns or misgivings everyone else has. Keep things out in the open and you will all be able to resolve the issues that are likely to come up.

I would also suggest bringing in some new board members who you did not know before. They will then relate to you as the executive director, having never known you in any other capacity. This will help everyone do the same.

Finally, read all you can about Founders Syndrome so you can avoid it. Your transition will go smoothly if you know how to avoid the rough spots.

Good luck and enjoy your new job!

~Kim Klein