In this Gawker polemic against Bard college, an expensive liberal arts school author Leah Finnegan attended for two years before transferring to a public university in the South, Finnegan argues that the fates of eccentric, longstanding college president Leon Botstein and the college itself are linked: “When Leon dies, Bard will perhaps die as well.” In other words, she suggests that Bard, like so many non-profits, suffers from Founder’s Syndrome.
Founder’s Syndrome occurs when a single individual or a small group of individuals bring an organization through tough times (a start-up, a growth spurt, a financial collapse, etc.). Often these sorts of situations require a strong passionate personality – someone who can make fast decisions and motivate people to action.Once those rough times are over, however, the decision-making needs of the organization change, requiring mechanisms for shared responsibility and authority. It is when those decision-making mechanisms don’t change, regardless of growth and changes on the program side, that Founder’s Syndrome becomes an issue. We see this most frequently with organizations that have grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a $12 million community powerhouse, while decisions are still made as if the founders are gathered around someone’s living room, desperately trying to hold things together.
Founder’s Syndrome isn’t necessarily about the actual founder of an organization. The central figure could be the person who took over from the founder. It could be someone who took over in a time of crisis, and led the organization to clear waters. Or it could just be someone who has been at the helm forever. The “founder” could be the CEO. Or it could be a board member, or a handful of board members who have either been there since the beginning or have ridden the organization through tough times.
But the main symptom of Founder’s Syndrome is that decisions are not made collectively. Most decisions are simply made by the “founder.” All other parties merely rubber stamp what the founder suggests. There is generally strong resistance to any change in that decision-making, where the Founder might lose his/her total control of the organization. Boards of these organizations usually don’t govern, but instead “approve” what the founder suggests. Planning isn’t done collectively, but by the founder. And plans / ideas that do NOT come from the founder usually don’t go very far.
Partly because Leon “hates money,” Finnegan argues, Leon’s school, despite tuition hikes, is hanging on by a thread.