Overcoming NGO Founder Syndrome: What Leadership Teams Can Do

January 2024

When international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) achieve success and growth, the phenomenon known as Founder Syndrome can be a considerable challenge behind the scenes. This phenomenon, involving an organisation’s over-reliance on its founder, is not confined to the nonprofit sector, but it is quite common in this area – and can be hard to overcome. In this post, we’ll look at what founder’s syndrome means for NGOs and how these organisations can begin to move past this challenge.

NGO Founder Syndrome occurs when the leader of the organisation, typically the founder, becomes overly entrenched in decision-making processes, hindering adaptability and stifling the growth of the team. When leadership is resistant to delegation, innovation, or fresh perspectives, it poses real challenges for the organisation and jeopardizes the future of its mission.

Transparent leadership is an essential component of good governance in an NGO. However when a leader is very passionate about their organisation and falls into Founder Syndrome, this can often get lost in translation. 


Founders often feel that they know what’s best for their organisation – even over the rest of the leadership team, their partners and collaborators, and external influences. When they refuse to allow any delegation of responsibilities, or cause conflict by being too rigid with their opinions, it can be very difficult for the rest of the team to progress.

While this can be a difficult area to navigate, it’s important to face Founder Syndrome head on and work towards a better understanding together. Here are some ways to tackle it.
Implementing robust leadership development initiatives can empower key team members, fostering a culture of collaboration rather than having all the power in one person’s hands. By investing in the professional growth of the leadership team, NGOs can mitigate the risk of Founder Syndrome and allow their team to prosper at the same time.
Establishing clear succession plans will ensure a smooth transition of leadership responsibilities when the founder steps down. NGOs can benefit from identifying and nurturing emerging leaders within the organisation. It may even help to have the founders involved in this process, so they feel a sense of control and influence over the future of their NGO.
Seeking external guidance through advisory boards can offer valuable insights and prevent insular decision-making by founders. These advisory boards can act as an independent third party to bounce ideas off, and to offer advice to teams who feel their voices aren’t being heard effectively.

Transparent communication between leadership and the broader team is crucial in every organisation, not just NGOs. Regular updates, town hall meetings, and open forums can foster an inclusive atmosphere where everyone feels heard and valued.


While these are just some of the primary ways to mitigate Founder Syndrome, be sure to build a strategy that works for your own team with more detailed approaches. Overcoming NGO Founder Syndrome requires a strategic and holistic approach. Remember to tread carefully and respect everyone’s perspectives – an NGO only function effectively with transparent and democratic processes.

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