How do we ensure that the organization thrives after the founders depart?

At each stage of an organization’s lifecycle , the potential for a leadership crisis exists. Making a smooth transition to the next stage calls for all volunteer leaders not just the founders to acknowledge the challenges of becoming older. At some point, others have to realize that they must become the bearers of the founders vision and facilitate the renewal process or watch the organization stumble through old age and eventually die.

The passion, creativity, and sheer energy that founders typically bring to an organization in its youth can propel it forward for years. But they will not always be around, whether by choice or by circumstance. What’s essential is to have understandings and policies in place so that, when the day of departure arrives, both board and staff can continue to fulfill their respective roles without pause, with no one experiencing any hard feelings.

Here are some suggestions:

Reinforce the different roles. If founders are also board members, they must remember to wear their “governance hat” to board meetings and not become involved in operational details that, in the past, were near and dear to their hearts. The founders emotional attachment to the organization complicates this task, requiring other board members to emphasize the delineation of board and staff responsibilities.

When appropriate, carve out a special role for the founders. You might, for example, name them to an advisory council or engage their expertise in some other unique capacity . Resist the temptation to create a “founder” position on the board. This puts the chief executive in the position of feeling as if every operational decision is second guessed or questioned and that his or her predecessor is also one of his or her “bosses.”

Most important, establish clear guidelines and procedures. Having board-approved systems in place ensures continuity when a transition occurs. The founders can feel secure knowing that the organization they worked so hard to create is still in good hands and will continue to do good work.

In addition, established procedures help in situations in which the founders may have trouble letting go. Founders who must adhere to the same rules and standards as everyone else in the organization will not have the authorization to spend its money, enter into contracts, or hire and fire a chief executive without others approval.

In the final analysis, no one owns a nonprofit organization. People will come and go over the years, with some leaving a bigger mark than others.


1. Chief executive, engage a volunteer to write or update the organizational history, to ensure that founders feel valued and acknowledged.

2. Board members, consider hiring a coach or consultant to work with each founder to develop a personal plan for how and when to leave the organization.