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    A Founder’s Guide To Organizational Change At Animal Sanctuaries

    Two people pass off a baton from one to the other on a run.

    Common Founder Challenges

    You aren’t alone. Many founders have been in the position of having built something from nothing, using all the skills and passion at their disposal, and many of those same founders also experience emotional challenges and difficulty drawing healthy boundaries for themselves when it comes to their labor of love. The following are some examples of struggles founders commonly experience:

    • “They need me. I can’t leave.” 
    • “It’s selfish to leave. If I really cared, I would forgo a vacation.”
    • “What if something happens while I am gone?

    But here is why it’s critical for founders to take much needed vacations:

    1. Burnout is real. You can think, strategize and provide better care if you also take time to care for yourself.
    2. This gives the staff and board (or for microsanctuaries, trusted helpers in the community) the chance to experience running of the sanctuary without your presence. Your board and staff need to be able to practice running the sanctuary in case there is a time where you are unable to. This also gives everyone the chance to see where organizational and protocols may need improvement.
    3. It sets a good example. Staff often feel the pressure to consistently sacrifice their own needs in order to care for the residents. However, they need breaks and lives outside of the sanctuary as well. They’ll be more able to keep working at the sanctuary if they can practice self care. Seeing the founder taking care of themself is good leadership, and conversely, staff are less likely to take care of themselves if they never see leadership doing so.
    4. Taking a break allows you to remember there is life outside of the sanctuary. Hobbies, trips, museums, and more all exist outside of the sanctuary bubble. Remembering this can help develop your sense of self outside of the sanctuary so when the time comes to delegate more duties to others, you will have this to fall back on. This can also help ease merged identities of the sanctuary and the founder.

    Now that we have discussed common experiences many founders face, let’s take a look at one of the most important things a founder can do to help ensure the stability and longevity of the sanctuary they have worked so hard to build: Succession Planning. 

    Succession Planning

    Succession planning is a critical aspect of sanctuary stability and an important responsibility for founders. It is never too early to start developing a succession plan. In addition to the many other benefits of a well-crafted succession plan, it can also help founders think about when and how they might choose to step back from sanctuary responsibilities, and have thoughtful discussions with the board regarding the vision for the sanctuary. From there, together founders and board members can discuss the ideal attributes the next “generation” of sanctuary leadership will embody for the ultimate growth and sustainability of the sanctuary. Read our full resource on succession planning here!

    Beware Of Founder’s Syndrome!

    You may have heard of the dreaded “Founder’s Syndrome” or “Founderitis”. It may sound like an insidious disease that creeps around looking for founders to infect. However, at its simplest state, Founder’s Syndrome merely refers to the understandable difficulty many founders experience when it comes time for organizational change, including the possibility of founders stepping down from their regular roles and responsibilities which they have generally held for a long time.

    Founder’s Syndrome is just a case of being human. Founder’s Syndrome is struggling to let go of control, harboring feelings that one knows best, fearing loss, feeling responsible for all aspects of care, and feeling the need to have the final word on any and every difficult situation that arises. In the beginning of a sanctuary’s organizational history, some of these traits are understandable. But as the sanctuary grows, so too will its need for other individuals, those with different strengths than those that it takes to start a sanctuary from the ground up. Some people shine at new and innovative ideas that will allow an established sanctuary to blossom and thrive, but they wouldn’t have been able to offer these innovations without the early efforts of the founder.

    The following are general symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome. See if you identify with any or all of them- and if you’re not a founder, think back to other times in your life where you may have experienced these feelings, because they’re quite universal! Remember: just because you can see yourself in these signs, it doesn’t mean you are experiencing full blown Founder’s Syndrome, or that you should feel judged or guilty. You are human, and it takes a lot to start a and grow a sustainable sanctuary. It also takes a lot to let go and let others step up!. It’s okay to have difficult feelings.

    Signs You May Be Struggling:

    • Micromanaging, or frequently needing to assess what members of staff or volunteers are doing, even if you’ve already checked or they’ve already demonstrated their aptitude for their role.
    • Frequently ignoring the ideas and opinions of others, or soliciting ideas from staff that never get implemented or discussed again.
    • Expanding the sanctuary’s board with members who are likely to simply agree with whatever you want to do, rather than providing a different perspective and a commitment to the sanctuary as a standalone organization.
    • Discouraging staff from taking initiative, sharing ideas, or providing feedback.
    • Being solely in charge of dispensing sanctuary resources.
    • Insisting on meeting with donors and stakeholders without other key staff present.
    • Attempting to manage every project and program even if you lack the ideal skills to make them as successful as they can be.
    • Making significant care, financial, and operational decisions without the input of board or qualified staff members.
    • Having promotional or educational materials that focus on you as an individual rather than on the sanctuary itself.
    • Preferring to be the first point of contact for the organization, even when another staff member would make more sense.
    • Representing your opinion to stakeholders as the consensus opinion of the organization.
    • Feeling you are the only one that can ever effectively manage the sanctuary.
    • Having no intention of ever stepping down.
    • Feeling threatened by new staff roles and ideas.

    Remember, there is no shame in experiencing difficult feelings surrounding change. Change is hard, and it’s okay to have challenging feelings. For the sake of yourself, the sanctuary, and everyone connected to it, recognizing when you are struggling and facing those struggles with the support of the board or your peers can make a big difference.

    Tips For Founders:

    Below are some ways to help you navigate the challenges that come from being a founder:

    1. Start succession planning early. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to start!
    2. Self-evaluate and address your fears. Take time to evaluate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Note any “red flags” that you may be struggling with, and seek support. Create a plan that proactively deals with all the things you (or the board) are concerned may happen when you leave. Are you afraid that you have been the strongest link to the community, or the public image of the organization? Determine a way to proactively deal with these challenges as a team.
    3. Choose board members based on their commitment to the sanctuary, not you as an individual. Ideally, the board will help expand the board themselves, but this can be a challenge in the beginning. Carefully choose a board member or two who are truly dedicated to the mission of the sanctuary, and allow them to recruit other board members.
    4. Be open to change. Change is hard, but inevitable. Allowing room for others to pick up the torch and run with it is an important part of any organization’s growth.
    5. Practice Self Care. Try to be gentle with yourself. Take breaks, seek out a hobby and a support network outside of the sanctuary. Consider therapy to help you through periods of adjustments. Asking for help takes a lot of strength!
    6. Start small, but delegate. Give enthusiastic staff members the opportunity to handle sanctuary responsibilities, and support their efforts where you can without micromanaging.
    7. Know when to let go. It’s okay to feel sad or anxious and to grieve your role at the sanctuary you built. Let yourself feel these things. Just don’t let them stop you from taking important transitional steps.
    8. Clarify roles and responsibilities of board and staff, especially in transition periods when creating or expanding staff positions.
    9. Establish checks and balances so that one person doesn’t hold veto power over the entire board or staff. No single person should have veto authority or lead on the appearance of having it.
    10. Listen carefully to feedback, both about the organization and your leadership. Solicit genuine feedback from your staff or volunteers, and try to make positive changes where warranted. Sometimes it can be valuable to specifically ask for “three positive pieces of feedback, three pieces of constructive feedback” from individuals, so they know they can be fully honest rather than trying to avoid causing hurt feelings and not providing an honest appraisal.
    11. Find peer support, either from those working at other animal-focused organizations, at other nonprofits, or just friends who have an idea of what you’re going through. Talking to folks who can relate to your struggles is highly valuable both for one’s mental health and to help find actionable solutions to difficult problems.
    12.  Let your baby grow up! You took the tough step of starting something amazing and nurturing it to this point, now give it the opportunity to flourish with the help of others who see the incredible organization it can become!

    Examples Of Difficult Scenarios Founders Face

    Below are few examples of scenarios founders may face, and suggestions of how to consider navigating these challenges:

    Devon started their sanctuary 21 years ago, but they are tired and ready to step down. Although they have worked with the board to develop a succession plan, they fear surprising and disappointing their board and supporters. It was an unspoken assumption that Devon would continue on as Executive Director, and only step down in case of a life emergency. It never occured to anyone to ask if Devon might want other things for their future. Because of this, they don’t know who might be interested in taking over their role as Executive Director.


    In order to cope with this situation, Devon and their organization’s board could take the following steps:

    1. Ensure honest and open communication channels: Devon was afraid to disappoint their board and supporters by even talking about stepping down, which has created the situation above. While their concerns are valid and understandable, facing those fears now and talking about them will help ensure the sanctuary is in a good space when Devon can no longer serve as Executive Director.
    2. Facilitate more communication about the Executive Director role: It would be preferable to start early, working with the board to create job descriptions for the Executive Director role and the type of skills and personality you think would be a good fit for the next Executive Director (as this next ED will require a substantially different skillset than a founder may need to possess). Devon should start communicating with the board as soon as possible to get this process going.
    3. If applicable, the sanctuary could consider investing in a staff member that has the potential and willingness to take on the Executive Director role someday. Sanctuaries have sought this solution by hiring on a staff member with the transparent communication with the board and staff that this individual may step into the Executive Director role in the future. This also gives the current Executive Director and board time to get to know this individual and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, rather than making them jump right into an executive role.
    4. Get peer and professional support. This is a challenging process for anyone. Devon should reach out to peers and counselors to help them work through difficult emotions and offer helpful feedback. Having this support can help Devon make more skillful decisions about the organization and their future, rather than reactive decisions based on fatigue or burnout.


    This is a tough space to be in for everyone. Jerome could take some of these steps to prevent this from becoming a contentious issue that may negatively affect the sanctuary:

    1. It would be helpful for Jerome to self-reflect and identify any fears of loss he might be experiencing. Discussing those openly with a trusted friend, mental health professional, or the board, could help him get the support he needs and prevent regrettable confrontations.
    2. Developing a succession plan earlier on would have been preferable, with plans for others to bring in their skills and experiences while Jerome slowly took on different roles to help the sanctuary succeed. However, much like planting a tree, the second best time for succession planning is today. In Jerome’s case, this should include a discussion of the land the sanctuary operates upon and how that will work out when Jerome eventually transitions to another role.
    3. Jerome should work closely with the board to write out job descriptions for future staff and the role of Executive Director to help identify staff needs and feel like he’s a trusted part of the sanctuary’s future development.


    Founder’s Syndrome: A Personal And An Organizational Issue | Leading Transitions

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