It takes a lot of strength, passion, and determination to make something out of nothing. This is what founders do. It is incredibly challenging work that founders generally throw themselves into wholeheartedly. And the work they do is quite admirable! After all, the global sanctuary community as it stands today wouldn’t exist without founders across the world stepping up to help be the change they’d like to see in the world.
Sometimes the same traits that make a founder so successful at starting a sanctuary, along with all the sweat, money, tears (and hopefully not too much blood) they pour into their vision, can make it difficult to transition out of the role of the main decision maker for the care needs of the residents and the overall operational goals for the sanctuary. We hope this resource acknowledges and shows gratitude toward the individuals who take on the daunting task of starting a sanctuary, while offering insight and actionable steps to help founders with the difficult task of letting go a bit and entrusting the continuance of their hard-won dream to others that have the necessary skills, vision, and drive to take their sanctuary to the next level.
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:
When the founder’s personal identity becomes enmeshed with the identity of the sanctuary, it can be a highly challenging situation. So much time and effort goes into the development of the sanctuary that founders often find it difficult to maintain an identity separate from the sanctuary. Maintaining a personal identity apart from the sanctuary can be incredibly important so that stakeholders, donors, and other community members can have confidence that the sanctuary can and will survive without solely relying on the founder. Founders can begin to disentangle the perception that they “are” their sanctuary by actively working to highlight the efforts of others involved with the sanctuary, including staff members, volunteers, the community, or even the residents. It truly takes a village, and the organization should actively show it!
Difficulty Letting Go
This is an especially tough challenge: After putting so much time and energy into the creation and operational aspects of the sanctuary, stepping down or allocating roles to other staff can cause founders to experience a sense of loss, feel less important, or as though their input won’t be considered moving forward. Acknowledging these difficult feelings and working closely and slowly with a board (or trusted individuals who can serve as advisors) to develop a succession plan and the hiring of new staff can help make these transitions easier.
It can also be quite the challenge to delegate important roles to staff and give them the space to take on these new responsibilities, especially when they have a different way of doing things. However, trusting others to try new ways of doing things can lead to organizational growth and stronger relationships with staff. Remember, everyone has their own set of strengths, and what a founder may only do adequately may be an area where a staff member can really shine!
Resisting Taking Necessary Breaks
Whether it be lack of time, money, or desire, taking a much needed vacation may feel impossible for founders. Founders may have difficult thoughts, such as:
- “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?
- “What will donors or staff members think if I take a break? Will they think I don’t care or I am lazy?”
- “I don’t want to take a break. I’m happy right here.”
But here is why it’s critical for founders to take much needed vacations:
- Burnout is real. You can think, strategize and provide better care if you also take time to care for yourself.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Career Uncertainty: What Now?
When you have spent so much time and energy establishing a sanctuary and ensuring it flourishes, stepping back from your work there can leave you with feelings of uncertainty of what to do next. Perhaps you are retiring and have plans. If not, it can be overwhelming to imagine what direction to take your professional life. It could be helpful to brainstorm with the board, close friends and family, and even a career development counselor or therapist.
If a founder does make the difficult decision to step back from a leadership role at the sanctuary, they can struggle with feelings of disloyalty. Stakeholders may have a strong connection to the founder, and founders may fear the sanctuary will lose their support once they leave. Developing a strong succession plan with the board and letting stakeholders know of their plans can help ease those feelings and set the sanctuary up for future success. Some founders use this transitional time as an opportunity to reach out to major donors to secure additional financial support during this important milestone in the nonprofit’s history.
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.
“Allowing someone else to take over something you have poured blood, sweat, and tears into is no easy task, but if your intention is to grow a self-sustaining and thriving organization, this is a necessary step in your growth. The greatest challenge in this step is finding the right person who shares your vision and can take it beyond your capabilities. To start down this journey, you must first know yourself, your vision, and your strengths and weaknesses first. Once you identify exactly the kind of person you need to take the role of Executive Director, be highly selective, take your time and find the right person. Then, give yourself some months to transition, but be very mindful of the act of letting go. Your job in the transition period is to support and inform, but not be the decision maker. After the transition period, your job is to be a mentor and advisor but not someone who is doing the steering. At this time you then can help chart the path through board governance.”
-Shaleen Shah, Co-Founder of Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary, who has recently taken the steps to transition the organization’s leadership to a new Executive Director.
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:
A tip from someone who has been there:
“Think of your non-profit (sanctuary) as you would your children. Your responsibility as a parent is to create self-sustaining, confident children to go out into the world to shine their inner light. Your sanctuary is no different. As a founder, your job is to create in physical form your vision, but then nurture it to a point where it can have a life of it’s own without your constant babysitting. This is how thriving organizations are built.”
-Shaleen Shah, Co-Founder of Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary
Below are some ways to help you navigate the challenges that come from being a founder:
- Start succession planning early. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to start!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- Start small, but delegate. Give enthusiastic staff members the opportunity to handle sanctuary responsibilities, and support their efforts where you can without micromanaging.
- 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.
- Clarify roles and responsibilities of board and staff, especially in transition periods when creating or expanding staff positions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
Afraid To Disappoint- Who Will Replace Me?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Struggling With Change
Jerome founded his sanctuary around 5 years before and built it up on his own land. He put a lot of hard work and money into building up the sanctuary grounds and rescuing residents. The sanctuary has never turned down a rescue. Things were tight but they always managed. The board wanted to bring someone on to help with fundraising and operations and suggested a cap on residents until they were more stable. Jerome considers the sanctuary his “baby” and was affronted by this suggestion, as he felt it implied he wasn’t doing a good job even though he always managed to come through.
The board responded that Jerome had done an amazing job getting the sanctuary up and running, but now they thought it would be best for the sustainability of the sanctuary to bring in others with the skills required to take the sanctuary to the next level, develop relationships with funders, and streamline operations to help the sanctuary better provide for the needs of the residents.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
A Microsanctuary Founder’s Illness
Kelly has been caring for a small flock at her microsanctuary she founded just over a year ago. She finds the experience rewarding and has enjoyed developing dynamic living areas for the residents. However, Kelly recently received some unsettling news from her doctor: She was diagnosed with a disease that will prevent her from being able to provide the lifelong care for her resident flock that she had planned. Because she is only in her 30s and only cared for a small flock, it never occurred to her that she wouldn’t be able to provide lifetime care. She has a very particular way of providing daily care for the residents and worries no one else will understand what they need.
Even if you are the founder of a microsanctuary or private rescue, contingency planning is still an important responsibility to your residents. To ensure a good life for her duck residents, it may be helpful for Kelly to:
- Reach out to any established sanctuaries in the rescue, introducing herself and developing a relationship with them.
- Develop relationships with the greater Microsanctuary community for support and guidance.
- Bring in a friend, loved one, or committed volunteer that has interest in learning about the care of the flock and potentially providing care for them in an emergency.
- Set aside funds, succession planning, and legal documents to provide for their care. Kelly might try to find committed homes for her duck residents with the communication that there will come a time when she will have to permanently transfer the care of her residents to this new organization or home.
While we know this resource only begins to touch on the many difficulties founders face, we hope that it provides a place to start thinking about these challenges, and provides some actionable solutions!
What have you struggled with as a founder? Have you found any solutions that have worked for you and the organization you started? Let us know!