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In our strategy work, we help clients determine which aspects of the past to amplify toward the future, which risks to take and which to mitigate, and – most importantly – how much baggage to unpack and leave behind. Creating safe spaces for and facilitating dialogue around these meaty questions is one of my favorite aspects of Meridian, our strategic planning retreat. In many ways, we’re asking teams to practice Marie Kondo’s method of gathering together their collective belongings and keeping only the things that spark joy. In doing so, we’ve learned that one of the most challenging items for our clients to identify, assess and organize isn’t so much an item as a person – the organization’s founder.
Nonprofit founders are anything but a dime a dozen – we’ve worked with organizations whose first leaders were politicians, academics, doctors, and parents. Some founders retain only local celebrity; others are recognizable on a global stage, even decades after their passing. Regardless of name recognition or whether they are alive today, all founders’ presences loom large within the minds, hearts and cultures of their organizations. In many cases, that presence is synonymous with the “past” (in whatever form that takes), which means that a founder might be a buoy or an anchor for the organization. In all cases, we treat conversations about founders with sensitivity and care.
We recently worked with a client whose founder was a national icon – a fearless visionary and an incredible fundraiser. Though he has passed on, he is loved by several staff members, the board and many donors. His presence is palpable, and his absence is notable. We could not move the organization forward without discussing his impact on the culture, financials and strategy. And that’s what we did. It wasn’t easy or comfortable at times, but it was massively important.
Here are the learnings and insights that resulted from our time with a courageous, authentic and forward-looking group of leaders – which I’ll call “What to do when your Founder’s legacy is too big to fail.”
Remember, every founder is a celebrity to someone, which is why issues of leadership and legacy are some of the thorniest around. They require delicacy, trust and authenticity to navigate. We are grateful to our clients for trusting us to explore their past and future together during Meridian – and we are excited to see what the future holds for their work. No matter the outcome, we know that their founder would be proud.