At some point a year or two ago, I stopped calling it “my” nonprofit. In conversation I faltered in attempts to come up with new ways of explaining my role with the nonprofit I’d co-founded and led for the past 6 years. “The nonprofit I serve with,” and “The nonprofit I help lead” became new phrases. They were clumsy and a little awkward, still, but the alternative–continuing to call it “my” nonprofit–didn’t feel right, either.
They say when you create a nonprofit, it becomes the property of the community. This is true in a legal, philosophical, ethical, and practical sense… and yet it is often still a very difficult fact for founders such as myself to internalize.
Creating a nonprofit is like having a baby. There are hours and sometimes days of painful labor as you brainstorm and refine mission, methods, and policy. Once its birthed you’re elated, holding it possessively in your arms while showing it off to the world (see how cute it is?). As it reaches first milestones, first baby-steps, you croon and clap, taking lots of pictures and displaying them prominently for family, friends, and supporters. You scowl when it keeps you up sleepless nights, working late hours on requests, necessary paperwork, and relationship-building–But as months pass and you see how much its grown, you can’t help but smile and nod, affirming to yourself it’s all been worth it.
If feeling maternally attached to, protective of, and yes–even a little possessive of–the nonprofit you’ve founded is Founder’s Syndrome, then the aches and pains you feel when you realize that to be the best leader possible you have to let go are part of Empty Nest Syndrome. Maybe it’s not all grown up, not yet. But it is time for it to go off into the world. It can stay under your watchful eye. You can still be its leader. But the way you think of it must change. It belongs to every one now, and you can’t tell it when to go to bed or what healthy foods to eat any more.
And yet, I think if one can do it–if one can muster up the mental and emotional maturity and embrace the notion that his or her organization belongs to the world–they will be able to transcend to a new level of leadership that will actually better benefit their organization and others they may work with. A selfless parent can let go, and the bird can leave its nest, and fly.