How founder culture threatens the social sector

Job titles can be incredibly misleading, yet are frustratingly persuasive. Most of my career I’ve been the “founder”, “CEO”, and “principal” of a company I created. During my eight years running my company I was always amazed by the instant credibility these lofty titles commanded. Never mind that as a founder you are not only the “CEO” and “founder”, but also the “office coordinate”, “janitor”, and just about everything else.

Nevertheless, people invariably assumed my decision to create a company meant that I was both a leader and that I must have been incredibly successful. Like most founders, in truth I was neither a leader nor terribly successful.

Yet the title of “founder” afforded me instant credibility, which occasionally translated into invitations to speak at and join so-called social sector leadership groups.

Now that I have transitioned from founder to employee, I am by all measures more capable of generating social value. I am more experienced, far more technically competent, and have never had a better sense of what does and does not work.

I took a job because I suck

I was recently nominated by a contact of mine to join a social sector trade group focused on improving how the sector uses data to create impact, a topic I write about regularly.

I have joined various similar efforts in the past when I had less to say on the topic than I do now. Despite being less qualified in the past, folks were always happy to have a “founder” and “leader” join their groups.

I was pretty surprised when my nomination was turned down, literally based on where I rank on the FII website (I’m the 9th person listed on the management team page, obviously ordered from best to worst employee). To be clear, there are lots of good reasons to turn me down for just about anything, but this didn’t strike me as one of them.

When I ran Idealistics, it was assumed that I was a leader. Now that I work for FII, I am apparently a follower.

Why Millennials don’t want your nonprofit job

At various times I’ve heard mid and late career social sector professionals complain that Millennials are too inclined to start new organizations than to join existing ones. The logic invariably goes that we can create more social impact by joining together than fragmenting our efforts into a sea of undistinguished startups.

Yet the professional environment we have collectively created is one that fetishizes social entrepreneurs as “visionaries” and “leaders”, while employees are largely discarded as 9–5 building blocks.

It’s no wonder Millennials don’t want your nonprofit job. No one wants to be considered a building block. I sure as hell don’t.

Ultimately I closed Idealistics, and joined FII because I lost faith in the former’s ability to create social impact and grew to believe the most value I could create was by joining the latter. I never imagined I was trading recognition for results. But that’s exactly what ended up happening.

Founder culture

The social sector is unique from the rest of the economy because of the ideal that we go into this line of work for something bigger than ourselves.

Yet our obsession with founder culture masks the core value that makes the social sector worth existing in the first place. It values individualism in a way that encourages people to optimize their careers over how they are perceived at the expense of the social impact they create.

There are legitimate reasons to create new organizations. There are also legitimate reasons to join existing ones. Both of those decisions should be driven by which opportunity puts one in position to create the most social value. Obsession with founder culture disrupts this calculus, threatening the core values that make this sector worth existing in the first place.