Founders & Founderhood

Great change is needed to address our social and environmental crises in the very challenging times in which we live. People gather in response to take action to help bring positive, solution-oriented change to our world. Change making projects, activities and innovations step in to meet needs in workplaces, schools and businesses forming associations, cooperatives, enterprises and community groups. Those who perceive the need and create the foundation of what is to come are called founders and are needed now more than ever. They take the initial actions and do the start-up work.

This exploration just scratches the surface of a few of the aspects of ‘founderhood’–the bonuses and the slings and arrows; the attributes, wishes and some of the experiences. It comes from the distilling of numerous conversations, my own experience in co-housing and as a ‘serial’ founder.

I have long been interested in human potential, education and positive social change. The M Ed I achieved in ‘98 (RMIT) was in Leadership and Change. My climate emergency work over the last fifteen years, whilst facing the hard facts, has been based on positivity and an optimistic outlook. Negativity and pessimism do not create positive change. The science of climate change tells us that ‘Rapid Transformative Change’ is needed. In this context I am motivated by a wish to understand how change can be fast-tracked, how leaders are made and how emergence can be fostered. Community organisations can tell us a lot. Founders are a key starting point. The objective here is to throw a spotlight on the concept, role and experience of being a founder so that more people can be empowered to think big, unleash their imaginations and create new and better realities not just for themselves, but for whole communities of people.

Founders at the US Conference
I attended the US National Cohousing Conference held in the American South in May 2015. The new cohousing community at Durham, North Carolina, contributed to an exciting community-building program seeking “potent ways to enhance (our) vibrant communities” attracting four hundred members of communities plus groups-in-formation.

This article is catalysed by and in support of the initiative that emerged in the Conference to create a group for Founders to confer in and draw support from. Many conference participants were founders or would-be founders. A few were ‘veteran founders’ of many years experience. Mature communities were represented, along with many just new and some just a twinkle in the eye.

Without founders of one sort or another, cohousing communities and a whole raft of other worthwhile initiatives would not come into being. It struck me that there was a conversation about the ‘founder’ role and experience that needed to be heard yet there was no Founders Group as such.

As a general rule it seems that once the community has arrived the founders who helped make it happen are too busy to worry about the needs of founders. They prefer to become a part of their new community and are hoping to hand over much of the workload and so seek to not set themselves apart from the other members. My research, admittedly scant, suggests most founders are aware of, but quite humble about, their contribution. Is this the case? Certainly in the small sample of the Australian cohousing scene it seems to be, notwithstanding the larger-than-life personalities some founders perhaps have.

The American conference occurred halfway along a fifteen-week tour visiting thirty communities in the UK, Europe and the US. Interesting stories around founders had been consistently trickling out and had started me thinking a support group could be useful. So when the idea of running a Founders session in the conference was received with enthusiasm and a lunchtime ‘Open Space’ spot was found, Marty Maskall and I grabbed it, discussed it with Bill Hartzell (President of Cohousing US) and made it happen. With such short notice and being outside the official program there was every chance only a handful of people would show up. In the end there were thirty. The topic had drawn a crowd.

Some were attending to learn about getting a community going and what it meant to be a founder. Others with experience wanted to look at the founder role, discuss issues like emotional maturity and resilience and share the slings and arrows–not venting so much as naming. In the end, a hastily formed plan establishing a support group linking founders, sharing knowledge, insights and providing support, was made. ‘Something’ would happen.

A personal experience
My own experience as a founder in the early days was of often feeling swamped by misunderstanding; except by other founders. It mattered because it was so much harder to paint a clear picture with waters made muddy by confusion. There was a lot going on, we were all in it together and we were all being challenged.

The community discussion that I needed to have, as founder, about purpose, vision, ethos, structure and some of the complexities, simply didn’t get to happen. Upon reflection I think my own reticence was part of the reason why–the conversation was hard to open up. There were some testing situations and wicked problems to solve and stress levels were extreme and quite debilitating. I had to become better at letting go and working through my disappointment. I had to recalibrate my expectations. We all had a lot to learn. The struggle felt interminable. It took a while to able to speak of it in the past tense. Now, nearly seven years later, there has been enormous functional improvement and enhanced social cohesion.

At the conference I spoke to many people preparing to set up communities yet I found none who had consciously decided to be a ‘founder’ as such. The term ‘founder’ comes in hindsight. They were simply enthused by an idea and a vision emerged that seemed so worthwhile and doable they were just going for it.

Using the title suits me now because it serves the ongoing purpose of The Bigger Goal. This for me is about helping mobilise our communities to accept that we have a climate emergency, that we have to adopt emergency mode for the duration and that we are needed. I have chosen this path because it shows itself so clearly to me and I believe I can do something useful on it. It doesn’t feel like a choice but I do accept that it is.

The future transitioned world I envisage has reversed global warming and had safe climate conditions restored. As intentional communities, many believe, as do I, that we have an incontestable role in helping activate this vital transition. Some see this as service to the wider world. Some see it as giving back; reciprocating all the gifts provided to us by our society.

To help me be successful with this work I have to be able to demonstrate this concept, to encourage and to share the leadership with confidence and with as much emotional maturity as I can muster. So it helps to have founded a few things seen to be worthwhile and contributing. It all helps.

Creating something from ground up, in my experience, involves a hefty investment of life force and a huge time commitment. My life has been impacted in many ways. Setting up the first intentional cohousing community here in Melbourne took years. That cast a very long shadow over our early days as a community and is linked to my high expectations; the same that propelled me into action in the first place. I accepted the costs to my income earning capacity, to my dislocated family, to my leisure time and my work-life balance and even some costs to my health–not a great thing to admit but it’s true–because my Bigger Goal beckoned. I felt propelled. This is common to the founder experience.

When things get bumpy
Anticipating and preparing for contingencies is part of the deal too but founders need to expect the unexpected. It can be painful. I didn’t anticipate a power struggle, community division, derailment and toxic attacks. The severity of the impacts caught me by surprise and when that extended to my family I began to question whether it was all worthwhile. It was tough but I am still here to tell the tale. We came through it and I can report a happy ending. This scenario has to be included in the story of Founders because it is not uncommon and it needs to be acknowledged.

A few take-homes for the prospective founder:
• Stay strong in the face of any minimising of the effort involved either in getting a cohousing development built and then an intentional community up and running.
• Stay strong if bearing the brunt of any ‘wear-down and take-over’ attempt–Nil Bastardi Carborundum. Call out any divisive or abusive tactics taken from the armoury of ‘student politics’. Research bullying, harassment and ‘gas-lighting’ so you know what you’re dealing with and can name it.
• Surround yourself with a reliable friend or two to avoid feeling abandoned. Know that others might–quite understandably–want to stay out of the firing line.
• The desire to keep things simple is common too and those who are complexity-averse leap to easy explanations. It is common to cast the problem as a ‘personality clash’ making you, the target, partly to blame. Blaming is all too easy at times like this. When you see it, name it even if your message is not welcome. The role of founder is not to win popularity awards.

In my case the harassment continued until the focus of attack moved to the next person in line who had stepped up as I stepped back. Then it became starkly clear: It was really a struggle for power-over; not about building power-to.

Today if I ask myself would I do it all again I always say “Yes”. Life in an intentional community can be extraordinary and, as a life-style, it is satisfying in so many ways. It is great to live the life and strive together to walk the talk and is even more rewarding to inspire others to have a go too–it’s about way more than just this community.

Anecdotes from others
The experience of the founder can be a happy one, as many will testify. It can also have times of great
disappointment, stress, frustration and despair as anecdotes collected from the tour confirm.

• In one of the communities visited members expressed distress that their founder was so unhappy he had decided to leave. Someone said it felt like “Dad was leaving home because he was so disappointed in the kids.” He could not face a meeting with us at the time. It seems he was broken hearted. Why? Notwithstanding a few malingerers and the usual frustrations, the community was doing really well. What had gone wrong?

• In another community the founder had a major health crisis, a heart crisis in fact; probably at least partly due to the sheer workload, stress and conflict of life-roles, responsibility and intensity. These things happen too.

• Yet another proudly cherished its founders relishing the opportunity to show their gratitude and looking after them for as long as possible as they slowly aged. Yet concern about the ageing cohort and how to manage the increasing numbers of members with diminishing physical capacity was building. One member, an assiduous contributor contributing decades of highly valued work and consequently forgoing the accumulation of personal monetary assets, explained the conflict: no-one could expect to be supported into old age but, at the same time, she could surely be forgiven for hoping that at a certain time she might be supported to stay.

• There can be generational issues too; even ageism. A member of another community talked about how the founders ‘hang out at home a lot’ doing things ‘they’ think are valuable. It was apparent these contributions weren’t necessarily valued at all and there was disgruntlement that the, now ‘retired’ founders had not made way for new ideas from younger members. When some gaps in the backstory raising awareness of the experience of being a founder were filled in this attitude changed. Sometimes there is real sacrifice involved in achieving extraordinary things. The absence of this understanding could quite feasibly lead to bitterness and regret. Even perhaps to a broken heart.

• Sometimes the dynamics between people can go awry – it’s true. Normally they can be sensibly resolved. However just as there are ‘troublesome board members’ and ‘troublesome members of online communities’ etcetera there are also ‘troublesome community members’. This is term that has currency in the US and to which many community people in different parts of the world relate. I think if it is used in a way that separates the behaviour from the person and for the purpose of naming a problem, in the frame of a bigger picture, it can be said respectfully, unemotionally and can be useful. The problem might need naming in order to be better understood and addressed with less damage all round. One conversation in this vein focussed on how even just one ‘Troublesome Community Member’ (TCM) can drive out some of the best community builders including founders. The case in point was a community in the US where the two founders were completely worn down by a member who wrought pain and havoc in her community and refused to cooperate or take responsibility. The traumatised founders were eventually displaced and sold up out of the community. The up-side to this story is they later bought next door, put a gate through the fence and are apparently still very active, now as non-members.

“Founders Syndrome”
A discussion about founders and support must include an exploration of Founders Syndrome and the uncomfortable implications in the term. Apparently those using it often want founders to move out of the way claiming founders are actually IN the way and that they can’t let go. It’s a term that can be used to accuse founders of stopping new ideas or misusing the gravitas that goes with being a founder.

The term implies symptoms of a sickness; ‘a syndrome’. It could even be self-imposed or delusionary. Whether physical or psychological, Founders Syndrome and Founderitis sound seriously disabling; unattractive. If it is a sickness or disease what are the symptoms and is there a cure? What support is needed?

Looking into it further I found two types of ‘syndrome’ and Founders Syndrome does not fit the first definition–i.e. it is not “an aggregate of symptoms or signs associated with a disease process or genetic disorder”.
It could however be described as a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, or behaviour e.g. The ‘Not In My Back Yard’ (NIMBY) syndrome or the ‘Appearance Discrimination’ syndromes ( ‘Ugly Duckling’; ‘Handsome Man – Ugly Woman Couple’; ‘Beautiful Woman’) which some now call ‘The New Racism’. A recent discussion on Founders syndrome threw up a couple of other versions too; the ‘Wanna-Be Founders’ syndrome and ATFS–‘Attack the Founders’ syndrome.

For the term to be used to imply sickness has several ramifications that themselves present problems. It is hard to dispel without sounding lame. There was general agreement at the conference that this founders’ problem is more likely in the early days. I.e. not so coincidentally at the same time when the shared skill levels, especially in ‘mindful (non-violent) communication’, are likely to be at their lowest. It’s also when people are generally more jumpy, many are afraid of being judged, or suspicious of being controlled and certainly confused about the structures, legalities, rights, responsibilities and complications. And what exactly do all these new words actually mean? ~ reciprocity, mutuality, stewardship, co-operation, collaboration, consensus.

Of course, while the term ‘Founders Syndrome’ can be used disrespectfully, it can be appropriate in some situations too. No doubt there can be ‘troublesome founders’ too however these are usually in cases where there are paid people; boards and staff.

Important to this discussion is that the accusation can potentially be used to hide agenda as well as an attempt to discredit and deliberately mute the voice of a founder.

After the long haul of getting to ‘Go’, most instigators will be looking forward to handing over. They may have other commitments that need nurturing, financing, actioning. They may just need a rest. Will they hear recognition and offers of help or be left to it and told, ‘Your choices, suck it up’?

Everyone has their idea of their own busy-ness and we are all responsible for what we take on so how do we deal with this? I have yet to come across an easy way? The reality is that strong commitment and significant sacrifice are needed but hard-won achievements have insights: Pearls form around irritation. The living and breathing of it–the commitment–is a double-edged sword. Sharing the grunt-work and the ‘pearls’ is what cooperation is all about.

For those at the pointy, heavy-lifting end of the workload it can, on the one hand, be an unbalanced, myopic focus blotting out other aspects of life. It can also contribute to a deep, perceptive, reflective awareness that may be hard to communicate but of great value to the overarching purpose, e.g. Imagining a future possibility and bringing it into the present as a new reality.

It may also be of value to the founder individual too. Perhaps work-life balance will be attained.

There is an alchemy involved in people coming together discerning a set of values, designing a concept and manifesting these into bricks and mortar and flesh and blood. And then there is further alchemy in distilling from all that and blending resources, potentials, pasts and futures and infusing these together at a moment in time – into a Shared Vision.

The Vision is an inspiringly gorgeous container for all these gems, gifted by the group. It sits in the perpetual present moment, safely and securely holding the space for the individuals collectively as they seek to move forward in cooperation together. This is the sacred work of those who are seeking to grow to be a conscious group, of the intentional community in formation, coalescing with a beautiful purpose at that prescient time when it is all about the Vision.

The responsibility to protect this point of light surely belongs to all – but typically few hold the flame with greater care than the founders. Not surprisingly, founders may feel alarmed at attempts to tinker with this central heartbeat, the reason, purpose and aspirations of the embryonic thing that seems to be always arriving.

The voice upholding the vision needs to be heard. Founders can learn to share this task and overt invitations need to be made in new, enticing and ongoing ways so that, over time, more voices will come to protect the Vision. Talking about this essential context will help protect against the potential to misconstrue ‘agenda’. Without this, misjudgements, manipulations and the spectre of self-interest and ego can be invoked. Accusations of Founders Syndrome can be used as a backlash to silence that very voice that upholds the Vision. Silencing the voice by disabling the messenger, can strike a fatal blow to a ‘founder’, a ‘holder of the flame’; it can also hurt the spirit of a community. The vital essence may be put at real risk; something precious may be undermined.

Holding the flame
Perhaps a cogent case can be made for reviewing the Vision, merging values and vision or changing the name of the community–or for any of these things that go to the heart. Then members, founders and otherwise, will want to pay full attention, be open and consider the case. Full exploration, care and well thought out conclusions can be ensured within the safety of good process.

There may well be room for improvement and maybe there is energy and an appetite to stretch further, to be more ambitious and visionary; to evolve to be more mindful as a community, to strive for a higher collective consciousness. Maybe those promoting tweaks or changes can inspire their community, including the founders and the formation members, to recast the Vision to make it even more powerful. It could be wonderful; a strengthened recommitment that could bring with it a reinvigorated sharing of the Vision. The power and extraordinary potential of a community sharing a similar ethos can achieve extraordinary things that may astonish many beyond themselves.

There is a much broader, more significant and critically important transformative change that our society, our species and our world needs to have happening at this time. This is about doing something now at a time of crisis–within our power–that radically transforms the way people live together and with the planet. As a founder I keenly seek to have that part of the Vision understood and supported.

As is so widely known, the creation of high functioning communities in this way through the intentional community cohousing model also provides so many benefits to the individuals and families involved. This is not a bonus in my eyes but an essential element if this model is to really proliferate and in rapid time. As a founder I seek to have that part of the Vision understood and supported too.

Developing attributes
In the early days of a new community the founder is busy leading and holding the organisation steady, demonstrating a commitment to pro-active participation, while steering a course towards the Vision that drew the people to the group in the first place. The reality is that this is multi tasking on a number of levels responding to whatever the priority. A founder can find themselves talking to a politician or a bank, in communication with a new member, on the receiving end of an attack, doing some design work, crafting a strategy, dealing with someone’s melt-down and looking after their own family, all in the same day.

Perhaps this is a certain type of person because then they have to get up, draw on courage and dig deep again the next day, and on it goes, bouncing from one thing to the next, making things happen? No one is born with this capacity and these skills – perhaps they are natural attributes – but either way they have to be honed and developed to become effective to deliver at this level.

The Founder may have an innate sense of when to pull back based on their perception of the level of effectiveness and resilience the community displays. Getting a community of people onto the ‘front foot’ to be generally proactive requires the education of its members so as to get everyone on the ‘same page’–pulling together not pulling apart. When the Vision is held safely by those taking over, or when those who hold the Vision strongly are ready to step up, the founders will be enabled to pull back. Handing over and staying involved can be incremental.

Expectation setting
In reality there will be lots of little handing-over exercises and some will work and some wont. Mistakes will be made. For handing over to be smooth and gentle requires commitment to preparation, coordination and support for a process. The reality of many people ‘dropping the ball’ and failing to deliver on their commitments and promises has to be recognised and expectations and supports must be set in that realistic context. Some things matter more than others and that can be subjective but at all times the focus on the shared values and mission that underpinned the founding of the community in the first place, will provide helpful guidance. These too can be reviewed carefully to ensure they reflect practice and are expansive enough to stay current with the evolution of the group.

At the start, teaching the vision and mission and some of the experiences that can help in the achieving of them, is the task of the founders and the original members. Helping to skill up individuals in specific tasks and skill sets is part of this. Explaining in detail the thinking behind certain positions is important. Also important is role-modelling the behaviour of someone who is self-reflective, able to learn and to teach, to change and to grow, to listen and to commit to continual improvement. This is coincidentally, the time when expressing the leadership role will mean arrows are pointed and sometimes fired at you.

The Founders meeting touched on the problem of “over-commitment” raising questions. Is an over-committed person someone who takes on too much work, or is too deeply committed or someone who loves too much? Someone who is assiduous is “showing great care and perseverance”. They can be managing their energy for a purpose. They can be ‘diligent, careful, meticulous, thorough, attentive, industrious, laborious, hard-working, conscientious, painstaking, demanding, exacting, persevering, unflagging, searching, elaborate, accurate, studious, rigorous, particular; strict; pedantic, even fussy’ ~ qualities often prized in good employees.

Perhaps here’s a clue? Is the ‘over-committed-ness’ perceived in the founder a problem because they are not being paid? Does the absence of remuneration make it harder to make sense of their willingness to give so much; too much? Maybe it even reflects poorly on others who don’t want their contribution to be evaluated against such high commitment? Or perhaps it comes from concern for the person for fear they might burn out, blaming the overcommitted person as if their over-commitment is the problem rather than the sharing of the workload. Perhaps it is suffice to say that a very high level of commitment is often required to be a successful founder.

Motivation, ‘stickability’ and momentum building and momentum protecting are also qualities that I have found to be very important in fledgling organisations. They are ‘gold’ and need to be harnessed and nurtured wherever they are found. Founders can be role models here too.

New leadership and celebration
Facilitating new leadership to emerge, creating the space for that to happen, is an important part of the fostering of the evolution of the group. The work involved in the lead up to the founding of the group is already huge, and it grows significantly when the numbers of individuals arrive, so the handing over is critical for sharing the burden of the work and relieving some of the stress and responsibility from the shoulders of the founders.

There is a wealth of experience sitting with all the founders in the world of cohousing and intentional communities. Some have fallen by the wayside and I have heard them referred to as the “Walking Dead”. This is a tragedy for all concerned and a loss to the movement. It can be avoided. Staying focussed on the Vision and Mission and valuing and cherishing founders is nearly always going to be in the best interests of the community. It is also good for the founders who actually do deserve their share of support and recognition.

The Founders Discussion in North Carolina showed founders can be individuals, couples or core groups and that configuration can really change the experience a lot. A strong group can weather many storms. A tenacious individual can too as evidenced by the group of thirty that collapsed down to two when the going got tough during the global financial crisis that started in 2008. Still that founder did not give up. She recovered, rebuilt the numbers and her community of Fair Oaks in Sacramento finally broke ground for building in 2017. It can take a while!

Training, of both founders and community members, is needed early to get expectations in place, set up mindful communication processes and encourage emotional maturation. Our community’s seventeen-year-old said in a talk that after four years in our community she had ‘seen the adults mature a lot’. This training will also support founders and others to learn how to stay focussed, to lead, to teach and to manage self-care, self-preservation and recovery if necessary. Training is needed to teach individuals how to prepare to be members of a team, how to co-operate and how to securely take hold of the baton, to maintain the pace and to stay on course.

Conferences are one place this can happen. A Founders groups can help. Perhaps a Mentor Association for budding Founders would be good too.

However, in the meantime there’s great opportunity through celebration. There is a need for celebration of founders by founders and also by those who appreciate founders and wish to validate and encourage them. Many people have founderhood capacity in them and now is the time our world needs it the most. How can we better draw from each other, and ourselves, our own potent contributions.

So, to that whole complement of extraordinary individuals – past, present and especially, future – and all those who work with them, I offer my gratitude and encouragement; in cooperation …

• Nonprofit Hearts: Founders, grace, and syndromes
• Schmidt, Elizabeth, Re-diagnosing “Founder’s Syndrome”: Moving Beyond Stereotypes to Improve Nonprofit Performance Nonprofit Quarterly: 2013
• Wilkinson, Giselle, Transformative Change In Action, New Community – Quarterly Journal for Social Justice, Sustainability, Community Development and Human Rights, Volume 12 Issue 46: Alternative Housing and Community Models 2014

About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
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