If You Build It

A metaphor for founders and leaders of non-profit organizations from the world of architecture:
View from an airplane window at the wings and flying over a scenic landscape of green hills and rivers

In the Spring 2009 edition of Boston Home magazine, there is an interview with author Matthew Frederick about his book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. I love this explanation about the importance of [an architect] managing one’s ego and how it can also relate to founders of non-profit organizations, the “architects” of institutions that foster social change.

“When your name is on a project, it’s easy to get too invested. If you design what you want and ignore the client or the environment, the building won’t work for anyone. The best architects are Zen masters–they nurture the design process without dominating it.”

I’m going to adjust the quotation to make a point:

“When you personally create a non-profit organization, it’s easy to get too invested. If you create what you want and ignore the client or the environment (or donors or volunteers or your board), the organization and its mission won’t work for anyone or accomplish its intended goal. The best founders are Zen masters–they nurture the creation of the organization in a collaborative process without dominating it. It’s never about the founder; it’s about the children or the homeless or the animals or the sick or the scholarships or the opera or the civil rights.”

What do you notice about being a founder or working with a founder? What is the joy? What is the frustration and challenge? What is the short-termgain and the long-termstruggle of a founder-centered organization? Founding a non-profit is typically a very”I” centered experience that is happening in a very “we” centered container; what is needed to succeed in this paradigm? An architect designs a building and after its completion, the architect moves on to other projects; architects create, they do not build and they do not maintain. This is a huge challenge for founders of non-profits. Why do you think this is so? What’s your experience?

I see founders in everything. It is core to my work as a coach who works with non-profits. I live in an historic colonial town north of Boston called Marblehead; the intent of the founding fathers (and mothers) of the United States is everywhere. Parents are founders. Business owners are founders. There is a clear cycle of creation and incubation followed by growth, operations, maintenance, and sustainability. Founders, and their roles, and their initial ideas will change, adapt.

There is a lot more to say on this topic!


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Gary M. Groth, MS, PCC, CPCC

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