I went on “sabbatical”! I was still working every day, but my wonderful board gave me “mission time.” Yes, you heard correctly. I was given 3 months to think about our foundation’s mission, its work, and our processes.
What exactly does this mean? Well, to start, we temporarily closed our online portal and skipped a grantmaking cycle so that I could focus my attention on executive matters like… what are we doing and how are we doing. I’m convinced that other foundations must follow suit, because it is so healthful to a single-staffed organization like mine.
I remember being at a session with a group of executive directors, who had been in their positions 10 years or longer, at a recent Exponent Philanthropy conference. I brought up the topic of “mission time” and asked how my colleagues were devoting the time to give it the attention it deserved. Peoples’ eyes popped, and the conversation was hot! We all talked about it as if it were a utopian concept—great but unattainable. Of course this led to conversation about burn-out and the question about how to re-energize ourselves and our work.
Back to that shortly, but, in the meantime, let me offer some background. Five years ago, our board went through a refocusing process that right-sized the foundation’s grant strategy to perform effectively within the limit of our capacity. The trustees refined their focus slightly and honed their grant strategies immensely. The foundation now funds capacity building and strategic restructuring requests exclusively.
Over this same period, a strong site visit ethos was cultivated and trusting relationships with our nonprofit community were built that elevated our reputation in the community. Upon further reflection, however, we recognized that our attention was focused predominantly on Buffalo (and a little bit of Niagara Falls and Jamestown, NY) and less so on the rural towns and villages in the seven Western New York counties we serve.
Historically my foundation has allowed the community to guide us. Based on our size, it would be difficult for the foundation to make a big difference on any one issue; our strengths are in our civility, consultation, and methods of communication. We would continue to focus on supporting community needs through our face-to-face efforts.
So building upon this philosophy, it made great sense for me to embark upon a listening tour as one of my many “sabbatical” priorities. This listening tour would focus on our rural communities.
It began with the review of needs assessments (e.g., county, health, Head Start) and other pertinent literature (e.g., cultural plans) in a specific rural county, and the publishers’ follow-up recommendations. This review would inform the listening tour that I hoped would provide me the opportunity to hear first-hand testimonials on the different challenges and opportunities in our targeted geographical region. I wanted to understand where there had been progress and what opportunities we could avail, and where the barriers were so great that it may not be prudent for us to pursue.
I researched organizations, names, and emails with a plan to spend time speaking to several county representatives: county commissioners, Head Start executives, the head of the local arts council, several nonprofits, and members of the business community. The process would be organic so that instead of me trying to get answers to preconceived questions about specific needs and opportunities, interviewees were enabled to speak to any matter or matters that affected their day-to-day lives or impacted their day-to-day work. I wanted to take their feedback and unique observations back to my board for consideration as we develop our goals and strategies for working in rural counties going forward.
I’ve spoken with nonprofit CEOs, program officers, a parent group, school superintendents, county commissioners, and many others. This has been such a great journey, and I intend to share more in a later blog.
For now, I believe I may have discovered the answer to my own question to my colleagues about devoting time and attention to mission. I have been so entirely energized by my “mission sabbatical,” and the quality of my work has been impacted positively as well. I am thankful for my board of trustees, who have provided me with this unique opportunity to step back, listen, learn, and grow, and to my colleagues, who inspired me to ask the question to begin with!
Beth Kinsman Gosch is executive director of The Western New York Foundation and has provided inspiration and leadership in the development of the foundation’s grantmaking programs since 2005. The Western New York Foundation is a regionally focused foundation serving the seven counties of Western New York.