Funders are supporting sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders—and taking sabbaticals themselves—as a way to step back from professional identity, let go of routine, and restore their energy for the long haul.
The Durfee Foundation has been a leader in funding nonprofit executive sabbaticals for 20 years. “Since the beginning, our board has focused on leadership and investing in strong individuals who make a difference,” says foundation president Carrie Avery. “What we observed was a lot of nonprofit executive directors who loved their jobs, but left their jobs, because they were burning out.” “We wondered,” continues Avery, “‘What if we could offer people a safe space to step back, take a breather, and return to their organizations after a period of rest and reflection?’”
Now every other year, the Durfee Sabbatical program offers up to six stipends of $45,000 for nonprofit executives to travel, reflect, or otherwise renew themselves in whatever way they choose, for a minimum of 3 consecutive months.
Yet sabbaticals are much more than time to “rest and feel good,” says Avery. Sabbaticals elevate leadership and increase organizational capacity. “Time and again, after leaders return from sabbatical, their organizations take a big leap in creativity and productivity. This is a powerful organizational effectiveness tool.”
In addition to the sabbatical stipend, the foundation offers participating organizations the support of a consultant (a Durfee sabbatical alum) who helps executives and interim leaders prepare for and manage during the temporary transition.
“Today, we have a much greater focus on supporting the interim leaders—the people who take over for the executive when he or she is gone,” says Avery. The foundation offers an orientation for interim leaders before their executives take sabbatical, and started a leadership exchange program called LEAD Residency, which supports ongoing professional development for interim leaders.
Beyond benefits to the individual leader and the organization, Avery says the sabbatical program has benefitted the entire regional nonprofit sector. One of the most surprising outcomes, she says, is a cross-sector network that has emerged: “After running the sabbatical program a few years, we realized these amazing leaders should know one another.” The foundation began periodic gatherings where participants could meet, and the network has grown to nearly 100 leaders from highly respected organizations.
Funders Taking Sabbaticals
Fred Ali, president and CEO of the Weingart Foundation, says he was always supportive of nonprofit leaders taking sabbaticals. One day a colleague asked him if he had ever considered taking one himself. “Quite frankly, I hadn’t,” he says. “I was too busy thinking of everyone else.”
He brought the idea to his board during a conversation about transition planning. “I told them I wasn’t ready to retire yet, but I was interested in taking some intentional time off, to which they responded positively.” He was prepared to come back to them with a proposal for what he might do on sabbatical. “I thought I needed a project, something more to accomplish,” he laughs. “To my surprise, the board recommended I spend the time simply resting and recharging.”
Ali spent an entire year planning his 3-month sabbatical with his executive management team, discussing how the organization would operate in his absence. “We wanted to give individuals on the executive management team the chance to step up and assume responsibilities they had not previously,” he says. “I thought it would be good for the staff to understand this is a solid organization, with or without me.”
After 40 years of what he describes as fairly intense service-related work, Ali took his sabbatical in 2014. “I made it clear I didn’t want to engage in work-related conversation while I was gone, and no one violated that. We arranged it so technically I could not have access to my work email, even if I tried.”
Because of this, he says he was able to completely unplug. “I literally had no idea what was happening at the foundation for 3 months—none! And I surprised myself, because after a week or so, I stopped thinking about it.”
“I work with a strong team of people, and I realized if I can’t go away without worrying every five minutes, I’m doing something wrong,” he says. Ali says it was a life-changing 3 months. “I focused on personal renewal. I revived a somewhat dormant meditation practice, engaged in some reading, and spent quality time traveling with my wife. The sabbatical gave us time to reflect on how we wanted to spend the rest of our lives, both as individuals and as a couple.”
Lessons Upon Returning
When Ali returned from his 3 months away, by design he didn’t jump into the typical briefing session with his team. They held a completely different conversation. He first asked his executive management team and then the entire staff questions such as:
- What did you learn about your work and about yourself while I was away?
- What responsibilities did you take on that you want to keep? What can’t you wait to give up?
- What recommendations do you have for me about how I’m doing my job?
- What changes to our organizational structure might we consider?
Next he asked the board similar questions, which led to a more formalized succession planning process. They considered the qualities they would always need in a CEO, and how as a board they could support their CEO going forward.
“A mistake I see people make when it comes to sabbaticals is that they focus on the value to the individual, but not the value to the organization. When a leader steps away, it offers a real professional development opportunity for the board and the executive leadership team. We spent a lot of time thinking that through, and it paid off.”
Elaine Gast Fawcett helps foundations tell their story, educate their stakeholders, and move their mission forward. She works nationally to strengthen the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors as a communications and grantmaking consultant. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @4WindsWriting.