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Sabbaticals 2.0: Tips, benefits and support for taking time off

Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits


I received great questions and feedback from last week’s column about sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders. Here are my responses and more information about the concept and benefits. 

Triple benefit

Sabbaticals provide a triple benefit to the organization. The Executive Director can decompress, recharge, and return rested and ready to work. Existing staff take on new duties, which provides the opportunity for leadership development within the organization. The board of directors will gain greater insights into the ED’s role, how the organization operates, and the skills required.  

Supporting a sabbatical shows your funders, donors, and clients that your organization cares about and believes in its staff. Research studies have also shown sabbatical leave breeds loyalty and encourages leaders to stay. As an example, an ED who took a 3-month sabbatical and returned for an additional five years before retiring.

Length of a sabbatical

Sabbaticals average three months, which is long enough for the Executive Director to truly disconnect but not long enough for major problems to arise. 

Encourage the ED to leave town

Leaving town immediately at the start of the sabbatical is a good idea. Lingering can make it harder to disconnect, especially at the beginning. I spoke with an ED who wrapped up a staff retreat and left town directly following the event.

Sabbaticals are cost effective

If the ED’s performance is exemplary, and the Board wants to retain them, this can be a good option for all parties. The Durfee Foundation in California commissioned a 20-Year retrospective on their sabbatical program which revealed, “Very few capacity building interventions provide as much bang for the buck as the simple act of offering a sabbatical.”

In addition to paying the ED’s salary while they are on sabbatical, the Board may want to consider providing a bonus to staff who are stepping up during the ED’s absence.

There is never going to be a perfect time for an ED to step away for an extended period.

However, allowing the stress and exhaustion to build is not a healthy alternative for the people involved or the organization. A sabbatical is a cost-effective way to avoid an unplanned and, as a result, more costly departure of the staff leader. 

Tips for EDs when a sabbatical is approved

Do not to over-plan your sabbatical. Transferring your type-A work performance to this time away will not allow you to fully relax and gain the benefits of being away.

Do not do everything in advance. Provide information and support to existing staff prior to leaving so they can manage things while you are away.

Do not start anything new in the month or two before you leave.

Even if you normally socialize with work friends or board members, take a break from those connections during your sabbatical.

Leave your work phone at work. Otherwise, you may be more tempted to check in and staff may be more likely to contact you rather than handle issues as they arise.

Don’t assume you can’t afford it

The Center for Nonprofit Advancement encourages nonprofit boards not to dismiss the sabbatical on the assumption your nonprofit can’t afford it which is a disserve to your organization. “There are viable ways to manage the cost, and you’ll find that not only does the value far outweigh the investment, but also the impact can be surprisingly long-term.”

A request to funders

I encourage funders to support sabbaticals as a form of capacity building that promotes healthy workplace cultures and leadership retention. I agree with author and mental health advocate Ian Adair who says, “Leadership today is about taking care of the people responsible for the work, not just the work itself.”

Investing in the services provided by nonprofits must include investing in the people who make the services possible. Your financial investment in successful outcomes starts at the top with nonprofit EDs who are capable, mentally and physically healthy, and fully prepared to lead their team and deliver sustained results. 

Where to start

Do your homework. Research the topic before making a request to the board. Consult your nonprofit’s employment attorney. Talk with other EDs who have taken a sabbatical.

Vet the idea with the board chair, executive or personnel committee depending on your structure. Encourage board members to talk with other boards who have approved a sabbatical. Prepare a plan that outlines how the sabbatical will work including timing, costs, and the impact on board and staff. 

Notes on Nonprofits is a column in the Tallahassee Democrat produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and includes resources, responses to reader questions, guest columns, and timeless topics. This column first appeared on Sunday, August 21, 2022. Please send your comments and questions.

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