Sabbaticals for Nonprofit Leaders Benefit the Executive, the Organization and the Communities It Serves

09/27/2013 09:05 am ET | Updated Nov 27, 2013
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Here is the scenario in June 2013. I was (and still am) the President of Pacific Community Ventures (PCV) a nonprofit social enterprise working to ensure that the economy works for everyone -- and that everyone works. I was (and still am) passionate about supporting entrepreneurs, financing and building small businesses, creating jobs in disadvantaged communities and generally making business a force for positive social change in our society. While I had all this passion, I was, totally exhausted -- I only slept intermittently and commonly wrote emails at 3am while lying wide awake in bed. My fingernails were bitten to pieces. I was so low on physical energy during the day that I ate way too much -- I kept thinking it would give me strength and energy, but all it really did was widen my hips. Something clearly had to give -- if it didn't, "totally exhausted," was going to become permanently burned out. Fortunately, there was an "intervention."

Fast forward through 12 weeks including a workshop on the creative process at Esalen, a Yoga for Life retreat at Kripalu, theater, jazz, painting, mediation, hiking, cooking and quality family time, and I am back in the saddle at PCV -- with great ideas, enormous energy and reignited passion for our cause. And, perhaps best of all, I have the tools I need to avoid falling prey to near-burnout again, and the ability to model these tools for my team.

Unlike the vast majority of nonprofits, PCV has a sabbatical policy.

Burnout is indeed the, "Disease of Our Civilization," as Arianna Huffington aptly put it in her August 2013 post. And nowhere is there more risk of the disease, at greater cost to organizations and collective society, than in the nonprofit sector. As noted in this article, "People who go to work for the paycheck rarely get burned out." People who connect to their work from a place of passion and purpose are much more likely to burn out. Of course there are plenty of people who work in the private sector who are passionate about their jobs and prone to burnout. But the primary reason people go to work in the nonprofit sector is because they "believe in the cause." It's just this passion that makes these workers effective at pursuing social change AND be able to live on wages that are almost always lower than those available in the private sector. So the proportion of nonprofit workers prone to burnout is great -- even as the sector is chronically under-resourced and people work hard and long. Burnout in the nonprofit sector decreases effectiveness, negatively impacting the population the sector serves -- generally those more disadvantaged than the mainstream population. Burnout in the nonprofit sector is lose-lose-lose.

Just 15 percent of for-profit organizations offer employee sabbaticals as a benefit; of those, only 35 percent actually pay employees at least partial salary during their sabbatical. In reality, for the other 65 percent, the sabbatical "benefit" is likely nothing more than a hollow set of words in a human resources manual. While there is no firm data, logic suggests that even a smaller proportion of nonprofit organizations are able to offer sabbaticals to their team members. A handful of foundations -- the Barr Foundation, The Durfee Foundation, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and the Rasmuson Foundation -- have provided support for nonprofit executive sabbaticals for several years.

These foundations came together in 2009 to study the impact of the sabbaticals they funded on the executives and their organizations. It's not surprising that the executives surveyed reported great personal benefits from their sabbatical. Nearly all the respondents noted improvements in their work/life balance, family connections and physical health as a result of their sabbaticals; 87 percent of the nonprofit leaders reported having greater confidence in doing their jobs. One-third of respondents indicated that they now planned to stay in their position longer than they had previously projected; only 13 percent said they expected to leave their organizations within one to three years.

Equally important, and in some ways no less surprising, are the benefits that accrued to the organizations:

  • Better governance -- Nearly two-thirds of nonprofit executives felt that their boards became more effective as a result of planning for and covering their sabbatical.
  • Improved organization development and structure -- Over 80 percent reported that they were more comfortable delegating responsibilities and that their managers had become more skilled as a result of the sabbatical.
  • Succession planning -- While most executives reported that they intended to stay in their jobs longer, or at least as long, as they had intended prior to their sabbatical, most reported that their managers "rose to the occasion" to lead the organization during the leave. This provides confidence that the organization could manage in the event their leader "got hit by a bus." Sometimes it also identifies who is NOT well-suited for the executive position, also valuable information.

Nonprofit sabbaticals are clearly a win-win-win -- for the organizations, their executives and staff and for the beneficiaries of their work. More foundations should support sabbaticals for the executives at the nonprofits they fund.

And now I have very long, polished fingernails.