Nonprofit CEO Sabbaticals Reduce Turnover and Spur Growth

I have always encouraged my staff to take vacations of at least one week twice a year, in order to avoid burnout and increase efficiency (the studies on the importance of vacation are numerous). To further reinforce the issue, I have even edited vacation time policies so employees are NOT paid out unused time. I felt well educated on the issue, with a clear understanding of the benefit to the individual, as well as the benefit to the organization. However, it wasn’t until I was forced to take a sabbatical from the nonprofit sector, that I realized the full and tremendous impact a leader can make after taking an extended period of time off.

My Forced Sabbatical

My twin sister had been fighting a terminal cancer diagnosis for more than 5 years, when I realized I needed to be with her as often as I could. I had two small children and she lived over 1,000 miles away, so working full time and being there for my family and my sister were not possible. So I left my job as President/CEO of a growing foundation. Although those next few years with my sister were previous ones that I would never give up, I missed the nonprofit sector terribly.

I found myself during my entire time off reading, researching and studying everything I could find on the nonprofit sector; especially the areas where I had thought I had the most experience (foundations and increasing nonprofit capacity). I dug deeper into issues I saw as major societal problems (i.e. low efficiencies in nonprofits, lack of funding for capacity building, no support for donors, etc.), and opened up communication with various experts and colleges to flush out solutions. I significantly expanded my knowledge and learned to reject the norm of focusing only on your individual nonprofit, and to instead collaborate with others to seek better ways of doing things.

Once I was ready to go back to work full-time, I quickly realized my time away was both a gift and a curse. I was very frustrated when it became more difficult to break back into nonprofit; not because I still felt qualified, but because I felt 10 times more qualified than previously! I knew the time off had benefitted me, and could greatly benefit a nonprofit – but groups hiring only saw my time away as a negative.

So how could I learn from this? If I could do it all over, how would I do it? If it could benefit someone else or some other organization, what would that look like?

Can A Sabbatical Benefit Your Organization?

If your burned out or your organization is just maintaining the status quo, a sabbatical may be just what both you and the organization need. Often in these circumstances you or your board may say it is time to get a new President, but rushing to change the leadership can be very dangerous and costly to the organization. The cost of turnover at the top can be very high—not only in lost productivity, but in lost relationships, fundraising, momentum and, most importantly, lost impact. I have found that it takes on average about 18 months to really understand and lead a new organization, recognize opportunities and build the relationships necessary to begin really making an impact (i.e. introducing innovative ideas, developing collaborations, funding capacity building, etc).

Instead of making such a drastic change, a change that could be detrimental if the wrong leader is hired, consider a three to six-month sabbatical instead! Not only would this save the high cost and lost productivity associated with leadership turnover, but it could drastically increase the organization’s impact when you return with fresh ideas and a recharged battery. Moreover, you could use the opportunity to test out upcoming leaders in the organization and evaluate your succession plan.

Details, Details, Details

So it sounds good in theory, but how do you logistically make it happen? Below are several issues and ideas that should be considered when your deciding on how to take a sabbatical:

1. Make sure you make it clear to your board how long you plan to take on your sabbatical. Most people benefit most taking 3-6 months for a Sabbatical.

2. Talk to your board about whether you plan to be away the entire time, or will be checking in weekly or bi-weekly. Either way, try to use the opportunity for staff development & succession planning (i.e. allow the person you would most likely hire as either an interim or permanent replacement to lead the organization).

3. If you have a small organization that can’t cover for you, consider simply going part-time. You can also consider hiring someone to handle basic job duties when you are away. This person can be full-time or part-time, depending on your needs and ability to pay.

4. If you are in dire need of a break, and need that break to be full-time, hire an interim CEO to run things while you are away. Interim CEOs never stay permanently in one position (so you don’t need to worry about them winning over your board and taking your job), and they specialize in running an organization for 6 months to 2 years while they concurrently evaluate the organization from top to bottom. When the new or returning CEO starts work, the interim presents a report on ideas/suggestions to improve the organization. (There are many professionals who specialize in being an interim CEO, and know how to help you take advantage of this time you are away).

5. Pay is something that should be determined between you and your board of directors, and will vary depending on the financial capability of the nonprofit, the financial needs of the CEO, the CEO’s tenure and whether or not a part-time or full-time replacement will need to be hired.

One way to negotiate for at least part-time pay is to agree to continue to oversee the organization virtually or only one day a week (this is especially convincing if a replacement will not need to be hired). In addition, if you are like me and will be studying and learning from experts and/or colleagues, make sure your board is aware of these plans. It will go a long way in defending why you should still be paid part-time while on sabbatical. Finally, you can offer to sign a contract assuring your board you will stay with the organization for at least 2 years after the sabbatical (thereby ensuring the organization will benefit from your time away).

6. If the sabbatical is more to refresh your ideas and less about being burned out, OR if it is a financial burden to take an unpaid sabbatical, consider more creative ideas for a sabbatical. For example, take a part-time position at an organization similar to yours in a different area, or “swap” jobs with the CEO of another organization with a comparable mission or vision. Both you and this other organization will benefit greatly from the in-depth learning opportunities and collaborative ideas that come from really digging into another organization. Consider how much more you learn in your first year at a new organization, then each year after when things become routine and people become complacent. Taking a short-term job at another organization will provide a super charged learning experience with new challenges and opportunities that you may not have considered in your own nonprofit.

Remember, there are many benefits to running a nonprofit as opposed to a for-profit organization – and a big one is that without the element of competition, there are great opportunities for collaboration and peer-learning. Sabbaticals are only one example of the innovative ways we can work and excel. As a sector, we need to learn to recognize and take advantage of these unique benefits and opportunities more often.

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