Will Sabbaticals Be Commonplace in the Social Profit Sector One Day?

Monday, June 5, 2017

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

This piece was originally published in the Daily WRAG.

"These people are sacrificing so much to take on the executive roles of these groups. We are watching people not just burn out but make themselves sick in service of their communities. It’s our job to take care of them.” 

So said then-Meyer Foundation CEO Julie Rogers in 2014, in an interview with the Stanford Social Innovation Review. She was quoted in an article entitled “Combatting Burnout in Nonprofit Leaders” that appeared just months before the Meyer Foundation established a sabbatical program in Julie’s name. Until Meyer launched this program, the concept of sabbaticals in the nonprofit sector wasn’t really on my radar. Of course, there were exceptions. George Jones and Chuck Bean were the only local nonprofit leaders I knew who had taken sabbaticals. I recently spoke with them about the value of their sabbaticals:

George Jones, CEO, Bread for the City:
“After 15 years as the CEO, not only was the sabbatical one of the most exciting, reinvigorating 90 days of my life, but 5 years later I still find myself fondly reflecting on one part or another of that experience. And I feel like the opportunity really did re-energize my mind, body and soul for my return to the challenging social justice work we do at Bread for the City.”

Chuck Bean, former CEO of the Nonprofit Roundtable (now CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments):
“I had a two-month sabbatical in my eighth year at the Nonprofit Roundtable. A CEO is, every day, at the juncture of mission and money. She/he is the filter for real-time strategic planning. If they’re not fresh, if they’re lost in the weeds, they’re gonna miss something big that’s gonna hold back the organization. My sabbatical gave me the opportunity to focus with intentionality on my health, to clear out the cobwebs. The result, I think, is that it helped me think more strategically.”

Other than George and Chuck, and the recent recipients of the Julie Rogers award,* I haven’t heard much about sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders in the DMV. It’s time to change that.

I encourage my colleagues in the social profit sector to consider your own state of mind, your own well-being. What do the airlines tell us? “Put on your oxygen mask before helping others.” We all need to recharge, to have our energy renewed for the next challenge.

Is it time for you to consider a sabbatical request? If so, determine when your organization can best accommodate your absence. (There is a month or two, really. You can find it.) Think about how you will use the time. Create a plan for coverage at your organization, write your proposal, and talk with your board leadership.

For those who serve on nonprofit boards: I urge you to consider policies that make executive directors and senior staff (or all staff) eligible for sabbaticals after a certain period of service. Research exists on the value that can accrue to an organization by giving executives an extended break from the daily grind.

At a time when the work we do in the social sector is more critical than ever, taking time to rest, reflect, and recharge might just be one of the best things we can do to be more effective.

Note: The WRAG Board of Trustees approved my sabbatical request for this summer. Back after Labor Day ready to face the challenges and opportunities at WRAG and in the region.

*Recipients include Michael Cassidy, the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis; Michele Booth Cole, Safe Shores; Oramenta Newsome, LISC; and Kristine Thompson, Calvary Women’s Services.