Want Nonprofit Staff Longevity and Creativity? Consider a Sabbatical Policy

January 18, 2018; New York Times

Five years ago, a report from CompassPoint found that a third of the nonprofit executive directors and half of the development directors questioned anticipated leaving their current jobs in two years or less, notes Courtney Martin in the New York Times.

“Worse,” Martin adds, “the 2017 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, published last month by GuideStar and Nonprofit HR, found that 81 percent of nonprofits have no retention strategy whatsoever.”

High turnover can significantly affect nonprofits’ ability to meet their missions. “According to the Center for American Progress,” Martin notes, “the average cost to an organization when an employee making $50,000 a year leaves is 20 percent of his or her salary.”

What strategies can nonprofits employ to retain workers and reduce turnover and burnout? Last May, in NPQ, the Management Assistance Group outlined some options, including:

  • Flexible time off
  • Sabbatical policies
  • Medical benefits that include resources such as acupuncture and massage
  • Scheduling that supports breaks, big thinking, reflection, and rejuvenation time
  • Meetings that incorporate moments to ground, pause, (re-)center, reflect, deliberate, and see from multiple perspectives

For her part, Martin focuses specifically on sabbaticals. In Los Angeles, the Durfee Foundation has operated a sabbatical program since 1997, financing more than 100 nonprofit leaders to take three months of paid time off. “Durfee gives $45,000 to the recipient’s organization to cover the cost of the leader’s salary, and also provides $3,000 to the interim leader and $5,000 for organization-wide professional development.”

This fall, Deborah Linnell, published a study on Durfee’s approach over the past 20 years that highlights how foundation-supported sabbaticals can strengthen boards, leaders and organizations. Linnell notes that the sabbaticals work best when “leave is uninterrupted and entails little or no contact between the leader and his or her organization,” “a staff member, as opposed to an outsider, leads in the interim,” and “the staff as a whole has access to additional professional development.”

Martin mentions other foundations that support sabbaticals, including the Barr Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation, and the Meyer Foundation. Linnell estimates that over a dozen foundations now have official sabbatical funding programs, Martin writes. Still, that’s a very small number.

Linnell, who has worked with nonprofits for nearly 40 years, says sabbaticals are a highly effective strategy that helps “leaders who are stuck in reactive or even adaptive leadership mode have a chance to refresh themselves and reconnect with their original passion for their cause. They are able to do catalytic generative thinking again.”

Rinku Sen, who has directed three organizations in her career, most recently Race Forward, vouches for their benefits. “After a sabbatical from the Center for Third World Organizing,” Sen says, she was able to integrate gender and racial justice work in a way that she wasn’t able to do before. Sen explains:

It wasn’t that I thought obsessively about gender while on my sabbatical. It was that I finally wasn’t tired. When I came back I could see the path: What’s the program? Who’s the staff? Where’s the money? I had space in my body and my head for those answers to come to me.

Martin notes that,

Neuroscience tells us that what Sen experienced is a “default mode network”— a way in which our brains make new connections and even solve complex problems when we aren’t actively focusing on them. The default mode network is most likely to light up when we’re “mind wandering”—a term for what people often experience while daydreaming in the shower or waiting for a train. Stress shuts this kind of powerful thinking down, as does our compulsion to grab our cellphones at any idle moment. Sabbaticals, done right, reprioritize mind-wandering.

Martin adds that, “Sabbaticals have also been shown to strengthen leadership teams. Seventy-nine percent of respondents to Linnell’s longitudinal study reported that the sabbatical had been helpful to the professional development of interim leaders and that nearly half of the boards studied were stronger afterward.”

Martin highlights the case of Emily Cohen Raskin, then development director at the Jamestown Community Center. “The organization had grown,” Martin writes, “but everyone still reported directly to the executive director.” When the executive director took a sabbatical, however, staff members were able to pilot a new leadership structure.

“Each of us walked away with such a better understanding of how the whole organization functioned,” Cohen Raskin says. “It was a great opportunity for us to stretch our wings and build our confidence, and it built the executive director’s confidence in us, too.” When the director returned, the organization kept the structure that the staff had put together.

Martin adds that, “One unintuitive consequence of leaders stepping away is that many build social capital…Some foundations invite grantees to meet and reflect on leadership in their time off; the bonds formed during these gatherings lead to new professional connections, sources for funding, and even formal collaborations. The group get-togethers often extend beyond the three months off and function as a sort of touchstone for the benefits of the sabbatical after it’s over.”

While some may fear that sabbaticals will lead to turnover, Martin notes that they actually tend to breed loyalty and encourage leaders to stick around. “They also create healthier work habits,” Martin says, “which influences the culture of the entire organization. Three-fourths of respondents report an organizational culture shift toward a better work-life balance, even 20 years later.”—Steve Dubb