The Sabbatical Option: Cal Wellness Rewards 10 Nonprofit Leaders with a Much-Needed Break

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November 8, 2018; Monterey Herald

Mel Mason of The Village Project, based in Seaside, California, told the Monterey Herald he was shocked when he found out he had won. After learning about the California Wellness Foundation’s Sabbatical Award a couple of years ago, Mason finally decided to apply this year, a decision that 399 other nonprofit leaders representing health and wellness organizations across the state of California also made. Reflecting on his own leadership style, he told the Herald, “I’m sure I’m notorious, like other executives, in preaching self-care to our staff while not being any kind of example for them.”

Mason holds dual roles of executive director and clinical director at the Village Project, a ten-year-old organization he founded with his wife with the mission of strengthening families through the delivery of community-based, culturally specific services. The organization is known locally for the mental health services it provides to children and families and for its special focus on the Black community and other underserved populations. Mason cites his early experiences as a member of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and early 1970s as an important foundation, particularly his involvement with the group’s Oakland-based Community Survival Programs.

This year, each of Cal Wellness’s sabbatical awards includes $30,000 for an executive director to take three to six months off from work and $10,000 to cover professional development for “next-level managers and staff.” We might argue that the amounts awarded are too meager, but the intention is solid.

“Effective leadership requires rest and rejuvenation,” Pamela Simms-Mackey, MD, a Cal Wellness trustee and member of the selection committee said in a statement. “But too often, nonprofit leaders sacrifice their own health and wellness in service to others.” Since the foundation established this  awards program in 2003, it has awarded 91 sabbaticals.

We might also look at the expanded opportunity it provides for others, since effective leadership also requires a testing process. This much-needed break for the executive may also provide just that kind of testing ground for other staff.

The nine other honorees are: Aida Cardenas of Building Skills Partnership; Debbie Case of Meals on Wheels, San Diego; Samuel Casey of COPE; Lian Cheun of Khmer Girls in Action; Edward Figueroa of St. Mary’s Dining Room; Christa Gannon of Fresh Lifelines for Youth; Janeen Steel of Learning Rights Law Center; Nilda Valmores of My Sister’s House; and Dora Westerlund of the Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation.

Mason told the Herald that he plans to take three months to visit Mexico and Canada, although not the tourist spots. Instead, Mason expects to spend time in Corralero, a small town in the state of Oaxaca that is inhabited by Mexicans of African descent, and Yanga, a town named after an African slave who led the largest slave revolt in history. In Canada, Mason plans to spend time with indigenous peoples.

Highly sought after but limited in availability, sabbatical awards for nonprofit staff are available from other foundation and corporate sources. Locally, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund has also established a robust leadership training grant program for nonprofit leaders. In Southern California, the Durfee Foundation has operated a robust sabbatical program for more than two decades.—Anne Eigeman