Work Sabbaticals: The Latest Nonprofit Retention Strategy
Sabbaticals are as old as the Bible. And, for many sectors, they are as rare as the miracles described in the Old Testament. The idea of a sabbatical is found in Leviticus, who stated that in the seventh year, “the land is to have a year of rest.” Deuteronomy took this idea further and proclaimed that every seven years, all debts shall be forgiven. Yet here we are in 2022, with loads of debts and little rest.
Although the practice of taking work sabbaticals has been common for university professors, most businesses and nonprofit organizations don’t offer this option. Recently, The Great Resignation has led more nonprofits to consider work sabbaticals as a tool to recruit and retain talented staff.
Challenges of nonprofit burnout
In the best of times, nonprofit staff are often overworked and underpaid. Much of nonprofit work is emotionally draining, whether directly assisting individuals, working with communities or driving public policy to change systems.
This became even more true during the pandemic: A 2021 national survey of more than 2,000 nonprofits by the Federal Reserve and the National Council of Nonprofits found that 75% of nonprofits “indicated that demand for their services had increased compared with pre-pandemic levels,” while 40% reported a decrease in staff.
During the pandemic, the combination of increased job-related stress and, well, a pandemic led many nonprofit employees to seek new jobs that provided higher pay and better work-life balance.
“Everyone has been even more stressed than usual. A lot of this may be because we are still working under archaic systems not designed to sustain leaders over the long run,” says Vu Le, an internationally known keynote speaker, nonprofit leader and author of the popular blog Nonprofit AF.
In December 2021, a survey by the National Council of Nonprofits found that “one in three nonprofits (34%) shared job vacancy rates of between 10% and 19%, and a troubling 26% responded that they had job openings for 20% to 29% of their positions.” When nonprofits lose staff, the cost is twofold: the cost to replace and train new staff as well as costs to the community if services or programs are strained or paused because of vacancies.
What I discovered on sabbatical
In December 2019, after years of requesting a sabbatical, my board of directors approved a 12-week paid sabbatical planned for June 2020, after our legislative session concluded. We pushed the sabbatical back two years so that I could steer the organization through the pandemic and be able to travel safely. My sabbatical ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Before I began my sabbatical, I imagined what it might be like—what I might be like after three months away from work without financial stress. I imagined returning like a conquering heroine, refreshed, in peak physical condition, with new triumphs and insights to share. I am sorry to report that I haven’t lost the weight I gained during the pandemic and have yet to successfully incorporate a strong exercise routine into my life. However, my monthly migraines have gone from lasting three days to only five hours. I have more energy, less stress and my insomnia has disappeared.
The length of my sabbatical meant that I was able to complete a work-related project, travel with my son, focus on some creative writing projects and complete needed home repairs. I also did a lot of nothing. Unstructured time was an unexpected benefit of my sabbatical. Like many nonprofit leaders, I have more work to do than time to do it in. I live by my (multiple) alarms, to-do lists and calendar. Having time to do nothing, time to read, to nap and to let my mind wander was a real gift. I returned to work with new ideas for programs and a commitment to reorganize my work to continue to maintain a better work-life balance.
My personal epiphanies mirrored the experiences of other nonprofit leaders. In a joint study by Third Sector New England and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, 75% of leaders reported that the time off enabled them to solidify an existing vision for their organization or create a new one. In addition, about 50% of those leaders were able to implement their vision upon their return.
How sabbaticals benefit nonprofits
The length and requirements of a nonprofit’s sabbatical policy influence the ways in which staff use their time away. Many sabbaticals are 12 weeks long, while others are a more modest four. Some require that the time away benefit the organization; others embrace time away for its own sake.
While there are clear personal benefits to employees who take sabbaticals, organizations benefit as well. Increased organizational capacity is one demonstrable gain. Research from both The Durfee Foundation and The Third Sector found that 60-85% of the time, nonprofit staff reported leaders and directors restructuring jobs and delegating responsibilities. Additionally, The Third Sector found that “60% of awardees and 53% of interim leaders reported that the board of directors became more effective as a result of the planning and learning surrounding the sabbatical.”
Sabbaticals can also act as dry runs for leadership transitions. The effort to plan for a sabbatical can clarify what roles are essential for the executive director to lead and what tasks can be delegated. Although many nonprofit boards worry that taking a sabbatical may result in a leader leaving the organization, research shows the opposite; one-third of nonprofit leaders said their sabbatical helped them decide to stay in their job longer than they had planned, according to research from Third Sector New England and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services.
What happens if an employee doesn’t return
Leadership departures after a sabbatical can still benefit the organization and the sector. For Colin Stein, former executive director of the BC Cycling Coalition, the sabbatical created a glide path for him to leave the organization. After leading the BC Cycling Coalition for 18 months, during which time the coalition expanded fundraising and created a new strategic plan, Stein suggested that he take a six-month unpaid sabbatical in order to complete a book he was writing about the sector.
Although he pledged to return, the coalition split his job into two new positions to cover his work during the sabbatical. At the end of his sabbatical, Stein wasn’t ready to return. “My work on the book and coming back to other contracting opportunities would be better for me, and the new hires meant that it worked out fine for the coalition,” he says.
Stein’s sabbatical ended up spurring important changes, including succession planning, expansion of staff and organizational structure. “The sabbatical got us to a place that was a healthy, growth-oriented place for me and for the organization,” Stein says.
What to consider when initiating a sabbatical policy
If you are a nonprofit leader and considering a sabbatical policy, here are some things to consider:
- Will the policy apply to all staff or just to C-suite positions? The general consensus among nonprofit leaders is that the policy should apply to all staff.
- What duties must be covered while the employee is on sabbatical? Will you delegate to a staff member to be interim executive director? If not, will you hire an interim executive director? Either internal staff or external consultants should be compensated appropriately for these additional duties.
- Can you secure outside funding to support the sabbatical? A handful of funders provide money explicitly to support nonprofit leaders’ sabbaticals. If you can apply and receive funding and other support for the sabbatical, great. If not, do you have enough general support funding to pay for the sabbatical and compensate internal or external support?
- Is the board of directors prepared to assist and support the interim executive director?
- What support is in place for the executive director’s reentry? The staff’s adjustment?
The Durfee Foundation released a DIY sabbatical guide for nonprofits, which includes draft policy language as well as planning and suggestions before, during and after a sabbatical.
Photos courtesy Marceline White
Marceline White is an award-winning consumer advocate, writer, and poet living in Baltimore, Maryland. She has advocated, organized, researched, written on and won campaigns on fair trade, gender and trade, economic rights and consumer protection over the last 20 years. Her research and policy analysis have appeared in Oxfam Development Journal, Foreign Policy in Focus, USAID, and the United Nations Development Programme. She is a contributing author to Trading Women’s Health and Rights? Trade Liberalization and Reproductive Health in Developing Economies (2006) and Global Issues Women and Justice (2004).
Essays, op-eds, and other writing have appeared in Woman’s Day, Baltimore Fishbowl, Baltimore Sun, and Mother Jones.
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