Time for a refresh: The practice of sabbaticals in the nonprofit sector

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It started with a short conversation with someone in the nonprofit sector about a sabbatical he had taken, and it made us wonder how widespread the practice was.

We’ve all heard about sabbaticals in the academic world, where a period of leave for research, travel or writing is granted to professors, but increasingly sabbaticals are being taken by people in other sectors, including by staff working for nonprofit organizations.

What is a sabbatical?

The word sabbatical comes from the Hebrew word shabbat meaning a period of rest, and from the Greek sabbatikos which literally means a “ceasing.”

A 2017 US-based survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that nearly 17% of employers offered sabbaticals (both paid and unpaid).

In the nonprofit sector, however, sabbaticals are more rare. In a blog post for Joining Vision and Action, longtime nonprofit leader Mary Hanewall writes: “Why aren’t sabbaticals more of a household word in the nonprofit arena? We’re known for flexibility, but sabbaticals are probably considered about as much a part of the nonprofit culture as are robust pension plans.” Denise Lloyd, chief engagement officer at Engaged HR says, “I’ve seen people take unpaid leaves, but I have never actually seen an organization offer a paid sabbatical leave.”

And yet, while they are not widespread, there are people in the nonprofit sector taking a variety of types of sabbatical leaves.

What are the different types of sabbaticals?

Since 2015, the Carold Institute together with Community Foundations of Canada has offered an annual Community Philanthropy Fellowship Program, which allows “community foundation professionals a sabbatical time where the Fellow can build knowledge, enhance leadership skills, strengthen their organization, and advance the community philanthropy movement.” Niveria Oliveira, manager, grants and community initiatives with Vancouver Foundation was awarded the 2017 Community Philanthropy Fellowship. Dave Doig, director, grants and community initiatives, talked to us in Niveria’s absence about her sabbatical. “While this fellowship totals six months of buyout time, Niveria has taken much of it in two-week chunks, returning to her responsibilities between research and travel periods.”

World Vision Canada initiated a self-funded sabbatical leave program six years ago, where a small percentage of an employee’s pay is held back over a three-year period, and at the end, the employee takes four months of sabbatical leave. While this program has had few adopters, a similar practice by the organization has had much more uptake: employees are permitted to purchase up to two weeks additional vacation time each year.

Some sabbatical leaves are taken between roles. Lee Rennick, now executive director, development, Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto, left a role in Canada to follow her partner who had a one-year opportunity in Britain. While her sabbatical year was entirely unfunded, she used the time to network with fundraisers in the UK, as well as to rest, decompress and reflect.

Finally some sabbaticals are paid leaves. After more than twenty years as executive director of Toronto’s Yonge Street Mission, Rick Tobias proposed taking a year for “rest, renewal and recreation.” With the help of two funders, Tobias was able to take that year off, spending much of his time at a Jesuit Centre for Spiritual Growth, as well as enjoying time at the Iona Community in Scotland and motorcycling around New Zealand with his wife and friends.

Costs of sabbaticals

However a sabbatical is set up, it sounds terribly appealing to most people, but the practice is not more widespread for the same reason that prevents many good practices in the nonprofit sector: costs. While the costs are not only financial, typically the first barrier to address does come down to dollars and cents.

“The typical nonprofit can’t afford to have people go on sabbatical,” says Lloyd. “There are lots of costs involved with backfilling any kind of leave, including recruitment and opportunity costs, and lost productivity. With the increase to 18-month maternity leaves, many organizations are already worried about deficit budgets. Unpaid leaves at least give the organization money to work with but there are still many associated costs with any kind of leave.”

Mark Petersen of Stronger Philanthropy, whose family’s Bridgeway Foundation funded Tobias’ leave says, “We considered this to be a capacity-building project but it was the only time we have ever funded a sabbatical. For money to go to capacity building projects like this, you really need a personal connection with the organization or you won’t be open to funding things that are far from the program area.”

Another concern is whether an organization can even find someone to fill in for a person on sabbatical. Lloyd says, “The labour market today is challenging – even if an organization wants to allow someone to take a sabbatical, it’s difficult to find qualified, skilled staff to match certain positions.”

Charlie Guy, chief people officer at World Vision says, “The larger the organization, the easier it is to backfill a position.” He notes that with World Vision’s 500+ staff, it is far easier to find internal replacements, but that in his former position as an ED of a small NGO with a staff of six, he could not offer sabbaticals as easily, particularly because each individual would have a variety of responsibilities.

Another potential cost is one of retention. “The inside joke about sabbaticals is that someone goes on sabbatical, comes back and quits,” says Petersen. “It has happened enough that it is sort of a fear.”

Finally there is a cost to the work itself in the absence of a key staff member. In Tobias’ case, he agreed with the organization that he would come back periodically throughout his year away to deal with larger, ongoing projects, such as a national conference. Because the organization had a good associate director who stepped into Tobias’ shoes, there was no concern about continuity in the work. In fact, Tobias says, “The only challenge, and it wasn’t a big one, was how to reinsert myself when he had done such a good job in my absence.”

Making a case for sabbaticals

Yonge Street Mission is not alone in this positive experience. A recent Harvard Business Review article finds that research shows, “Sabbaticals and extended vacation time are not just good for employees to rest and recharge — they benefit the organization.”

Research by Project Time Off found that the majority of leaders surveyed said that the interim leaders were more effective and responsible when the sabbatical takers returned. Some felt that this was an effective way to test out succession planning, while others found this permitted organizations to stress-test their organizational chart.

Researchers also found that “…the majority of leaders surveyed said the time away allowed them the space to generate new ideas for innovating in the organization and helped them gain greater confidence in themselves as leaders. They also reported a better ability to collaborate with their board of directors, most likely because the planning and execution of the sabbatical provided a learning experience for everyone involved.”

A 2009 study by foundations that supported nonprofit sabbaticals studied the impact of the sabbaticals on the executives and their organizations. The study showed positive organizational results, with nearly two-thirds of nonprofit executives feeling that their boards became more effective as a result of planning for and covering their sabbatical. More than 80% reported improved organization development, that they were more comfortable delegating responsibilities and that their managers had become more skilled as a result of the sabbatical.

But perhaps the most fundamental benefit of sabbaticals to organizations and their staff is simply that of rest and self-care. While Lloyd sees few planned sabbaticals, she sees many stress leaves. “These unexpected and hard-to-manage leaves that don’t have a pre-defined period put a real strain on organizations.”

Tobias observes, “If people in the academic world need sabbaticals, I would argue that the need is higher among those working with broken and wounded people, or healthy people with high needs, such as new immigrant families.” Tobias points to the high rates of burnout, compassion fatigue and rapid turnover among people working in these areas of the charitable sector, and believes that sabbaticals are effective at combatting this burnout.

And statistics bear this out. Nearly all the respondents in the 2009 study noted improvements in their work/life balance, family connections and physical health as a result of their sabbaticals; 87 percent of the nonprofit leaders reported having greater confidence in doing their jobs.

In her blog post, Hanewall argues that rather than being a risk to losing staff and an expense, sabbaticals are both an exceptional recruitment and retention tool and very inexpensive, especially compared to replacing an experienced ED. The 2009 study of those who had taken sabbaticals found that one-third of respondents indicated that they now planned to stay in their position longer than they had previously projected.

Los Angeles-based Dufee Foundation has has funded nonprofit executive sabbaticals for 20 years. “What we observed was a lot of nonprofit executive directors who loved their jobs, but left their jobs, because they were burning out,” says foundation president Carrie Avery. “We wondered, ‘What if we could offer people a safe space to step back, take a breather, and return to their organizations after a period of rest and reflection?’”

After Tobias’ sabbatical — something he wished he had done ten years sooner — Yonge Street Mission began offering paid sabbaticals to long-term staff. The organization also strongly encouraged smaller sabbatical-like practices such as using all their vacation days, study days and mental health days for personal renewal.

As for the conversation that began this investigation, it turns out that his sabbatical was short but still highly valuable. He confesses, “My wife had to convince me to take a week off between gigs - in the middle of summer!” But like all others who have taken sabbaticals, large or small, he adds, “I'm glad I did!”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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