Advancing Philanthropy

Your Career: Time Out!

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illustration of people watching an employee walk out the door

Above: Illustration Credit Neil Webb/Getty Images

Are you tired, frazzled, fed up, trying to do too much in too little time and with insufficient resources? Don’t quit your job. Consider a sabbatical.

While sabbaticals are usually thought of as very desirable perks just for college professors, they may be an ideal solution that generates benefits for executive directors and CEOs, as well as their staff, the board and their organizations. As some have found, stepping away can actually draw them back closer to their mission.

“You don’t get refreshed unless you have the time and the space to think and reflect,” says Deborah Linnell, program officer at the van Beuren Charitable Foundation (www.vbcfoundation.org) in Newport, R.I., and co-author of Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building and Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector (CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, 2010). “If a leader is refreshed and reenergized, they are likely to come back with a new vision or new excitement for the work.”

Sabbaticals also can be a valuable retention tool for an organization, something Linnell knows firsthand. When she was the executive director of another organization at which she implemented a turnaround, Linnell found herself “fried” after six years on the job. “I had taken everything on my own shoulders. I was carrying too much weight, and I was so exhausted,” she recalls. “I asked the board chair to give me a break for two months so I could breathe and think about how to manage this better.”

The board chair declined her request, and Linnell moved on to a different organization several months later. “If I had gotten the break,” Linnell says, “I think I could have given them another 18 months.”

Unfortunately, sabbaticals are still relatively uncommon in the sector due to incorrect assumptions that an executive director on sabbatical is unlikely to return or that the organization will fall apart in that person’s absence. On the contrary, the Creative Disruption study reports a range of positive outcomes, including the following:

  • Sabbaticals do not contribute significantly to leaders’ leaving their organizations. In fact, 77 percent of survey respondents who went on sabbatical stayed with their organizations.
  • Executive directors reported that managers who acted as interims during their absence were better skilled in their positions post-sabbatical.
  • Sixty percent of respondents said their board of directors was more effective as a result of the planning and learning surrounding the sabbatical process.
  • A sabbatical can give the organization insights into what future leadership may look like, leading to the creation of a succession plan.

The timing of the study, which was released in 2010—the height of the recession—may have diluted its impact, according to Linnell, but hopefully current attempts to raise the subject will bring it to the forefront of conversation in the sector. “The recession didn’t bury the report, but, for leaders, the needs of their organizations put this subject [sabbaticals] very much on the back burner,” she admits. “A lot of our best leaders will not even think about taking a sabbatical until there are more studies and more people are talking about the benefits. Sabbaticals should be talked about as one of the eight or nine tools that an organization needs to sustain itself and retain good people.”

Of course, each sabbatical is different, with myriad reasons for taking a “time out,” but the benefits are similar: a new outlook on life, work and the profession.

Disconnect to Reconnect

Carol Hardison, CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry (www.crisisassistance.org) in Charlotte, N.C., did not set out to take a sabbatical. After years of joining her brother for several days in the middle of his two-week European vacations, she decided to spend the full two weeks with him last summer. However, that was only the first step. “I thought that if I was going to leave for 14 days, I needed time to prepare and pack and then time to catch up and reconnect upon my return. At that point, I decided to seek an entire month off.”

Her typical vacation was two days or a long weekend, and when she broached the subject of a month off with her board chair, he was immediately supportive and told her to take the time she needed. “But as soon as my brother started planning our packed itinerary, I started thinking, ‘What about downtime for me—Carol time and reflection time?’ And I ended up adding another 10 days!”

Although Hardison started out using the term “extended vacation,” that caused confusion among staff and colleagues, so she switched to saying “sabbatical.” “I needed to call it something that people would understand,” she explains. “The one thing I was afraid of by using the formal term was having people think I would be doing research and writing, and I didn’t intend to do that. It wasn’t about accomplishing things. It was more about not accomplishing. I had intentions around wanting to disconnect from anything work-related so that my mind would go to new places and I would connect with new things, new places and new people, including reconnecting with family and friends. Only stopping the work train would allow that.”

Her staff was excited for Hardison, but they weren’t convinced that she could completely unplug from her work life. “My work is in 100 percent alignment with my purpose on Earth, and that can cause work/life balance issues,” she says. “I surprised myself by how quickly I was able to disconnect, but that’s because I completely trusted the team to make decisions and run the agency.”

She had no contact with the office during her time off.

Hardison’s sabbatical began with a weekend of pampering with a friend before heading to Amsterdam with her brother. He always planned his vacations to coincide with cycling competitions, and last year, the Tour de France began in Holland.

After returning to the United States, Hardison spent a week by herself at a friend’s home in the mountains, where she took walks, read and simply enjoyed the solitude. She then went home and switched gears and welcomed a visit from her seven-year-old great nephew. “Discovering things in your community through the eyes of a child was just a thrill,” she says. “What was wonderful for me was realizing how many fun things there were to do and places to go that I did not even know about.”

Are you tired, frazzled, fed up, trying to do too much in too little time and with insufficient resources? Don’t quit your job. Consider a sabbatical.

Having a substantial period of time in which to separate herself from the day-to-day running of the organization resulted in a new way of thinking about work. “A vacation is sort of a temporary departure, but a sabbatical gives you the ability to find your natural self,” Hardison says. “My natural mind goes to the big picture, and I allowed the bigger view to come into my brain. I thought about how it happened that our wonderful community became a place that has such a problem with poverty. When I walked back into the office, I was refreshed, and I’ve been able to stay at the community-need level rather than at the level of approving emails. I’m more attuned and engaged in an intentional level in everything I do.”

Seek Balance

Brett Andrews, executive director of the Positive Resource Center (www.positiveresource.org) in San Francisco, and his board had been discussing sabbaticals for several years. “It was around the occasion of my 10th anniversary here. The board members said they enjoyed working with me and wanted to make sure I wanted to continue working with them,” he recalls. “The discussion was about a sabbatical for me and a sabbatical policy for the organization, which made it a much more balanced conversation.”

By the time Andrews took his three-month break in the spring of 2015, the organization had developed a policy that allows everyone at every level of the organization to take a sabbatical. “Different policies have different requirements,” Andrews explains. “Ours is a retention strategy. You’re not going on sabbatical because you worked here for seven years and you earned it. You’re going because we want you to be here for another seven years.”

Andrews had been in his position for 12 years and was ready for a break. “My job is very enjoyable for me, but my work/life balance was out of sync. I wanted to create a good separation between Brett Andrews, the executive director, and Brett Andrews, the person in the world.”

He went into the sabbatical with a deliberate strategy: “to be as agenda-free as possible.” In addition to increasing his gym attendance and meditating, he traveled to Puerta Vallarta, visited friends and family back East and reactivated his social life. He also got back in touch with his creative side, continuing with voice lessons and revisiting poems he had written 25 years earlier.

Andrews also became very intentional about finding ways to manage the stress of his job. “I worked very hard on mindfulness, and I actually created a couple of indicators for myself to notice when I’m stressed in the office. Now I play music, which soothes me, or take a walk and get a coffee. It’s OK to just stare into space for a few minutes if that’s what I need to do.”

Not only did Andrews return with a fresh outlook on his own leadership role, but he also saw how his absence produced benefits among his staff. “The sabbatical allowed—if not forced—me to let others make decisions that were in the best interest of the Positive Resource Center,” he says. “I also realized that being a part of every conversation is not the best use of my time and may even thwart ‘stretch thinking’ within the senior management team. The sabbatical not only allowed my senior management team to take greater responsibility, which is a professional development opportunity, but it also gave them a chance to see how a decision made in one department could, and most likely would, have an impact on other departments, if not the whole agency. Since I have returned, I am pleased to say that I have been able to maintain this new level of engagement, and my senior management team is thriving.”

For others who may want to consider a sabbatical, Andrews highly recommends approaching it from the retention angle. “I would encourage every executive director to go into a conversation with the board with a preliminary plan and say, ‘I want to stay, and in order for me to stay, I think I need a break.’ Go in with a draft plan of how things would work in your absence. It telegraphs that ‘This is about us, not about me. This plan will allow the organization to move forward and function while I’m away.’”

Pursue Passions

Patricia Lonsbary, CFRE, major gift officer at the American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania (www.redcross.org/local/pa/pittsburgh) in Pittsburgh, was a consultant for Ketchum Inc. when she decided to take a different kind of sabbatical. About a year earlier, her husband, who had a private executive motor coach company, suggested that they sell their house and launch their own travel adventure. “It was a drastic proposition, and I wasn’t ready for it,” she admits.

However, during one business trip, while she was enduring a layover after a delayed flight, with no idea of when she would get home, she had an epiphany. In the airport bookstore, she saw The Career Break Book: Swap your briefcase for a passport and live your dream. She bought it, read it, then later told her husband, “I’m so ready.”

She explained to her boss at Ketchum that it was a good time for a break, as she had successfully concluded campaigns for two clients and did not want to take on any new projects. “He told me the door would be open if I wanted to come back, but at the time, I didn’t know if I would go back. I was at a fabulous point in my career, but I was ready to take the leap. I had always wanted to be a travel writer, and that was probably the first time in my life that I was able to focus on the two things I truly love to do: travel and write.”

With no itinerary except the desire to go only to places they had not visited before, Lonsbary and her husband set off. The couple traveled 28,000 miles in two years while she blogged and wrote pieces for Escapees Magazine, Family Motor Coaching Association Magazine and CNN iReport. She also did some spontaneous pro bono consulting for people she met along the way. “I stayed in touch with my Ketchum friends and stayed engaged with AFP, keeping myself in tune with what was happening. I think it’s very important that you maintain your skills and contacts with people in the business.”

At the end of two years, when she decided it was time to go back to work, she secured a position as global philanthropy manager for UNICEF in Geneva, Switzerland. She and her husband gave up the motor coach, crossed the ocean and lived in Switzerland for four years.

When Lonsbary’s mother’s declining health prompted a return to the United States, she worked as a consultant for Bob Carter Companies before moving on to her current position with the Red Cross. Even though she did not return to the organization she had left for her sabbatical, her time away resulted in a similar type of new focus and energy that Andrews and Hardison experienced. “The time away from fundraising gave me a freshness when I returned to the profession,” she says. “I had encountered people of all kinds, many of whom I would not have experienced otherwise. I saw the homeless in the California campgrounds who lived in tents next to my luxury Prevost [motor coach]. By contrast, I had abundance: food, shelter and more. This inequality reminded me of social need in a real, tangible way, and it stays with me when I ask for funding now to make a compassionate difference.

“Because I encountered the homeless and the hungry, the women fighting breast cancer and the people rebuilding their homes in the Fifth Ward of New Orleans, I saw the ‘living case for support,’ and it rekindled my passion to find funding support.”


Sidebar: Resources

The Career Break Book: Swap your briefcase for a passport and live your dream by Joe Bindloss, Clare Hargreaves, Charlotte Hindle and Andrew Dean Nystrom (Lonely Planet, 2004), paperback, 228 pages

Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building and Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services www.compasspoint.org/research/creative-disruption-sabbaticals-capacity-…

Escape 101: The Four Secrets to Taking a Sabbatical or Career Break Without Losing Your Money or Your Mind by Dan Clements and Tara Gignac (The Brain Ranch, 2009), paperback, 172 pages

Reboot Your Life by Catherine Allen, Nancy Bearg, Rita Foley and Jaye Smith (Beaufort Books, 2011), paperback, 242 pages

There are various foundations across the country that offer support for sabbaticals in which recipients can decide how to spend their time, including the following:

Mary Ellen Collins is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, Fla. (mecollins123@yahoo.com).

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