It’s been over two months now since I stepped down as an executive director. I wish I could say that, unchained from the shackles of leadership, I would be able to relax and recharge like I had planned. I haven’t been able to yet. I have to unlearn so many strategies that I adopted to be an effective ED: Constant vigilance, emotion suppression, functioning on reduced sleep, abandonment of personal hygiene, etc.
And then there’s the guilt. I feel like I have abandoned my friends in the trenches. This guilt manifests in my trying to buy colleagues lunches and coffees, leading to conversations like this:
Me: Let me buy you lunch.
Colleague: That’s sweet, but you don’t need to do that.
Me: No, I insist! It’s the least I can do! You are facing so much! Let me pay!
Colleague: You are unemployed…
Me: Oh. You’re right. Can…can you buy me lunch…?
Visiting with colleagues reminds me of the difficulties faced by nonprofit leaders. So many have left; so many are on the verge of quitting. Effective leaders; people I look up to. Everyone’s been affected, but leaders of color have been especially hard hit. And of the young professionals I talk to, there are few who are even remotely interested in being an executive director. People are burning out, and no one wants to replace them. This is a serious, serious problem for our sector, and there is little that is being done about it. Like our crappy, duct-taped chairs, we just accept it as our normal.
It needs to stop being our normal. If we don’t take care of our people, we will continue to fall behind on every single issue area. I know the challenges are complex. I wrote about all the variables that lead to leaders, especially leaders of color, to burn out. These include the ridiculously unrealistic expectations put on EDs/CEOs, our default board structure that is archaic and oppressive, and the constant hunger games for funding because of ineffective funding practices—restricted one-year grants, onerous applications, a measly 5% payout rate—that foundations continue to cling to, etc.
While we take care of those things, however, a quick and effective thing we as a sector can do is simply provide more sabbaticals. Foundations, you all need to set aside funding for sabbaticals. And nonprofits, you need to adopt a sabbatical policy, one that’s applicable to everyone who works at your organization, not just the ED.
Luckily, there are lots of research and resources on the benefits of sabbaticals. The Durfee Foundation has been a pioneer in supporting sabbaticals for over 20 years. Gleaming from Durfee’s very informative report with lots of great case studies, there are countless benefits of sabbaticals, including:
Increasing retention of nonprofit leaders: Having sabbatical policies in place will help with staff retention. Supporting staff enough to provide them paid breaks after several years of hard work will increase their motivation to stay. And just like the anticipation of going on vacations has the same beneficial effect as actually taking vacations, just knowing that after five or seven years, they can take a paid sabbatical will help a lot of people keep going.
Shifting perspectives and allowing for new thinking: So many of us are so mired in the grind that we have little time and energy to think broadly and creatively about our sector, our community, our leadership styles, and other critical things. My executive coach once asked me, “Are you spending enough time on the balcony, or are you always on the dance floor?” Our sector can do its most effective work if all of us spend more time on the balcony.
Changing organizational culture around work/life balance: From the case studies in the Durfee report, and from colleagues I’ve talked to who have taken sabbaticals, people return after an intentional break feeling more energized and committed to doing things differently, including how they engage with life/work balance. They set better examples; it benefits everyone at the organization and helps to end this archetype of the overworked, burnt-out nonprofit leader.
Providing leadership opportunities for other team members: Our sector sucks at succession planning. Leadership transitions often lead to fear, anxiety, and chaos. It does not have to be this way. Giving internal staff leadership opportunities in the absence of someone allows them to practice vital skills (and see that maybe it’s not so bad). And it allows the person on sabbatical to realize that things don’t have to fall apart when they’re gone, which counters this myth of the indispensable solitary leader.
There are many other benefits. According to this article in the Harvard Business Review, sabbaticals also:
- Increase sabbatical takers’ confidence levels
- Improve collaboration between nonprofit leaders and their boards of directors
- Increase the effectiveness of interim leaders
- Strengthen partnerships between leaders who took sabbaticals and the interim leaders
- Allows organizations to “stress test” organizational structures
These effects last long after people return from sabbaticals.
With the fact that we are losing people from our sector every day, and with all of this research on the positive effects of sabbaticals, we need to make this a standard practice in nonprofit. We need to admit that we suck at taking care of our people in this sector. And honestly, it’s not “this sector” but “progressives.” Progressive foundations and organizations suck at taking care of our people. Last week, at the Catalist (soon to be Philanos) conference, I was in a fireside chat with a colleague, Pia Infante of The Whitman Institute. Pia brought up a critical point: “Conservatives invest in leaders and ideas.”
Progressives, on the other hand, prioritize short-term, narrowly-focused projects. The projects and programs are what matter, not the people planning and implementing them. People are an afterthought, replaceable if they burn out, like batteries. We don’t even realize we’ve internalized this mindset. Everyone means well, but this exhaust-and-replace philosophy is internalized by even the most supportive and progressive funders, organizations, and leaders. And it is backfiring on us and seriously jeopardizing our entire sector and the people we serve. We need to take care of the most important element of our work: Our people. All of us need to do better:
Nonprofits: Have a sabbatical policy. Here are several samples, compiled by the Durfee Foundation, that you can use. Have a policy that includes all staff, not just the ED/CEO. I know for many of you, it is difficult to think about the costs of such a program when you have so many funding challenges. But think about the costs of employee turnover; there are significant time and financial costs to replace staff who burn out and leave. Build sabbaticals into your budget. The more we normalize this, the easier it is to get funding for it.
Funders: Fund sabbaticals. Do this quick exercise: Think of an amazing nonprofit leader in your community, someone who is effective, whose work is vital. Now think of them stressed out and on the verge of quitting. This, unfortunately, is pervasive across our sector, and very, very few of you are actually doing anything about it. You are in denial about how serious this problem is. Sabbaticals are effective; fund them. If you don’t know where to start, again, our good friend the Durfee Foundation has done a bunch of work for you and wrote this how-to guide.
Our sector needs to take care of its people. If anyone wants to talk further about sabbaticals or anything else, let’s get lunch. You’re buying.
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