The Power of Pausing
I trekked 6 miles across Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, finally scrambling up a quarter-mile 1,300-foot incline to emerge onto the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and rewarding view of my existence. Maybe it was lack of oxygen, but staring at those mountains felt like one of life’s biggest moments. I was ecstatic to have survived the climb (and was trying to avoid thinking about getting down) but also felt a profound shift in having witnessed this powerful slice of earth.
Travel experiences can do that. They take us out of the ordinary and into situations where being away from the familiar routine of life can challenge us to grow in new ways.
What does this have to do with nonprofit management?
Nonprofit leaders desperately need breaks. They’re undervalued, often un-thanked, more often underpaid, and battling burnout. They don’t have to climb mountains to find rejuvenation, but it’s time the sector recognized the value of integrating honest to goodness breaks and purposeful disruptions into their planning.
Turnover is a huge sector issue. According to this 2013 report by CompassPoint, half of Development Directors anticipated leaving their jobs within 2 years. And a third of Executive Directors said the same. Pile on the fact that the majority of nonprofit organizations have no retention strategy (likely the last thing an already resource-strapped sector feels it can invest in) and employees are understandably hightailing it, leaving unstable organizations in a vicious cycle of searching for talent, training talent, then seeing talent head out the door.
Many for-profit corporations have sabbatical programs. It’s time the nonprofit sector catches up. Sabbaticals can:
Help create a culture of valuing employees and of investing in their well-being. Integrating (and supporting) policies that actually encourage staff to take time off establishes a culture that promotes self-care. Perhaps it’s not always a sabbatical, but maybe it’s a Summer Fridays policy where staff can kick off the weekend a bit early a few weeks every year. Many nonprofits are exploring flexible work time, with adjustable hours or a work-from-home option. Simple shifts can create an environment that leads to happier and more loyal employees. This then bolsters retention and improves turnover rates. Overall, a more stable organization emerges.
Provide key professional development opportunities. While keeping employees healthily functioning is important, so is the idea of using sabbaticals as a way to foster leadership development. If the Executive Director is on sabbatical for 3 months, someone needs to step in. Careful planning needs to be undertaken to ensure a smooth period of operations in her absence.
As part of a local organization’s succession planning effort, their founder took a 3-month absence to codify his unique artistic vision, philosophy, and practices. The Board’s Succession Planning Committee was tasked with guiding the planning process for operations during his absence. It was the first time in the organization’s 35-year history that the board leadership understood the founder’s responsibilities, learning quickly that this one-man job would necessarily become three positions upon his departure.
In this situation, aspects of his role were re-allocated to provide new growth opportunities for existing staff. While it wasn’t an easy-breezy three months, it provided an opportunity to test his transition. It didn’t exactly mimic the enormity of the real succession, but it answered key questions about how the organization would need to function when the time did come.
Inspire, refresh, renew, and reinvigorate leaders. A sabbatical is an effective and proven mechanism for breathing optimism and creativity back into the life of directors, even helping them rediscover passion for the mission that may have dwindled along with the reserve fund. You never know what excellent idea for revitalizing a fledgling program could emerge if leaders are given time away from the daily slog of managing cash flow, navigating board member whims, and countless meetings.
I know it is not as easy as waving a wand and magically funding sabbaticals for all. There are some foundations around the country investing in breaks for nonprofit leaders; the Durfee Foundation even provides this handy guide for those that want to try it on their own. I know it’s hard to think about convincing the board, then funding and planning for a sabbatical, but these types of breaks can be key to organizational sustainability and success.
Advocate for the break. Climb the mountain. It’s worth the view and yes, it’s even worth the struggle down.