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Monday, March 19, 2012

Postcards From the Edge


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On a three-month sabbatical from her position as head of an environmental organization, Diane Takvorianhiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, Peru, and the English countryside with her husband, and then came home to clean her closets and work on her garden.

Richard Zaldivar, founder and leader of an AIDS organization, spent his sabbatical in Spain and Portugal taking photographs, living with monks, and writing a blog. He then returned to handle some family difficulties in the aftermath of his parents' deaths.

Kenny House, who oversees substance-abuse treatment services at a health-care charity, used his time off to visit Italy and Israel, play in several tennis tournaments, and begin recovering from a recent divorce.

All of those nonprofit leaders had a chance to take a break because foundations paid for the costs of taking a sabbatical -- typically providing a salary for the executive director and his or her travel and study expenses.

Organizations are also sometimes given additional funds to compensate the other people who may take over the tasks handled by the leader.

Not only did time away give them a chance to decompress from the stress of their work schedules, as well as to renew their often badly neglected personal lives, but it also gave their organizations an unprecedented chance to groom talented staff members for leadership opportunities.

"When I came back to the office, people thought I was going to assume the responsibilities I had delegated to them while I was gone, and I didn't," notes Mr. House, of Central Horizon Centers, in Wilmington, N.C., whose sabbatical was paid for by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Instead, he says, he was able to take on new roles and assignments. His sabbatical, he adds, enabled the group to allow a part-time psychologist, Pamela Morrison, to be groomed as a full-time director of its programs.

Ms. Morrison, who filled in for Mr. House in his absence and handles some of his former duties today, agrees that it would have been much harder to step up to a leadership role if her colleague had been around.

For a few weeks before the sabbatical, Ms. Morrison shadowed Mr. House during his workday.

"Then he left, and he was really just gone. He sent e-mails and letters telling about his sabbatical experience, but never asked us about how things were going," Ms. Morrison says.

The opportunity for total self-reliance, she says, enabled her to trust her own judgment and make substantive decisions that she otherwise would have deferred to Mr. House.

'No Checking E-Mails'

Nobody knows how many foundations and other donors offer sabbatical grants for nonprofit leaders, but the visibility and popularity of sabbaticals do seem to be on the rise, says Sandra J. Martinez, program director at the California Wellness Foundation, in Woodland Hills, Calif., a view buttressed by other grant makers.

Sabbatical programs typically provide funds to cover two or more months of paid leave for a group's executive director, along with money or other assistance to help the organization operate in the leader's absence.

The California Wellness Foundation, for example, offers nonprofit executives $30,000 for up to six months of leave, with up to $5,000 for professional development to help managers and staff members assume additional responsibilities.

Most foundations that offer sabbaticals encourage a complete communication break between the sabbatical recipient and his or her organization.

"We are straightforward and strict in our guidelines about not doing anything work-related: no checking e-mails, no professional development," says D.J. Vaughn, a fellow with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which pays $25,000 directly to its five sabbatical grantees per year to enable them to take three to six months away from the office, a program it has run since 1990. (More typically, grant makers provide money to the organization so it can continue to pay its executive's salary during his or her sabbatical.)

"This program was a brainchild of our trustees, who've seen how nonprofit leaders have been overworked and underpaid," says Mr. Vaughn. "We want to keep the talent within the nonprofit sector by giving people a chance to rest, and to take a look back at the work they've accomplished."

'Confidence Builder'

Sammye Pokryfki, a program officer at the Rasmuson Foundation, in Anchorage, says her organization originally intended to fight executive stress and burnout when it started offering a $30,000, 60-to-180-day sabbatical.

But Ms. Pokryfki says she has seen unintended, positive results for the organizations that gave sabbaticals to their leaders.

"In numerous occasions, a junior executive or deputy director could step up in the role and kind of test the waters, and in a couple of cases, the organization itself realized how much talent they had that they weren't using fully," Ms. Pokryfki says. "It's a real confidence builder to realize they have a well-run organization that can work without the CEO."

Claire Peeps, executive director of the Durfee Foundation, in Santa Monica, Calif., home to one of the oldest sabbatical programs, is now working to survey such efforts around the country.

The research is being conducted with the help of the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, in San Francisco (which supports nonprofit leadership and governance development) and the Barr Foundation, in Boston (which offers a sabbatical as part of its three-year fellowship program for nonprofit leaders in the field of education).

"We'd like to create a compendium of these programs, asking how long they've been in existence, how many grants a year they're making, how many they've made since inception, whether they award funds by application or nomination, and so on," she says.

The basic survey, Ms. Peeps says, will be followed by an evaluation that looks at how well those programs are achieving not just the primary goal of supporting nonprofit leaders, but also the equally important mission of developing leadership among the rest of the staff members.

Work on the project is set to begin this summer, with the analysis of the data beginning in early fall, Ms. Peeps says. She hopes to end up with a document that makes a strong argument in favor of sabbaticals.

It would especially be a boost to nonprofit sustainability, Ms. Peeps notes, if sabbaticals can be shown to help redefine the executive director's role once he or she has returned.

Ideally, she says, time away from the organization enables leaders "to jettison a little of the day-to-day work and take on a more strategic role -- planning, teaching, speaking, the things that would extend their influence."

Benefits for Founders

This broadening of the job can be particularly crucial for founder-led groups, grant makers say.

That was true for Mr. Zaldivar, a community activist who spent many years heading the Wall Las Memorias, an effort to build an AIDS memorial for Hispanic people in east Los Angeles.

After the $1-million monument was finally completed in 2004, he sought and received a sabbatical grant from the California Wellness program. After nine weeks of travel and rest, Mr. Zaldivar says, he came back "a completely different person," able to focus on longer-term dreams and goals for his organization.

He has recently begun planning the first-ever conference focusing on Hispanic faith, culture, and HIV/AIDS -- a project he would not have begun without the rest afforded by the sabbatical, he says.

Ms. Peeps emphasizes that sabbaticals "can be especially illuminating for founder-led organizations," especially those in which a certain cult-of-personality around the leader engenders the fear that the group cannot survive without him or her.

"It's a delicate dance," says Ms. Peeps. "We don't want to promote people leaving their positions, but this process very naturally broaches the conversation."

Like other grant makers, Durfee will not award a sabbatical to a leader who is likely to depart.

"But at the same time, the sabbatical experience has been extremely helpful in building the board and the staff's capacity to undertake a search and know their own core competencies," she says. "And sometimes it gives an internal candidate the opportunity to feel out" the leadership role.

Reluctance to Leave

Despite the benefits, sabbaticals are not always an easy sell, even for those overworked leaders who could benefit most from time away from the daily grind.

Several years ago, the Environmental Health Coalition, an organization in National City, Calif., that Ms. Takvorian founded and has been leading for 27 years, included a sabbatical program in its overhaul of personnel policy.

Under the policy, any employee who had worked 10 years or more would be eligible for a two-month break (in addition to the up to four weeks of annual vacation each worker received).

About a year after the policy was written, Ms. Takvorian says, a colleague pointed out that no one else would take a sabbatical until she did so first.

At that point, Ms. Takvorian applied for a grant from the California Wellness Foundation.

"I can't say that I was a really excited applicant," Ms. Takvorian says. "I was pretty reluctant, and it was more about modeling it for others. What was I going to do with three months? I just felt really overwhelmed with the work, and it just seemed that it would be impossible."

In fact, she says, although she did stay out of the office and out of town for much of her sabbatical, she neglected to delegate one responsibility: training a new employee. "It turned out to be more work than it should have been -- I was coming in once every two weeks," Ms. Takvorian says.

She and the organization also neglected to plan other people's vacations during her absence; at one point, when two key people were out of the office at the same time, a high-profile crisis landed back in her lap.

Given these interruptions, at the grant maker's debriefing after her sabbatical, Ms. Takvorian joked about wanting to do it all over.

"That sense of 'No one is indispensable,' I knew intellectually, but now I know it more on an emotional level," she says.

Sabbatical grant makers emphasize that planning is key to ensuring a successful break.

Since 2004, the Rasmuson Foundation has required each recipient, as well as the interim directors and one or two board members, to plan budget and expense issues, staffing and delegation, and guidelines for how much or how little sabbatical recipients will communicate with the office during the time away.

The program is run with the help of the Foraker Group, a nonprofit-management consultant organization in Anchorage, which aids organizations whose leaders or other staff members have taken Rasmuson's sabbatical grant.

The foundation also insists on a backup plan in case the interim director must leave his or her post for any reason, Ms. Pokryfki adds: "Unexpected things happen."

Certain kinds of unexpected changes, however, are what grantees say they most cherish about their sabbaticals.

Mr. Zaldivar notes, "I came back very mellow, and people would ask me, 'Are you OK?' I'd say, 'What are you trying to say?'"

All kidding aside, he says, he feels more focused and more effective as a leader now that he has had significant time to recharge.

He says he wants to be the "poster boy" to help encourage foundations to consider supporting sabbatical programs. The investment may be tens of thousands of dollars per sabbatical, he says, but in the end the cost will be recouped through the leader's increased energy.

"And it will save lots of money for health-care costs," he adds, quipping, "not to mention, save space in the insane asylums."

Source Citation
Asirvatham, Sandy. "Postcards From the Edge." Chronicle of Philanthropy 14 June 2007. General OneFile. Web. 19 Mar. 2012.
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