Would a Staff Member’s Sabbatical Revitalize Your Nonprofit?

Revitalize Your NonprofitI just read an interesting piece in the New York Times, “When Being Unproductive Saves a Career.” It focused on how a sabbatical could revitalize your nonprofit, among the highlights were the twenty years of data to prove:

  • Sabbaticals help retain staff (“One recent study found that 34 percent of the executive directors and half of the development directors at nonprofits anticipated leaving their current jobs in two years or less”)
  • Staff loss is expensive (the article references a study that for a $50,000 employee the cost is approximately 20%
  • Staff loss prevents organizations from achieving their mission and vision
  • Foundations, by offering funding to cover sabbaticals at a nonprofit, have given permission to consider this radical idea
  • This radical idea helps reset leaders from feeling overwhelmed and constantly overworked to excited to work and achieve more (within more clearly defined limits) Read: revitalize your nonprofit

What should you do as a staff member or volunteer leader at a nonprofit?

1.     Take burnout seriously.

Whether an executive stays while feeling consistently tired and overworked or leaves because of those feelings, your nonprofit is the loser. If you are that executive, don’t wait for things to get worse.  Be proactive about changing your work-life balance and consider whether a sabbatical might be necessary.

2.     Remember that turnover is not something that has to happen.

People don’t join nonprofits for the high salaries (although they do need to get paid a reasonable amount to work). If they leave for more money, they might be saying, this much work isn’t worth what you pay me.  If you can’t substantially change the money, change the way your staff works.

3.     Offering more vacation time is not the same as offering a sabbatical.

Offering an extra week or two of vacation is applying a Band-Aid instead of getting rid of an infection.  Most people find it hard to take five weeks of vacation a year without taking multiple weeks together. That can lead to a mini-sabbatical without plans in place on how to deal with an executive’s extended absence. Alternatively, the executive could accrue vacation time year over year (which can make them more resentful because they don’t feel they can responsibly take the time and be effective) and end up with enough time to take a sabbatical or, hope for a lump some payout if they leave – incentivizing turnover while crippling a nonprofit’s bottom line for a year

4.     If you don’t want to offer a sabbatical, there are other ways to change work-life balance for staff.

Assess your employees’ satisfaction and your organization’s structure (Mersky, Jaffe & Associates can help with both).  Determine whether you are under-utilizing some staff members and over-utilizing others. Consider whether you are relying on board or volunteers to do staff jobs. If so, are they being properly supervised and held accountable?

Work-life balance is never easy for those with a passion (like nonprofit employees).  But, consciously, helping a staff member find a little more space in their lives can help revitalize your nonprofit.  And a nonprofit with energy from the top down, can help more people – whatever the mission may be.


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Learn more about Employee Assessment by emailing Abigail Harmon