Sabbaticals and Succession Planning for Nonprofit Leadership

Insightful foundation funders have provided support for nonprofit executives to take sabbaticals. Recently, CompassPoint published findings that sabbaticals can be “relatively inexpensive but highly productive capacity building tool that yields measurable results.” The report, Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building and Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector can be found here.

The report debunks the myth that an executive sabbatical will disrupt an organization’s work. We know we need to take a break to reflect and plan. Putting off vacation doesn’t help. Some of us don’t take lunch, let alone vacation! What is that all about? Can we be at our best if we don’t take a break to reflect? Honestly, if things aren’t going well, to any extent, they won’t get worse because you took lunch or vacation…will they? I think we need to have better balance, including lunches, professional development, vacays and sabbaticals to keep us at our best.

For the short term, I believe getting out of the office allows others to step up. We must empower our Board, staff and volunteers to make decisions, think about their work, come up with solutions to challenges.

In the long-term vacations and sabbaticals are good opportunities to talk about succession planning. Ask some hard questions:

  • Really are any of us indispensible?
  • Do we need to lead ALL the time at our organizations?
  • Do we see ourselves at this organization for the next 5, 10, 25 years? Should we?

In 2006, CompassPoint published Daring to Lead a follow up the same report in 2001. Unfortunately, some of the findings are the same. (What’s the definition of insanity?)

“Three quarters of survey respondents (executive directors) — exactly the same percentage reported in Daring to Lead in 2001 — plan to leave their jobs within the next five years; 9% were already in the process of leaving. Despite the large number of executives contemplating transition, less than a third had discussed succession planning with their boards.”

So if we put these two reports together and start LEARNING and MAKING CHANGE – nonprofit leadership and organizations can serve their communities better.

Daring to Lead Findings:

  • Board of Directors and funders play a part in executive burnout (We need a strategic partnership!)
  • Executives seek new skills and strategies – concerned about organizational sustainability (Do I see a “sabbatical” in your future?)
  • Bench strength, diversity and competition are critical to future leaders (Succession planning!)

Creative Disruption Findings:

  • Executive Directors who took a sabbatical were more likely to stay at the organization longer
  • Board of Directors were more effective as a part of sabbatical planning
  • Better relationships between executives their staff, board, funders and community

Create a balance, take the time for vacation or go big and PLAN a sabbatical. Succession planning is key to the legacy you leave behind as a leader. Whether you are an Executive Director or Director of Development, Programs or Administration – how you lead and leave will speak volumes about your personal and professional development.

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