Weighing in on Sabbaticals

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 6th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Creative Disruption” is a title that is going to catch my eye every time.  (Not sure if it is the disruption or the creative I like more.)  Add the subtitle, Sabbaticals for Capacity Building and Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector,” and I’m going to stop and read that report right then and there.

The report—you’ve got the title in two pieces above—is work by CompassPoint, which looked at the collective outcomes from five different foundations’ sabbatical programs for executive director sabbaticals and other senior leaders.

As with all titles, this one was intentionally selected and explained by the authors:  the title “is an acknowledgement that although a sabbatical of some months’ duration may be disruptive to the work and life routines of a leader and to management patterns in his or her organization, the evidence demonstrates that this disturbance leads to new perspectives on the part of the leader, the board, and the staff with regard to organizational vision, shared leadership, and skill development.”

If I weren’t the “I want you to understand fully” type I could stop writing now and you would have the gist of the message:  while acknowledging attendant challenges, having an executive director take a sabbatical is good for everyone. But there are some details that are well worth your attention, among them:

  • Naturally, the recipient of the sabbatical reports gaining a lot.  As a result of the sabbatical, recipients reported greater confidence in themselves as leaders of the organization (87%), crystallization of their vision for their organization (75%), improved relationships with their constituencies, from funders to the community to clients to staff, and a renewed commitment to the job.
  • Sometimes it is the process that is as valuable, if not more so, than the end result.  (I frequently think that about strategic planning:  the process is more valuable to an organization than the plan itself.)  In the process of preparing for the absence of an ED, both senior staff and board members stepped up, learned new skills, took on new tasks, made decisions.  Almost two-thirds (60% to be precise) of the respondents said boards “became more effective” as a result of all that they did and learned during the process.  Even those staff members who were asked to step up and serve in an interim ED capacity during the sabbatical period reported positive outcomes.  They report keeping some duties they did while interim (60%), more delegation (77%) and play a larger role in decision-making (67%), not to mention peers who are now better at executing their jobs (77%).
  • Sabbaticals reveal organizational threats and weaknesses, such as financial struggles, a mismatch in leadership and an absence of shared leadership, to mention a few.
  • Sabbatical is a dry run for a future leadership transition, is how the report put it.  So, if your board continues to avoid the task of succession planning, start pushing for a sabbatical!
  • A sabbatical teaches everyone that no one—including the executive director—is indispensable.
  • And sabbaticals teach an organization that change, disruption, difference—whatever you want to label it—is not a death knoll for an organization.  Embrace it, don’t run from it.

But there is a down side in the above data:  does it tell the whole story?   It hurts me to have to say this, as, intellectually, I believe completely in the ideal of sabbaticals.  But here it is:  I’m very wary of these results.  Only 48% (n=61) of the individuals who were awarded a sabbatical by one of the five groups (Alston/Bannerman Fellowship Program, Barr Foundation, The Durfee Foundation, Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, Rasmuson Foundation) returned a completed survey.  If the 126 people who received a sabbatical had no personal connection to the subject matter of the survey, if they hadn’t been singled out to receive such an incredible honor and gift, if this had been a survey received “cold” in the mail, I and every other researcher would be doing somersaults at such a great return rate.  But given that more than 50% of these “chosen” people did not return the survey, I have to question the results.

The Hawthorne Effect says that people become motivated, at least temporarily, and respond favorably, when singled out for special attention or treatment, regardless of what that attention is—extra lighting, grant awards, selection for a sabbatical.  Thus, it is easy to argue that sabbatical recipients should have been motivated to respond to the survey—particularly if they had positive outcomes to report.  And, yet, less than half responded.  What exactly this says, I can only conjecture; but it has to say something.

There was an equally poor return rate from those who filled in as the interim during the executive directors’ absence:  only 49% (n=30) of them returned their questionnaires.  Not as much skin in the game, I get it.  But, these folks were singled out with special, and favorable, treatment.  And there are very few of us who work in the nonprofit sector who don’t recognize that a grant from a foundation for a highly coveted, and limited program, is a good thing.  And, if the sabbatical award was good for the organization simply for what it said about the organization and its leader, and the data from this research reveal that it was also good for everyone else, how come less than half opted to share their thoughts on the experience?  Again, what exactly this says, I can only conjecture.

So, while I would love to encourage every executive director, regardless of the size, shape or mission of your organization, to start haranguing her/his board for a sabbatical, the jury is hung.



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