At the end of this fiscal year, I will celebrate 13.5 years at Triangle Community Foundation. I will have seen the Foundation grow from just over $100 million to more than $250 million. I’ve seen our grants grow to an average of $26 million a year. I will have been through three leadership transitions, served in five positions, seen three iterations of our discretionary grant programs, and participated in three strategic planning phases.
This summer, I’m celebrating these accomplishments and milestones by taking a sabbatical.
To those not as close to the nonprofit sector, the term sabbatical conjures up a benefit of serving in academia, where the tenured professor takes a semester off to publish or do research. It’s an uncommon — but becoming more common — benefit in the corporate world, allowing employees to have focused refreshment and renewal that has impact beyond what a vacation provides.
In the nonprofit sector, however, it’s a growing trend, in an effort to both provide necessary leadership development and also work to prevent the high turnover that plagues nonprofit leadership.
According to Harvard Business Review, researchers found that the majority of leaders who took a sabbatical in their survey said the time away allowed them the space to generate new ideas for innovating in the organization and helped them gain greater confidence in themselves as leaders. They also reported a better ability to collaborate with their board of directors, most likely because the planning and execution of the sabbatical provided a learning experience for everyone involved.
One of our goals for adopting a sabbatical policy was to allow for all long-term (10+ years) employees an opportunity to re-calibrate. This is also an opportunity for members of the staff to step up into other areas of responsibility. In fact, when I come back, I expect that some of my day-to-day responsibilities will have been permanently absorbed by other members of the team, and it will allow me space to focus on more strategic and relationship management responsibilities. It also allows for a long-term employee to step away and allow his/her colleagues to enhance, expand or offer improvements to programs and systems. In that same study referenced above, researchers found that the majority of leaders surveyed said that the interim leaders (those who filled in for them during their leave) were more effective and responsible when the sabbatical takers returned. Many even reported that staff leadership continued some responsibilities and made the overall leader-subordinate relationship more collaborative.
Another goal is to do what we can to serve as an example of “best practice” for the sector. Indeed, several foundations now offer grants to provide leaders with sabbaticals as a way to build capacity in the organizations they’re supporting. Given our focus at the Foundation on creating a strong ecosystem of nonprofits through capacity building and leadership development, we hope to serve as an example with this kind of investment.
And, let’s face it: another goal is to simply provide a longstanding employee the opportunity to step away, gain some perspective, learn some new skills, and come back to the organization with a renewed sense of purpose and mission. I’m looking forward to doing some “field trips” to community foundations doing work that we may want to emulate, and doing some research on new ways we can engage our donors and our community. I’m also looking forward to spending some concentrated time with my tween and teen daughters, helping my husband with his own business planning, helping my parents age in place, and maybe taking a few yoga classes.
All of this is possible thanks to an engaged, enlightened, and extremely supportive and forward-thinking Board, and a committed and highly skilled professional team that have endorsed and encouraged this sabbatical, even when I’ve been nervous about the planning, and what’s going to happen while I’m gone.
The good news: this is a short-term, 10-week sabbatical. So, I’ll be back well before anyone misses me. The other good news: our team is ready to support me by representing me with donors and with the community. During my sabbatical, the strategic and operational functions of the Foundation will be managed by the senior leadership staff led by Jessica Aylor, Vice President of Community Engagement, in concert with Board Chair Pat Nathan.
I’m looking forward to taking a “breather,” but I’m also really committed to bringing back fresh enthusiasm and perspective for our work when I return. I’m excited for the staff and Board at the Foundation to have the opportunity to carry forward our growth and impact while I’m gone. And I look forward to sharing all I learn over the summer with our team and the community this fall.
This post was written by Lori O’Keefe, President and CEO of Triangle Community Foundation