The following commentary, written by Civic Ventures Vice President Phyllis N. Segal and Civic Ventures Board Chair Ruth Wooden, was published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy in its July 28 issue

In today’s challenging economic times, sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders might seem to be a luxury beyond the reach of most organizations. But the tough economy makes sabbaticals more urgent than ever.

Years of tight budgets, increased overhead, demoralized staff members, and disappearing volunteers add up in the hidden costs of burnout and turnover.

Nonprofits simply can’t afford to face a drain in the energy, confidence, and optimism of leaders and other key staff members crucial to stability and growth.

What’s more, as people of every generation now expect working careers that stretch 50 years or longer, it’s more important than ever to find ways to make it possible for leaders to renew and refresh. Instead of dismissing sabbaticals as too expensive, we should find ways to make them easier and more affordable.

Beyond helping individual leaders and organizations, sabbaticals could potentially solve one of the most urgent challenges in the nonprofit world: how to capture the experience and wisdom that will be lost as tens of thousands of nonprofit leaders reach retirement age and decide it’s time to step down.

Sabbaticals are not a novel idea. But aside from higher education, where they are common, nonprofit sabbaticals have always been rare.

A handful of nonprofits have policies and practices in place to provide sabbaticals for high-level or long-term employees, and some entrepreneurial leaders have found ways to cobble together extended time off through accrued vacation and paid or unpaid leave. And some foundations offer to pay for sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders.

But for the most part, the sabbatical experience is idiosyncratic and not widely available. Moreover, where such opportunities exist, they are mostly for two or three months, which is really more of a long vacation and not truly sufficient time for reflection and personal renewal.

When the topic comes up, which probably isn’t often, the scenario that plays out is predictable.

Let’s say Sarah, a respected executive of a nonprofit, goes to her board of directors to request a six-month sabbatical (the minimum amount of time that we would consider a true sabbatical leave). Sarah’s nonprofit does not have a policy on sabbaticals, but her board is willing to consider the request as long as the position is somehow filled.

Sarah would like to offer to take the time as unpaid leave so it would be cost-neutral for the organization to hire an interim executive, but she can’t afford to go for that long without pay. Sarah’s organization would like to pay her and hire an interim executive either to fill in for her or to fill gaps resulting from reshaping other staff members’ roles, but it can’t afford to.

Sarah’s sabbatical is dead on arrival. It is simply too expensive and risky to be without crucial, experienced talent for an extended period of time.

We propose a different scenario. Joe, a talented nonprofit executive, takes a six-month sabbatical at half salary; his organization hires an interim encore executive at half salary for the same length of time.

The only incremental cost for the nonprofit is for the organization that helps find the right person, for example a nonprofit management-consulting group or other organization like the Executive Service Corps of Chicago, which places retired executives in interim-transition roles at local nonprofits.

Such organizations not only identify good candidates but also help the nonprofit define the interim executive director’s responsibilities and the skills and experience required.
It seems there would be no shortage of experienced people to take interim posts. A national survey of people ages 44 to 70 found that over half are either in or interested in encore careers that put their experience to work for the greater good.

The use of interim executives during leadership transitions is increasing, and many nonprofits report positive outcomes from this approach. So why not try it as a way to offer a planned leave to nonprofit executives?

And we don’t need to limit this interim idea just to filling a CEO job.

For example, instead of bringing in an interim chief executive to fill the temporary leadership position, an insider could step up to the new role (which could be helpful in grooming future leadership and helping staff members gain new skills).

Rather than expecting the insider to juggle two jobs, or leave important work undone, interim staff members could be hired to fill the gaps—and perhaps serve a coaching role, opening the door to valuable cross-generational mentoring.

If this approach works for executives, it could lead to sabbaticals for other key staff members, too.

What if 15 to 20 nonprofit organizations and their key personnel committed to testing this approach and sharing the positive and negative aspects of the experience in a public report? An independent assessment at the conclusion of the sabbaticals and regular reports of smart practices would be a valuable foundation to build upon.

Some questions that should be asked as part of a test:

  • Can an interim executive gain the support of the staff to provide organizational continuity and momentum?
  • Is it feasible for nonprofit executives to take a 50-percent pay cut in exchange for six months’ leave?
  • Would interim executives work for 50 percent of an executive’s salary?
  • Are exchanges of time, flexibility, and income workable?

We can find answers, even now—no, especially now—when times are tough.
There will always be people who say this is the worst time to test such a new bold strategy. The economic downturn underlines the obvious imperative. Our institutions must develop systemic ways to rejuvenate great inside talent and learn from experienced outside talent if we want to have the dynamic nonprofit organizations this country needs now more than ever.

Phyllis N. Segal is a vice president at Ruth Wooden, who recently retired as president of Public Agenda, is an advisor to the board of directors.

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