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Invest in Rest: Funding Sabbaticals

Date: September 26, 2023

Abby Siegel Hyman

Program Associate, The Healing Trust

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Since 2016, The Healing Trust has funded sabbaticals for nonprofit CEO/EDs based on the belief that the healing and wholeness of the people who provide services matters just as much as the clients they serve. We want to exist in a world where all people live with their needs compassionately met. From this place of rest, the capacity of nonprofit partners grows, and the infrastructure strengthens. Simply put, compassion, creativity, and focus come naturally when you are well rested.

Funding sabbaticals is a radical act of care to grantee partners. Research has proven that sabbaticals are effective and transformational to the organization and individual. The Durfee Foundation, a long-time leader in funding sabbaticals, has evaluated their sabbatical program and found that three-month sabbaticals can be a “lever for whole systems change” as they impact the personal, structural, and systems level of an organization. Key findings from their research include:

  • Rejuvenated leadership that reports greater confidence, improved personal and professional relationships, and new vision and passion for the work.
  • An increase in organizational capacity as the leadership team shares and understands the work in new ways.
  • Succession planning in practice, providing a dry run to test if leaders are interested in and capable of the CEO/ED position.
  • Strengthened board governance through participation in planning and supporting staff throughout the process.

In our own sabbatical program, we’ve seen time and time again that rejuvenated leaders return to the work renewed and ready to instill new wellness policies and procedures into their organization, shifting the culture of the organization from a top-down approach. Our partners often return to the office ready to implement their own sabbatical policy to benefit their staff.

We envision a world where all grantmakers commit to funding transformative staff wellness. With philanthropic support, nonprofit partners are ready to make it possible. If you’re on the journey to making this shift, here are five steps to get your sabbatical grant program started.

1. Consider how you will prioritize individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

In our current moment in history, we are all in desperate need of extended rest. Don’t make applicants prove they have worked the hardest and are most worthy of the investment. Rather, commit to equitably funding this work in alignment with your mission and values. When you develop your eligibility criteria, consider who it leaves out. Is it equitable and accessible to organizations with small budgets, small staffs, and those that are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color-led?

2. Develop your grant program to be supportive of the applicant.

As you create your program structure and requirements, consider:

What information do you need to gather from the application to understand the organization’s readiness and the participant’s goals?

Approach the application as a tool for the sabbatical participant to reflect on their organizational and professional needs and develop their plan. Applicants can use coaching during this period to address any limiting beliefs or anxiety they have about this experience. Our Sabbatical Planning Guide can be a helpful tool for participants as they plan.

How large is the request amount and how can the funds be used?

Whatever grant amount you choose, include some funding for the interim staff and some for the sabbatical participant. Trust that the participant knows what they need for themselves and their staff and provide flexibility for the funds to be supportive in this way.

How long will the sabbatical last — is there a minimum or maximum requirement?

Three months provides adequate time to disconnect and decompress from work but may not be realistic for all people. How will you support a diverse group of grantee partners in different stages of their organizational lifecycle?

Do you have any expectations during the sabbatical or return phases?

Communicate the expectations you have around limiting organizational contact during the sabbatical period early on and encourage a gentle return to the office. What boundaries can you put in place to nurture a supportive reentry for the participant?

How can you develop your report requirement to be an opportunity for reflection and integration?

Use this as an opportunity for participants to integrate their experience while gaining valuable insight into the grant program so you can evaluate and adjust. What do you consider success for the foundation and for your partners?

3. Recruit and apply.

Is your grant program open to any applicant or is it invitational? While some folks jump on a sabbatical the moment they hear of the opportunity, others need a longer runway to be convinced this could be a reality for them. We’ve found it helpful to use a rolling application deadline so we can be flexible to the timelines of our partners as they plan what works for their life, personally and professionally.

Ensure the applicant has their board’s support before applying, and that they agree to continue to pay the participant’s salary during the sabbatical period. Taking a sabbatical shouldn’t add financial stress to the participant.

4. Approve and disperse funds.

Be mindful of the partner’s timeline when getting the grant funds out the door. It can be helpful to have the funds before the sabbatical begins to pay for any activities that require an upfront investment. We suggest awarding the grant to the organization, not the individual, and having the organization reimburse the participant. You may encourage the participant to seek advice from a tax consultant. In your grant agreement, include a restricted budget that outlines how the grant funds can be spent. Be flexible knowing that plans can change.

5. Celebrate!

Celebration is due all around. Celebrate the interim staff for making it through this challenge, celebrate the sabbatical participant for their bravery stepping out of the grind, and celebrate your foundation for supporting this work. Don’t skip this step.

As funders, we have the responsibility to decide what is worthy of investment. Begin to imagine your role in this work and commit to an investment in the rest of your nonprofit partners. Decide today that your grantee partners’ wellbeing is worthy of it. Stick around, and you’ll see the ripple impact in the sabbatical participant’s personal wellbeing, organization, and community.

Abby Siegel Hyman is the program associate of The Healing Trust where she manages the Staff Support and Sabbatical grant portfolios, facilitates Healing for the Healer retreats, and manages the administration of the grant programs. Find her on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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