Should Your Nonprofit Offer Sabbaticals?

Only one-fifth of nonprofit organizations have a retention strategy for top leadership, which may help explain why at least a third of director-level executives plan on leaving within two years.

And turnover is expensive. When an employee earning $50,000 or more departs, the average cost to your organization is 20 percent of their salary.

Retention has several aspects, of course, and only a few nonprofits have tried offering sabbaticals. The idea is twofold: one, to help individuals recharge; two, to push your organization so junior staff can try on more senior leadership responsibilities.

Burnout is widespread today, and nowhere more so than at nonprofits, where most people work for more than a paycheck. Commitment and passion can drive great results, but they can also expose employees in under-resourced organizations to anxiety and disappointment. The new tax law may exacerbate this situation.

Both executives and staff report a range of benefits from their sabbaticals, including better physical health, more confidence, and improved balance between work and home. Many were also surprised at the insights that emerged—especially after stress-free periods when their minds were free to wander.

For organizations, the gaps created by sabbaticals have resulted in stronger board engagement, improved organization, and greater confidence in succession planning due to a deeper bench.

A well-crafted sabbatical policy should address the following:

  • Purpose. Go for reinvigoration, not professional development.
  • Isolation. Don’t require contact with your organization.
  • Eligibility. Are your candidates drawn from leaders, staff, or everyone? How much do performance evaluations count?
  • Stipends. A leave of absence isn’t worth much without funding, so half pay is a norm to consider.
  • Outside income. Will you permit those on leave to consult or give paid speeches?

Sabbaticals aren’t for every nonprofit, but for some they’re well worth considering.