Creative Disruption – The Big AH HA!!!

February 28, 2013

By Claire Peeps

Disruption doesn’t sound like such a good thing.  But it can be — especially if you’re a nonprofit leader, trustee or staff member.  Really!

We’ve been providing Sabbaticals to nonprofit leaders and their organizations for 16 years now.  More than 80 distinguished nonprofit leaders have taken a three-month leave from their work, and so far, none of their organizations has burned down.

Well, one did, actually. Right before Fr Greg Boyle’s Sabbatical, in November 1999, Homeboy Bakery burned to the ground.  But Fr. Greg went on Sabbatical anyway, and I think we all know that the bakery was rebuilt.  Today, with one of the hottest restaurants in town and a distribution contract with Ralphs Grocery, not to mention their other successful businesses, Homeboy Industries is nationally recognized as a leader in social enterprise.

I don’t think Fr. Greg would mind my sharing with you that when he went on Sabbatical, Homeboy’s headquarters were still located in a small office in Boyle Heights, and he was answering the phone and opening the mail.

When he returned from his Sabbatical (he celebrated the new millennium in Bethlehem, and then spent several quiet weeks in Ireland), he discovered that all the mail had been routed, and the phone calls adequately responded to.

I wouldn’t suggest that Fr. Greg’s Sabbatical was in any way responsible for Homeboy’s growth – that would be silly – but it did play a role at a pivotal moment in helping the organization expand its capabilities.  Board and staff stepped up to take on more of the day-to-day management. Fr. Greg was freed up, a little, to dedicate more of his time to public speaking, visioning and planning.

To us at Durfee, a successful sabbatical is one that both revitalizes the leader and builds organizational capacity. Usually, a sabbatical results in some modest re-delegation of responsibilities among staff.  Almost always, it brings fresh perspective on mission and programs. And very often, it sparks a healthy conversation about long—term succession planning, a topic that’s otherwise hard to get around to.

Yes, it’s disruptive when an executive director takes a three-month leave, especially when the rules involve a 100% disconnect from the workplace, as Durfee’s does – no phone calls, no emails. But with advance planning, that disruption can have a profound, creative impact on the organization and its staff and board.

The point is, a Sabbatical is not just for an organization’s principal leader.  It’s a capacity building tool for the whole organization. Post sabbatical, the big ah-ha moment for most, particularly those organizations that are founder-led, is that they are stronger than they realize, and that they won’t collapse like a house of cards if the leader steps away. This is liberating.

The biggest barrier to taking a Sabbatical?  Ourselves. Nonprofit leaders, who are very good champions for their agencies, are innately selfless and find it very hard to ask for anything of personal benefit.  They may also be afraid that board or funders will frown on their dedication, or interpret a sabbatical request as an indication of weakness.

One thing we’ve learned: nonprofit leaders are most likely to take the step of considering a sabbatical if they receive encouragement from a funder or peer. If you’re an executive director reading this, consider forwarding this on or sending a link to your board chair, even surreptitiously. If you are a board member, please take heed.  If it’s a reasonably stable moment at your organization, encourage your director to consider planning for a restorative break, either with Durfee’s support or your own.  If you are a nonprofit professional and have colleagues in the sector whom you admire, and feel they could benefit from some time away, please give them a nudge.

It’s ultimately about how we value people.  It’s people, at the end of the day, who fuel our sector. It is in our collective best interest to nurture and invest in them.

After 16 years of tracking, Durfee has accrued a lot of data on the positive impact of Sabbaticals. Those concerned with measurable outcomes can find the numbers in the Creative Disruption report on our website:

The application deadline for the next Durfee Sabbatical is coming up – March 11. Spread the word!

Claire Peeps is the Executive Director of The Durfee Foundation.

4 Responses
  1. Having been in the inaugural class of Durfee sabbatical recipients I can tell you, without hesitation, that the time away gave me and my organization a clarity of vision and a sense of direction that has lasted until today…some 16 years later. For those of you who might be planning to apply I would be happy to be a thought partner with you in that application process. I can be reached at

    All best regards,

    Steve LePore, Executive Director
    1in6, Inc.

  2. The benefit of a 3 month Durfee Sabbatical was enormous for both me and 18th Street Arts Center. Long-held patterns of thinking and working in our office were shifted for the better as we planned for my time away. And then when I returned – what was most interesting was how I had changed. And THAT in itself was the catalyst for lots of new ways for our team to work better than ever in the past. My transformation created lots of space for my team to share strengths and grow personally as well.

  3. Deborah Ching says:

    Sixteen years ago, as an executive director near burnout, the Durfee Sabbatical Award allowed me to renew myself. However, I found that I was not the only beneficiary. Preparing for and working through the sabbatical allowed the entire management team to learn, grow and stretch, both in professional skills and in leadership. Ultimately, the organization was strengthen.

  4. My sabbatical was pivotol in a positive way for my agency. We moved to a management team approach with a designated interim ED as part of the team. The team did very well without me and the board was able to relax and see that we have systems in place to help lead and govern. Upon my return from my trip to Brazil and quiet time on the Central Coast of California we established an agency sabbatical program that has been operational for 13 years now and is a benefit well appreciated by the staff. I like to think that we have a “sabbatical” culture at POV where self-care and time away is an important part of how we do business. The Durfee sabbatical turned out to be a gift that keeps on giving for me and for the organization!

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