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.

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