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Opinion: When Being Unproductive Saves a Career

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The work of SCG member, the Durfee Foundation, was featured in The New York Times Opinion Section.

Debra Suh had been a leader in domestic violence prevention for 16 years when she hit a breaking point about a decade ago. Balancing her emotionally charged work and her family had become untenable. She was considering leaving her beloved job as the executive director of the Center for the Pacific Asian Family, which she had held for seven years.

Her father had been the survivor of domestic abuse growing up and yet never hurt her — an experience that gave her a deep conviction that, with the right support, people can break the cycle of violence. But the toll the work took made her question whether she was the right person to keep providing that support. There were never enough hours in a day. She felt as if she couldn’t think clearly. In her head, she repeatedly wrote resignation letters.

Suh is not an anomaly in the nonprofit sector. According to the journal Nonprofit Quarterly, burnout rates in nonprofits have increased in the last few years from 16 percent to 19 percent of their staffs, and the rise is most pronounced among those who do direct service work.

Burnout, in the sense we use it today, is a term that was introduced by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. He defined it as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.” He was particularly struck by the ways in which burnout showed up in those who help others professionally like doctors, teachers and social workers.

But others too sometimes feel the burn. One recent study found that 34 percent of the executive directors and half of the development directors at nonprofits questioned anticipated leaving their current jobs in two years or less. Worse, the 2017 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, published last month by GuideStar and Nonprofit HR, found that 81 percent of nonprofits have no retention strategy whatsoever, though such strategies are common at corporations.

The revolving door at nonprofits isn’t bad just for workers; it cuts down on organizations’ ability to address the problems they purport to solve. Significant research shows that overwork does not correlate with higher productivity. And turnover is expensive: According to the Center for American Progress, the average cost to an organization when an employee making $50,000 a year leaves is 20 percent of his or her salary.

What can nonprofits do to prevent losing talented, passionate leaders like Suh?

One increasingly popular option is to offer sabbaticals. It might sound luxurious for a sector that is chronically in need of money, but some organizations are recognizing that there can be cost savings in the long run if leaders are restored in the short run. While sabbaticals are de rigueur at colleges and increasingly common in the private sector, only a small minority of nonprofits have official sabbatical programs.

One pioneer in facing this problem is the Durfee Foundation, a family philanthropy based in Los Angeles. It started a sabbatical program in 1997 after hearing of too many nonprofit leaders who quit simply because they needed space and time to think.

To date, more than 100 nonprofit leaders have taken three months paid time off with Durfee’s support. A study by an independent evaluator and nonprofit consultant, Deborah Linnell, of Durfee’s approach found that foundation-supported sabbaticals have strengthened boards, leaders and organizations.

They appear to work best under certain conditions: The leave is uninterrupted and entails little or no contact between the leader and his or her organization. A staff member, as opposed to an outsider, leads in the interim. The staff, as a whole, has access to additional professional development. Durfee gives $45,000 to the recipient’s organization to cover the cost of the leader’s salary, and also provides $3,000 to the interim leader and $5,000 for organization-wide professional development.

It’s pretty radical when you think about it. Nonprofit leaders, who are normally forced to paint the rosiest picture possible when describing their work to foundations, are instead invited to be honest about the challenges they face professionally and personally.

Durfee’s president, Carrie Avery, recalls one sabbatical seeker who entered the foundation’s office for his interview in a starched shirt and tie, his game face firmly in place, and then melted down when he started being asked questions: “He sobbed while rapidly consuming five cookies,” she said. “He was in a really big position and it was like he finally had a chance to be vulnerable. He got a sabbatical and it had a huge impact on his leadership.”

Avery says that leaders are encouraged to become “rigorously unproductive” during their sabbaticals, which is easier for some than others. “Children of immigrants seem to have a particularly hard time with this,” she observed. “On top of the twisted nonprofit sector message that every E.D. has to be self-sacrificing and overworked, they’ve got parents who worked multiple jobs while they were growing up. A sabbatical can feel very privileged.”

Other foundations are following in Durfee’s footsteps, notably the Barr Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Meyer Foundation. Linnell estimates that more than a dozen foundations now have official sabbatical funding available. Nevertheless, that is a very small proportion of the more than 86,000 foundations in the United States, by the count of the Foundation Center.

It’s easy to misunderstand sabbaticals as little more than extended vacations. After working in the nonprofit sector for nearly 40 years, Linnell believes that sabbaticals are one of the most effective investments a foundation can make in an organization or a cause.

The biggest payoff? The capacity to think clearly and expansively. “Leaders who are stuck in reactive or even adaptive leadership mode have a chance to refresh themselves and reconnect with their original passion for their cause,” Linnell explained. “They are able to do catalytic generative thinking again.”

Rinku Sen, who worked in nonprofits for three decades before becoming a writer recently, has taken three sabbaticals, all supported by the organizations she worked for. After a sabbatical from the Center for Third World Organizing, she was able to integrate a gender strategy into the racial justice work that the group was already doing — something she’d intended to do for a long time, but felt incapable of following through on.

“It wasn’t that I thought obsessively about gender while on my sabbatical,” she explained. “It was that I finally wasn’t tired. When I came back I could see the path: What’s the program? Who’s the staff? Where’s the money? I had space in my body and my head for those answers to come to me.”

Neuroscience tells us that what Sen experienced is a “default mode network”— a way in which our brains make new connections and even solve complex problems when we aren’t actively focusing on them. The default mode network is most likely to light up when we’re “mind wandering” — a term for what people often experience while daydreaming in the shower or waiting for a train. Stress shuts this kind of powerful thinking down, as does our compulsion to grab our cellphones at any idle moment. Sabbaticals, done right, reprioritize mind-wandering.

Sabbaticals have also been shown to strengthen leadership teams. Seventy-nine percent of respondents to Linnell’s longitudinal study reported that the sabbatical had been helpful to the professional development of interim leaders and that nearly half of the boards studied were stronger afterward.

Emily Cohen Raskin was the development director at the Jamestown Community Center when her executive director took a sabbatical. The organization had grown, but everyone still reported directly to the executive director. During the sabbatical, the remaining staff members were able to pilot a new leadership structure and build connections vertically.

“Each of us walked away with such a better understanding of how the whole organization functioned,” she said. “It was a great opportunity for us to stretch our wings and build our confidence, and it built the executive director’s confidence in us, too.” When the director returned from her sabbatical, the organization kept the new leadership structure.

One unintuitive consequence of leaders stepping away is that many build social capital while they’re “out of office.” Some foundations invite grantees to meet and reflect on leadership in their time off; the bonds formed during these gatherings lead to new professional connections, sources for funding, and even formal collaborations. The group get-togethers often extend beyond the three months off and function as a sort of touchstone for the benefits of the sabbatical after it’s over.

Some funders may fear that sabbaticals will lead to more turnover, but the opposite has been the experience. Sabbaticals typically breed loyalty and can encourage leaders to stick around longer than they originally intended. They also create healthier work habits, which influences the culture of the entire organization. Three-fourths of respondents report an organizational culture shift toward a better work-life balance, even 20 years later. “Patterns do change,” Linnell said. “Most people never go back to the level of workaholism they exhibited before.”

Raskin is no longer at the Jamestown Community Center, but what she learned there during a sabbatical that her boss took has changed her life. She is now the executive director of O2 Initiatives, a Bay Area-based collaboration by two family foundations that sponsors an average of six sabbaticals a year. She says that in addition to the funding, O2 plays a crucial role in legitimizing these kinds of breaks for nonprofit leaders. “When a funder puts this out there,” she said, “it creates permission for people to think they can do it and it’s worthwhile. Even if a candidate doesn’t ultimately get the sabbatical it can create a catalytic conversation among the board and staff.”

Avery spends a lot of her time educating other philanthropists about the value of sabbaticals, a task made easier these days with 20 years of data to point to. When asked how she makes the argument to skeptical peers, she responded: “We are not just on the assembly line producing widgets. We are trying to make social change and that is some of the hardest work out there. We have to invest in our sector’s greatest asset, which is its people.”

And what became of Debra Suh? She’s celebrating her 18th year as the executive director of the Center for the Pacific Asian Family. In 2008, she took a sabbatical funded by the Durfee Foundation. During her time off, she went white-water rafting and sailed down a zip line (“I’m not someone who meditates. I decompress by getting active”), and also spent quality time with her family. Despite returning from sabbatical as the Great Recession began, Suh was able to increase her budget twofold. In 2009, Suh’s father died. She felt gratified that she’d stepped away long enough to clear her head and spend time with her biggest inspiration before it was too late.

Published by: The New York Times
Author: Courtney E. Martin
Date: January 18, 2018

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