Sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders
Earlier this fall I had the good fortune to host two exceptional CEOs, Jessica González-Rojas from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and Donna Hall from the Women Donors Network (WDN) on a webinar about sabbaticals. We discussed how you can plan and prepare for them, setting sabbatical policies for staff, and what happens at your organization while you’re away and when you return. It was an inspiring discussion! If you missed it, you can watch the recording here, or read the transcript, posted below. – Sarah
Sarah Durham: Okay. So, we are ready to go. Thank you everybody for joining us. I’m Sarah Durham, I’m the CEO of Big Duck. I’m going to introduce myself and my fearless colleague a little bit more in a minute. Right now, everybody who is on the phone is muted.
As we are going through the webinar today. Feel free to chat in questions or comments and at the end, we are going to have time for some Q and A. And we’re also recording this, so we’ll be able to share this with anybody who would like afterwards.
And I’m really excited to be here today talking about this topic. This is a passion topic for me. One of the things I feel really strongly about is the importance of building healthy practices into whatever work you do. And certainly taking a sabbatical is one of them and I’m going to introduce you today to two fabulous CEOs who’ve taken sabbaticals too. And we’re going to share with you the experiences the three of us have had taking sabbaticals with the hope that it inspires you to perhaps plan for one or take one yourself.
If you don’t know me, I’m Sarah Durham. I’m the CEO of Big Duck. I took a sabbatical about three years ago, which I’ll tell you a little bit more about during our time together. And I’m going to do my best to introduce my colleagues here today. I’ve got their bios here, but these are both women who if you were going to comprehensively introduce them, we would need hours. So, I feel like it’s a little bit of a disservice to boil it down into two or three paragraphs. But we’ll see how we go.
So you’ll see Jessica. Jessica can wave.
Jessica González-Rojas.: Hi.
Sarah Durham: And Jessica is the Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. The only national reproductive justice organization that specifics works to advance reproductive health, rights and justice for the 28 million Latinas in the US.
She’s been a leader in the progressive movement for over 15 years successfully forging connections between reproductive health, gender, immigration, LGBTQ liberation, labor and Latina civil rights, breaking down barriers between movements and building strong Latina grass-roots presence.
She’s an authentic voice for Latinas and a regular presence in national media outlets. She sits on the Board of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, chairing the Latina Task Force and the Health Committee and serves in an advisory role with the Anna Julia Cooper Center’s Inner Sectional Research Agenda, law students for reproductive justice, and Emily’s List.
And lastly, but certainly in addition to all of this, Jessica’s an adjunct professor of Latino and Latin American Studies at the City University of New York. And she teaches courses on reproductive rights, gender and sexuality. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and a certificate from the Institute for Not-For-Profit Management at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.
So Jessica, welcome.
Jessica González-Rojas.: Thank you. Good to be here.
Sarah Durham: And Jessica has been back from her sabbatical for about a month now.
Jessica González-Rojas.: Three weeks? Yeah.
Sarah Durham: She’s got a lot of fresh impressions she’s going to share. And our other fabulous panelist today is Donna Hall, the President and CEO of the Women’s Donor Network. Donna has served as the President and CEO of WDN since August of 2002. How many years is that? Fifteen years. Based in San Francisco, which is where she is not today. Actually, she is in Washington D.C. today. WDN is a community of 200 plus progressive women donors who invest their energy, strategic savvy and their philanthropic dollars to build a just and fair world.
Donna’s career has cross-crossed the public and private sectors as a manager, strategic planner, foundation executive and Deputy Director of A Woman’s Think Tank. She’s worked at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the Center for the Advancement of Women, the Rockefeller Foundation for the past 20 years.
Issues of particular concern include reproductive health and access to health services, health promotions, women’s empowerment, the needs of at-risk youth, economic development, racial and gender equality, and communication and public awareness strategies that help bring about social and environmental change.
Donna earned her M.B.A. and B.A. degrees from Stanford University, and her M.Ph. From the University of California Berkeley, School of Public Health. She currently serves on the Board of the Communications Consortium Media Center,(CCMC), located in Washington, D.C. and Hedgebrook, Whidbey Island, Washington. She’s a member of the Women’s Forum West and the International Women’s Forum.
Donna, welcome, welcome, welcome.
Donna Hall: Thank you so much.
Sarah Durham: And how long ago, was your sabbatical?
Donna Hall: My sabbatical was about a year plus three months ago. So, I was gone for three months, June, July, and August of 2016.
Sarah Durham: Great.
Okay, so why are we talking about sabbaticals? I think it’s helpful to put this in context, and I want to introduce sort of why this is a passion topic for me personally. Three years ago, with my company’s 20th anniversary, and in preparation for the 20th anniversary, when I really thought about what I wanted to do. Did I want to throw a party? Did I want to send all our clients gifts? I realized what I wanted to do was take a little break. I wanted to see if this thing that I had built over 20 years had the strength and stamina to run on its own for a little while without me. And I wanted an opportunity to kind of reconnect with other parts of my life and enjoy myself a little bit without being in the hot seat of running this business.
So, while I was preparing for my sabbatical, I tried to do some research into sabbaticals, and I looked around for other people who’ve taken them that I can learn from. And what I’ve found was that very few small businesses and very few nonprofits have sabbatical policies that usually, when you begin to dig in to sabbaticals, what you find is a lot a stuff in the academic world, and actually in religion institutions there’s a big culture of taking sabbaticals, but the examples that I’ve found weren’t really what I had in mind. I wasn’t interested or able to take a year to take a sabbatical and go research something and write a book, for instance, which is the more typical academic model. I really had something else in mind.
So, to some extent, I had to design my own adventure. And I think that’s been the case for many of us. We’ve had to craft our own agenda. And I think it’s particularly relevant if you work in the nonprofit sector, or the social justice world, because we’re all in this business of everyday trying to change the world in very big ways. We’re trying to put, not just our 40 hours a week in, but our blood, sweat, and tears, and passion. And that can be very depleting.
As we put in so much of ourselves, we have to make sure we stay connected to our own strength and our own authentic leadership. And that means putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, and it also means getting out of the way of your team sometimes, and letting them lead. None of that is easy, and taking some time to restore yourself is really important. It means you are thinking about moving your organization forward, not just the work that you do everyday, that your keeping yourself energized and focused, and that you’re giving people this room and space to grow. So, this is really all, I think, in service of renewal. The spirit of renewal.
Jessica or Donna, anything you want to add to that before we forge ahead and start talking about the specifics?
For those of you who are participating today, the way we structured this is we’re gonna spend a little time talking about how you prepare for a sabbatical. What’s some of the homework you do, or thinking you do in preparation. Then what are some of the things you might do on sabbatical. How do you use the time, or how does your team use the time, and then what happens afterwards.
So, I’m gonna ask Jessica and Donna to share some of their experience at all three of those stages, and we’re gonna start by talking about the prep. And as I said earlier, Jessica has just come back from sabbatical, and she worked really hard to pull this off.
So, Jessica, when you were thinking about this, your organization had no policies or sabbatical practices in place, and nobody had ever done it before. So, tell us a little bit about how you made it happen.
Jessica González-Rojas.: I think it’s interesting when you share your stories, there’s actually some alignment. Our organization celebrated our 20th anniversary just a year ago, or so. We’re definitely set about the same point. I have been at the organization 10 years in three different roles. I was there in 2006 when we were five people in a small office, and now we’re 35 people in five states. So the organization’s grown tremendously over the course of 10 years.
So, for me I actually started thinking about this on my 10-year anniversary year. January of 2016, I started talking to the board about a possibility of a sabbatical. Because as mentioned, we didn’t have a policy. We didn’t have anything, or a practice by which to do this, so I was really starting from scratch. I started talking to the board thinking that we’d be in a very political environment in 2017.
I knew I wanted to take this summer. I have a small son who basically grew up with me as an executive director in this role. I gave birth to him, and then immediately became the executive director. So, I really needed … I felt I wanted the time to disconnect from the work, take a breather, and really connect with my son. And this summer was the best time to do that.
So, given that we were starting from scratch, I really needed to think ahead about the plan. So, summer 2017 was my target, so I had to work backwards. So, we were having that conversation with the board in January of 2016. I was talking to my staff about this. I started talking to colleagues about this. And Sarah, you were wonderful as a resource to me in thinking about the components of sabbatical and how to make this really successful.
But I began those conversations very early on, because what I thought we’d be in an environment by which we’d be fighting proactive policies, not fighting for our lives in a lot of ways. After the election, I actually determined that it’s gonna be even more important to take this break, given the need to sustain myself for the fight that’s ahead.
So, I worked the board on policy. I worked with a lot of colleagues that had policies, and people are very generous in sharing their models and their policies. There was only a handful of organizations like mine that had them, but it was really helpful to have models. And we saw everything from an eight-week policy to a six-month policy, and we knew that somewhere along the three months felt better for an organization for our size and capacity. So, colleagues were a really important component of that.
And then thinking about securing money for support for my team. I didn’t have … I know some people have different models of replacing leadership. Some people have an interim executive director, or a role like that. What we decided that I had spent a long time building a senior team, and the senior team, which represented our different pillars of our work, our finance and operations work, our Deputy Director of Government Relations work, our community organizing work, and our public affairs work. The senior leaders at all those levels make up our senior team, and we decided on a kind of collective decision-making strategy with that team.
So, there was no one interim executive director, we decided to make it a team model. But given that teams are often fraught with some tension, or decision-making support that’s needed, we decided to actually fundraise to secure a leadership consultant. And fortunately we had one that we had worked with in the past who knew our quirks and who we are as a team, but we were able to bring that person back on starting in April. So, you know, kind of the Spring before I was going to take my sabbatical, so there was time for the off-boarding process to begin the prophecies of how we want to work as a team while I’m gone, while I was still there. So, we could have a conversation while we were still there, and create a really robust plan to do so.
I think the other element was creating a transition memo, and really determining what pieces of my job fall to each member of the senior team. So, there was at least a guide post by which the team could use and operate, and they were part of that process. I shared it with them, they had feedback, so it was really helpful to know when a request comes to my email, who my wonderful assistant was checking, she knew who to send it to, and the teammates decision about whether to take those opportunities or not.
Just something that I learned walking into the process, putting all my work on the staff, even though it was a distributed model, it still felt like a lot for staff. So, I think clarifying, and it wasn’t like they were supposed to do every single element of my job while I was on sabbatical, but rather they had the decision-making ability. Is this something they want to pursue, or should pursue, or can pursue in my absence. And if not, I trusted the team to make the decisions that they know, or again hold off until I return, or take that opportunity.
So, I think that was really important, but it wasn’t just … I don’t want to dump the work on my team, but rather have them really make decisions around what was moving forward. And then, when things were really shaped up and we had a plan, I was able to go back to [inaudible 00:15:08] and colleagues and share news of my sabbatical and share news of my timing, and again, the board was engaged all along. And they ultimately kind of approved the whole process.
Sarah Durham: Did you end up with an approved policy, sabbatical policy?
Jessica González-Rojas.: Yeah. Yes.
Sarah Durham: Donna has shared with me the WDN sabbatical policy and said we can distribute it after this to anybody who would like it. I wonder, if you think about, if we could share yours too?
Jessica González-Rojas.: Yes, yeah, I’m happy. I think it’s a great model, and again it may not work for every organization, but it’s a great model to look at and explore, and I’m happy to share.
Sarah Durham: And Donna, anything you would add to Jessica’s comments in preparation that helped you or your team to get ready for your sabbatical that we haven’t touched on?
Donna Hall: No. The thing I would emphasize is that our board worked probably for close to a year on a policy that made sense for us, so that by the time we were able to schedule it, everybody was really on board and very supportive. And we did not hire anybody from the outside, but we had a couple of board members who really stepped up to play some of the roles that I play in concert with a senior team like Jessica spoke to. I had been really training a leadership team at WDN, and so, not all, but the a lot of the kinds of things that I did were distributed around before I left.
The one thing that I would say that our policy now is being amended to say is that we made the policy apply the anybody in the office who’s worked for eight years or more, and two of us went at the same time. And I think in retrospect, that was very difficult, and we would not do that again. We would only have one person at a time go.
Sarah Durham: And most of the policies I’ve seen address these key issues. When you qualify, for instance, you have to have worked X years, whether or not you get paid, if the time is paid or unpaid, who has to approve it, and whether or not you have to have some sort of work product. I was talking to one person who worked in a nonprofit, actually in the UK, who told me that her organization’s policy was you could take a sabbatical and it could be quite long. It could be six to nine months, and it would be paid, but you had to deliver a work product, and you had to have almost like an academic advisor in the organization that you were consulting with so that you were using the time in a constructive pro-active way.
Donna Hall: That was the most common model we saw when we were doing research, and we knew that we did not want that kind of a sabbatical policy for our team. So, we talked a lot about that. That is, as you say, very common to the academic scene.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Jessica González-Rojas.: We also didn’t have a work product. It was really focus on rest, rejuvenation, reflection, right? We wanted intentionally to have that, and so there was no expectation of writing a book or producing a movie or anything. But it is paid, and we do, like Donna, we also have a policy by which after 7 years, any full-time member on our team can take the time off. But it has to be approved and coordinated. So, like you said, Donna, not to have two people out at the same time, because I would imagine that’d be very difficult, but at least stagger it if it’s in the same year.
Sarah Durham: I just want to encourage also the people who are watching this webinar to feel free to chat in questions. I may not get to them right away, I may wait a little bit in to address them, but we definitely want to make sure we’re addressing your questions as we go.
The only other thing I would add as a tip to the prep that I don’t think we’ve talked about is I, like Jessica, distributed my responsibilities across a leadership team. So, my job got dispersed across about, I think it was five people at the time. And I really didn’t know how I was going to do that. So, what I did was I kept a notebook by my desk, and every time I was doing something that I realized nobody else knew how to do, I wrote it in the notebook. And about three months before my sabbatical, I started having meetings regularly with the people who were gonna take those responsibilities and teaching them how to do the things that were in the notebook, or helping them decide what they should do and what they should not do.
And then I stopped doing those activities about a month or three weeks before the sabbatical. So, the idea was the last month I was here, I was more on call than actually working, which was a lot of fun. I got to sit in on meetings I normally wouldn’t go to. I got to, you know, think about my sabbatical and dream other dreams. But it gave me the confidence when I was going away that I had had a widow of time to address questions and concerns, and I think it gave people a little training wheel moment to take on those tasks. So, that was fun to do.
Okay, so now you’re on sabbatical. I want to spend a minute for each of us to talk a little bit about how we used our time. So, maybe in three or four sentences, tell us what you did, Jessica.
Jessica González-Rojas.: I think the first thing I did is take my email off my phone. And that was actually the thing that held me accountable to myself. And did not allow me to stray from my commitment not to work. So, I think that’s one recommendation I would have for anyone thinking about it. But I really spent time with my family. Again, I mentioned I have a six-year-old son, and we got to travel a lot. My partner has a job that he can have a lot of remote times, so that was great. We did an adult trip to Italy, which was wonderful. And then we were able to also do family trips, seeing family in Los Angeles, and Florida, and we went to Massachusetts. So, it was just really strong bonding time with my family that I really missed out on jumping into this job after having a son. It was special. I really appreciated that time.
I had all these other things I wanted to do, like clean all the things and declutter, which I didn’t get to, but I was okay with that. It was really … my purpose was to reconnect, and actually spend some time myself to just read and relax and enjoy the outdoors. I love the sun. So, just being outside was just very special to me.
Sarah Durham: And Donna, how about you?
Donna Hall: I would say similarly I had all sorts of ideas about what I was going to be doing. Intellectually, I’m in a creative writing group, so I began my sabbatical the first week and the last week with my writing group on a retreat. And then, my husband and I went away for a month. We spent a month in London, and then we did some sort of house projects.
But, I would underscore what Jessica said, which was … My advice to somebody would be don’t make all sorts of plans until you sort of get started and see what it is you want to do. And in my case, I’d been working ever since I was in the 8th grade. This is the first time I’ve ever really taken any kind of a stop. So, the idea of waking up in the morning and not having to rush around to get to meetings, or to take phone calls, or to check emails, was really a new experience. And even though I thought it was going to be very hard to disconnect, after a week or two, with the motivation of having had emails shut down, I had no contact with the office. And when I did try to contact them, they were pretty cold. They didn’t respond at all. And so, I really got used to, this is my time, and I want to make the most of it.
If I had it to do over again, I think I would be more flexible in terms of saying, I’m not sure yet what I want to do. Let me see.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, I agree.
I mean, I was given some good advice by somebody else who had taken a sabbatical, which was be very clear what your goals are for the end. When you get to the end of your sabbatical, and you’re looking back on it, what do you want to say you’ve achieved that makes it worthwhile. I had a whole bunch of things I thought I wanted to do with my time, but when I started to ask the question, what are the musts? What goals do I want to achieve, I came up with three things I felt would be success indicators to me.
The first was I wanted to spend a lot of time alone. The second was I wanted to surprise and delight my husband. I been through a very rough few years. I’d lost my mother, and been through some rough caregiving, and it was … I think I just wasn’t particularly fun to be around for my family for a while. So I wanted to put back into my marriage. And I also wanted … My third goal was to do things with my kids that I normally don’t do because of work. So, I figured whatever activities I did, if I contributed to myself, my husband, my children in these ways, I would feel like it was a success.
The way I actually spent my time was I rented a studio space, and I spent three months about mile away from Big Duck’s office, actually in the Brooklyn Navy Yard making quilts, and I did a lot of volunteer work. I served on the board of the National Brain Tumor Society, and we were in a CEO search at the time, and I cured the CEO search for that, which was kind of a funny thing to spend my sabbatical doing, but was for me very rewarding.
I also just want to … We got one question from Scott that I want to just make sure we address quickly about clarifying the size of our organizations. Big Duck has a full-time staff of 15, and a bunch of partners and freelancers. Jessica, your team is 35 people?
Jessica González-Rojas.: 35, $5 million budget in five states.
Sarah Durham: Donna?
Donna Hall: We’re a team of 13 with a bunch of added consultants and based in San Francisco, and our budget’s about 3.5 million.
Sarah Durham: So, we’re relatively small organizations and mine is a relatively small business. So, that’s probably good to note.
And I think that all of us have that the way we used our time was focused predominantly on restorative activities. I certainly went into my sabbatical with an idea for a book, hoping I would would walk away saying I started writing the book, or wrote the book. I didn’t open my laptop, I don’t think. And I was fine with that. For me, it achieved what I really wanted to achieve, which was giving me a fresh point of view and helping me reconnect with other aspects of my life. I think I actually have a little slide here. These were my goals.
I think that’s really the most important thing, right? Is that you’re clear what you need to get out of it, and you’re honest with your team and your board about what the point of this is. If this is restorative, you know, you heard Jessica said the first thing she did was she disconnected her email, you can’t say you’re gonna have a restorative sabbatical and then checking your work email everyday and chiming in on every decision your team makes, right?
Donna Hall: I think because most people are really so focused on their careers, I’m sure this is true for everybody on the phone, you really have to put structures in place that forbid you from doing that because you will slip back into those ways if you’re tempted. And that was, for me, very important was to know that my IT guy shut off my … I was taken off all list servers. They set up a temporary account where everything was shunted into that. In fact it still is there. I don’t think I’ve ever even checked it. But I think having those structures in place was really important because otherwise I would have slipped.
Sarah Durham: Yeah. It’s too easy to get pulled back in, right?
Jessica González-Rojas.: Yeah, and I think for me, I don’t know if everyone has a capacity to have an assistant, but having somebody that was checking email and for also traffic copying the work, sending it to the right people. She also put it aside in a folder that I scanned quickly and haven’t really done much with, but I was very clear in my out of office message that I will not be checking email on this break to contact my assistant for any needs. And that was really, really important.
And I think, Sarah, you said something about doing something you wouldn’t be able to do while you were working, and I think that’s something that really resonated as well for me. Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t cook. I’m hopelessly undomesticated. And I found myself baking cookies for my son’s birthday party in school. And doing things I would just have never done otherwise. While I don’t desire to do that all the time, it was really fun and special to be able to use the sabbatical time to do that.
And I also think I sort of manifested some stuff. Everyone talks about writing a book. I didn’t really have that thought, but it was almost like a joke in my head, like “oh, maybe I’ll write a book,” which I knew I wouldn’t. But I did get calls to people that actually have my contact information to submit a manuscript for a book on the women’s march, for example. So, that was really exciting. That is something I did, but it felt really personal. She wanted me to share my experience and my story about that day, that historic day.
There was a little bit of manifestation of invites that I didn’t anticipate really happening, and it did.
Sarah Durham: So, before we switch to the last chunk talking about what happened after your sabbatical, I also just want to tease out a little bit about what your sabbatical was like while you were away for other people on your team? Donna mentioned earlier that she was on sabbatical at the same time as somebody else, and in an organization with a relatively small staff size, that proved to be challenging.
In my shop, things went pretty well, although there was one person on my team who was diagnosed with a very serious illness in my absence, and there was some discussion about whether or not I should be contacted about that. So, I’m curious. Donna, first, let’s hear from you. Was there anything going on from your team’s point of view while you were on sabbatical that is noteworthy?
Donna Hall: Well, yes, and I think it’s important. And in retrospect, I’m happy that they made the decision not to involve me. But we did have a serious issue that was not entirely resolved until I got back. And had they made the decision to contact me, it really would have drastically altered the way the sabbatical went. I think they didn’t … they were in close touch. We have a very close relationship with our board and our executive team on our board, and they managed to sort of cobble things together until I got back. Initially when I first came back, I was upset that nobody had told me this, because this was a serious issue. But in retrospect, I think it was the right thing to do. And it’s been happily resolved.
That sort of answered two questions. One of which, I don’t know whether either of you two felt this, but part of me at the very end of my sabbatical wondered do I really need to come back. If I’m gone for three months and the place is running very well, maybe they don’t-
Jessica González-Rojas.: I definitely wondered that. Yeah.
Donna Hall: And coming back, it didn’t take too long until I realized that’s not the case. There really is a job for me, and there’s certain things I do that nobody really can do at this point.
Sarah Durham: And how about you, Jessica? Anything that happened in your absence that your team had to deal with that is a good lesson to learn from?
Jessica González-Rojas.: My criteria for contacting me is that if somebody died or a senior staff was stepping down. And actually of my senior staff made the announcement to step down, although we had been talking about it for a year. It was sort of a family situation that I was aware of, so it wasn’t a surprise. But she did contact me and wanted me to know that the decision was made prior to me seeing it online, like an announcement or something. I actually appreciated that, and I was okay with it, because we’re so close. And we had coffee away from the office just to connect on that.
But outside of that, I think every other major issue was handled internally. I don’t think there was anything that was very severe, but I do know they grappled with a lot during my absence, and I’m really proud. And I think the outcome of that, and you had it in an earlier slide, was that it was actually a leadership moment for my team. They really stepped up to operate as a collective, as a leadership body, and to make decisions together. So, they worked really, really hard to do that. And again, we had a coach that supported them, but it was hard work.
And when I came back, I was really, really impressed with what they had done, and now it’s time for me to be on board with that. So, I let them make those decisions, and you have to own that process. I was really thrilled to do that.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, and I advanced to the slide, because I think you’re beginning to talk about the kind of final thread, which is what are the outcomes. What’s it like for you and for your team? And one of the things I was talking with Jessica about when we were preparing for this webinar was Jessica had a vision for this really important project that the National Latina Institute was launching this summer. This project was really her baby. And I know a lot about it because we’ve been working on this project together.
But she literally teed up all the elements on this project to get started, hired a new person, and then left on sabbatical. So, most of the project actually came to light while she was away. And I said to her, “It must have been very strange to come back from sabbatical and see this project that was really your vision have completely somebody else gave birth to it and nursed it for the first few months. How does that feel?”
I think that there … that’s the kind of outcome that sometimes happens. You have to be willing to let your team lead, let decisions get made, and be okay with that.
Jessica González-Rojas.: Yeah, and that was an important, like I said, in having the staff determine to say no, or determine a direction of a project like that. It was a project that we had been envisioning since 2012, so, it was really coming to light, and I snuck away. And in some ways I was so curious, but I just knew that I had given enough information to allow it to flourish, and I knew the team really and a sense of what I envisioned. And we were working with you, Sarah, your team’s amazing, and it was just wonderful to be like, “Oh, it’s done.” My first day, they literally pulled it up on the screen and I watched the videos and the website and everything how it came together, and I was like, oh my god it’s a dream come true.
So, thankfully, it was a very positive outcome there, but I think it’s just being okay with where it went. Because that’s … you entrust your team to be leaders and to make those determinations. Whether it was or wasn’t, I had to be okay with that, but I’m thrilled that it was.
Sarah Durham: So, Donna, you have had the benefit of a bit more time than Jessica has had since you got back from sabbatical. And I know that your sabbatical really actually changed your perspective a bit on your job and life at WDN. I’m wondering if you can speak a bit about how it changed your perspective, and maybe what’s different for you at WDN, or what’s changed in the work itself.
Donna Hall: Yeah, so. I think that the two major outcomes for me and for the organization in coming back were that number one, I have really instituted some concrete changes that change the balance of work family for me personally. At WDN, where I’ve been for 15 years, has really been like a third child. I have two grown sons now and three grandchildren, but WDN has been a teenager for a long time now. And really was taking up all my time. And I came back with a fresh perspective that it was better for me and better for the organization if I not work as hard seven days a week and travel all the time, and that I really needed to make some decisions about what I was willing to give up and to turn it over to a team of people in WDN who were all highly qualified and really stepping into leadership themselves.
So, for me, the shift has been really in moving back while I help people on my team move forward so that I’m trying to have them be the face of the organization more than I have been in the past, so that we share some of that. I think that makes for a much healthier environment, especially because the organization is growing quite rapidly now, and we need to keep up with that growth and I need people on board who can take all that on.
Secondly was a way for me to really ask myself at this stage in my career–and I’m sort of in the last phase in my career, I’ll probably retire in five or six years from now–what do I not do well, and what do I not enjoy, and what do I enjoy. And I had never really asked myself those questions before. And for example, I don’t love going to large conferences. I tend to be an introvert at them. I find them overwhelming. I’m not as productive as I wish I were. And I have team members who love to go to conferences. That’s a change that I’ve made in the last year or so since I’ve been back, which is to say I don’t have to go to all these conferences. Maybe I need to go to two or three, but the rest of my team can really take over and do that, and it benefits the organization in the same way.
So, there’s been a real shift in those sorts of things, and in my really focusing on elevating and training and developing the team that I have to be more senior leaders.
Sarah Durham: And Jessica, I know it’s early days for you, but do you have any quick takeaways yet about what the outcomes might be in terms of your job or roles on your team?
Jessica González-Rojas.: Yeah, it’s funny. I look at the date on my little corner on my computer, and I realize it’s exactly a month. It is exactly a month, September 11 I came back. But you know, the conversations I’m having coming back with my team is what’s our new normal. Given that they took on so much leadership and responsibility, I didn’t want to just take it all back, because like you, Donna, I have a family. I’m constantly on the road.
I actually enjoy conferences. I actually enjoy the external work. It’s where I thrive. So there’s a lot of internal pieces where I’m like, you know, I don’t need to be involved in every decision here, or I’d rather take a recommendation from my team instead of me being the final decision maker. Or just let that go.
So, those are the conversations we’re having. We’re not quite yet in the full new groove, but I’m really open to thinking about what are the new ways of working. How do I let go of things. Again, I’ve been here since we were five people, so I was used to doing everything. So, just as we’ve grown, I’ve also had to step back and allow my team to flourish. And I think this was a really good experience to really take that seriously. And now coming back, I’m really, really thoughtful about how to move forward in a way that’s more sustainable.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, it’s really an opportunity to practice what you preach, right? We all, as leaders, talk about leadership, fostering leaders, and other … When I came back, I spent my first week interviewing the people on my team who’ve taken over my responsibilities and talking to some different people, and I asked the question, what worked well without me around? What worked well? And I found that there were some things I didn’t like to do that I had been doing before that other people loved to do and did better than I did. And that was great, ’cause then it meant I just didn’t take those things back. They kept doing them.
The other question I asked was what was missing without me? Was there anything that didn’t work well, or was there a gap? And it turned out that there was one slice of our work that was missing without me, and it actually turns out to be my favorite thing to do, which is basically, I like to do R&D. I like to talk to people, have conversations like this, learn from people in the nonprofit sector, and then figure out how we can use that to do what we do better and create new products and services. And that was missing without me there. So, great. That’s my job now, basically. That’s what I mostly get to do.
So, it was … I think these questions, what works well without you, what’s missing without you, help you answer the questions should your job change, and should anybody else’s job change. Are they gonna step into some new leadership roles?
I just want to flag, also, we do have some questions coming in. I see we’ve got these questions coming in and we’re gonna switch over to take these questions in a minute.
I also wanted to share a quote. There was another person I invited to be on this webinar with us who is a terrific man who works in an organization that is a client of ours that has a face-based component, who actually took a more academic and longer sabbatical. I think his sabbatical might have been a month. And what was terrific was that when I emailed him and said, would you do this sabbatical with me and these other people, he wrote back and he said, “Oh, I love this topic. I’m so passionate about it, but I have to say no.” And then he went on to say, “I realized on my sabbatical what my mission in life is, or what my core mission is, and I am now in the business of ruthlessly saying no to anything that doesn’t support my core mission. So, as much as I love sabbaticals, it’s not part of my core mission to educate other people about them, so I’m gonna pass.”
And I thought that was actually such a beautiful expression of the kind of clarity and focus you can get when you get a little chance to step away and think about your work, and really think about what you want to do.
So, I want to share a couple of resources with you guys quickly if you’re thinking about doing this. It looks like we’ve got five or six questions. I’m gonna switch over to those, too. Let me actually just get out of this view mode, ’cause I have to click on something to … You guys are probably seeing my screen in a weird way right now, but that’s okay. Okay.
I think this is really a question mostly for Jessica, maybe for me, although Donna, you did sort of a shared leadership model during your sabbatical, too. How has that changed how you interact with your team now that you’re back? It’s a good question, ’cause here, you’ve distributed and elevated to a bunch of people, now what? How does that work afterwards?
Jessica González-Rojas.: The way we’ve framed our work with the team has been to serve as a thought leader. So, in my meetings, I still meet with every senior staff member once a week, but I think the conversations … First off, I ask them to submit an agenda for me, and if anyone’s gone through the Rockwood Program, there’s a think called POP: Purpose, Outcome, and Process. So, I ask that they share what they’re POP is for me. A lot of times, they’re updating, but I’m also like, okay, where can I be helpful? What guidance do you want. How can I be a thought partner?
So, it’s less about total supervision, and more about just serving as thought partners. And again, we still haven’t quite figured out the complete rhythm in terms of who does what, and I think we’re still working through that, but I’m asking them for recommendations. How do you want to proceed. For example, if anyone submitted a quote on behalf of the organization, it usually came from me. Can it come from other members of my staff? It’s a way to elevate their leadership in the spaces that we operate in.
So, those are the kind of shifts that have happened, and again, I think they’ll be more, but I definitely … I think they’re sort of managing up more, rather than me managing down. And that’s a direction I actually wanted to go, so we can really be thought partners in this work, rather than a supervisor/supervisory kind of relationship. So that’s been really beneficial, and I’m still working through. And again, my question is, what’s our new normal, has been a really helpful one to work through together.
Sarah Durham: Donna, how about you?
Donna Hall: I would say the same thing. I would say that a major part of my role, besides being the outward face of the organization to some extent, is that I do a lot of mentoring now in career development. I’m really looking for what are the activities and the responsibilities that my senior team can continue to take on so that they’ll keep growing, and how can I be a mentor to them as they are on their upward trajectory of their career, whereas I am in the last chapter of my major career. So, I spent a lot of time doing that.
And I think that we have really carved out, a lot of those responsibilities that they took on while I’m gone, they have continued to do. We’re a small staff. We’re growing quickly, so there’s a lot of work for everybody, and it has kind of happened seamlessly in that way, because there are new opportunities coming up all the time in terms of new tasks or new projects.
Sarah Durham: I agree with all of that. There’s a resource I would add to this discussion, particularly around how Jessica’s now trying to figure out what the new normal is with all of that. I think right after my sabbatical, I read a terrific by a guy name Gino Wickman called Traction, and Traction is a kind of business operating framework and it’s a way of using a leadership team and using certain practices, a lot of which you already have in your organization to establish more of a rhythm, a regular rhythm or practice, of working on your business, not just in your business.
Many of us spend most of our time working in the business, you know, working in programs, in fundraising, doing the actual day-to-day work that has to get done, and sometimes those bigger, more long-term projects get neglected because we’re so busy in the day-to-day. So, Traction is a useful book that suggests some frameworks for that. And we ended up adapting the model that it recommends right after my sabbatical, and it is very much a dispersed leadership kind of model. So, that’s helpful, too.
There’s another question here about resources, and I’m actually gonna … in order to address it, I’m just gonna skip ahead to a slide, because the question is about what other resources do you recommend for sabbaticals. So, this is a slide just to say that if you’re not familiar with Big Duck, this is what we do here. We help nonprofits build strong brands, strong campaigns, and strong teams. This webinar today is in service of helping build strong teams.
This is the resource that I wanted to also recommend in particular. Beth Kanter, who many people know from her book The Networked Nonprofit and her organizational development work, wrote this book earlier this year, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit. And it’s really redirected her career efforts in the last year or two to be focused on these kinds of things: strategies for renewal and managing a healthy team. And she does talk briefly about sabbaticals in this book. She also recommends, along with her co-author Aliza Sherman, a number of practices for building in self-care into the way you run your organization. I think that may be … Yeah, that’s probably the most relevant resource. That and the book Traction that I would recommend. This is an e-book that I threw in here, What it Takes to be Great, which is about successful communications teams specifically.
Any other resources that, Jessica or Donna, that you looked to for taking a sabbatical? Any places you found good guidance.
Donna Hall: Not anything specific that I would recommend. I mean, we did a lot of research on the policy development, talked to a lot of people, but I think those books that you just recommended are great.
Jessica González-Rojas.: There was a study that I reviewed that talked about the benefits of a nonprofit, and I don’t have the name of the study offhand, but it was, I think, commissioned by several foundations. And it was really enlightening. And it really looked like a cross-benefit analysis of having nonprofit leaders take nonprofits, but it sort of reinforced why it was important. That it’s not just an extended vacation, it’s really vital to the health and well-being of the organization.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, that’d be helpful. I’ll send it out. [crosstalk 00:49:22] if you know where it is.
Yeah, and that’s a great segue into a question from Deborah, which is did it take any work to convince your board members, and how did you do that? We heard a little bit from Jessica about that earlier, so Donna maybe let’s start with you. Did you have to work hard to convince your board, and how did you do it?
Donna Hall: No. I really didn’t. First of all, I spent many, many years building a really great board. We went from 15 years ago from a board and an organization where members did everything to a highly professional organization now, and the board really understands it’s role, and it really is working very effectively with staff. And it just seemed like a very natural progression. I mean, they wanted to get it right. They don’t like to do things quickly. So, we spent the better part of a year looking at research, making presentations, talking to other organizations, and then crafting something that felt comfortable for us. And they were very supportive about it.
Sarah Durham: And that exercise, I think you both did this, of gathering peer organizations sabbatical policies, or not even peer organizations, but other just other nonprofit policies, and kind of using that to find what was right for your organization is a great practice in socializing and new idea. When you’re reading five other organization’s policies, it starts to feel more normal.
Donna Hall: One thing that I would add, which was at least when we were doing the research, there were very few organizations that had a policy that was open to all staff. And that was extremely important to me that if somebody’s worked for eight years, whether they are an administrative assistant or the head of the organization, we really felt that if we didn’t do that, we were not living our values. And yet, we found that very few organizations were structured that way.
Sarah Durham: Interesting.
We haven’t formalized our policy perse, but we’ve had many people take sabbaticals at Big Duck, and actually most recently, one of the things we did that I felt really good about, which is a variation on a sabbatical, too, that’s kind of easy to do is we noticed that when people had children, they would take family leave. And we gave them some extra paid time off as part of their family leave, but we also have a number of number of employees who didn’t have children, and so we gave them family leave, too. We gave them the opportunity to take the same benefit that the people who had children had, because it felt that it was important to make that a policy that could be inclusive.
So, that’s a little different than a sabbatical, but it was a little bit of additional and the ability to take up three months off without any risk of losing your job.
We have a couple of other questions we haven’t gotten to. I’m just switching views so I can see them. Did you make any formal commitment to your organization, especially to the board, about how long you would stay at the organization post sabbatical? That’s an interesting question. So, did you promise to hang around?
Donna Hall: Yeah, I mean, one policy specifies that you must come back to your job. It doesn’t say for how long, but in other words, it would not be acceptable for someone to take a sabbatical, come back, and then resign.
Jessica González-Rojas.: Yeah, we actually have the same policy, but we indicate that it’s a year. You have to come back at least a year, or you have to pay back the organization for your salary while you were gone. Which is fair, because for the reasons we’re not incredibly large. To have someone take a sabbatical and resign immediately would actually be a huge burden on the organization. So, it’s a year commitment afterwards.
Sarah Durham: Interesting.
This is a question from Carol. Can you discuss the pros and cons … It sounds like Carol is considering what she’s calling a sabbatical matching program. E.g. when you take two weeks without pay, the company will pay for two weeks. Right? So, would that work and would it be fair? In other words, I’ll take a month unpaid, but you give me a month paid.
Jessica González-Rojas.: I would advocate full paid leave if that’s something the organizations can do. Again, it’s sort of a recognition of the time, and of labor that you’ve put into the organization, and having it a paid policy was very important. As Donna mentioned, we also have it eligible for any full-time staff, and that was an important social justice value that we held. So, we know for some people, even at higher levels of seniority, taking unpaid time off is untenable. So, it was a really important value to ensure that it was a paid sabbatical. You know have to do what works for your organization, but that was something that was really important to us.
Sarah Durham: Donna, what do you think. Would you advocate for a-
Donna Hall: I would advocate for paid leave if the organization can afford it. If the organization can’t afford it, then I think creative problem solving like Carol has suggested is something to consider. But I think the major issue is that if organizations are gonna thrive, and people are gonna stay a long time, and … We didn’t really get into that today, but for me, a tenure is very important, and the fact that I have four employees of my 12 or 13 who already qualify for a sabbatical and then another two or three coming on, means that our people stay for a long time, and that’s an important value to me. So, I would say that if the resources are really lacking, looking for creative ways to address that is important.
Sarah Durham: Absolutely. So, we are almost out of time, and before we wrap up, I want to do two things. The first is I really want to say thank you to both of you because it’s such a gift to get the benefit of spending an hour learning from you both, and you’ve been so generous with your time, and with your experiences.
And the other thing I’d like to do in conclusion is I would just like you each to perhaps share one parting word of wisdom. I mean, presumably there’s a few dozen people with us right now who are thinking about taking a sabbatical, or trying to figure out a sabbatical policy at their organization, or something like that. Is there one piece you’d give them as they move ahead just in conclusion?
Donna, how about you?
Donna Hall: I would say that even though it seems like you won’t be able to do it, the concept of unplugging totally is really important. And you’ll be surprised, I think, at the gift that becomes once you do totally unplug.
Jessica González-Rojas.: Yeah, I think for me, I told the board it’s humbling, but I’m not irreplaceable. But my board pushed back and said, no you did a good job of building a strong team. So, I’ll say do the work of building a strong team, and your organization will thrive.
Sarah Durham: Absolutely. I agree with you both so much. Those are such great takeaways.
Well, there are a couple of follow up items we’re gonna send out to everybody after this. We’re gonna send Donna’s sabbatical policy, her organization’s sabbatical policy, and if Jessica and I can find it, we’re gonna send also that study on the ROI of taking a sabbatical. People are chatting in thank you. So, thank you, thank you. And if anybody who’s participating has any other questions we didn’t get a chance to address, feel free to email me. It’s [email protected], and I will do my best to answer them or get you answers. Take good care of yourself. Be well.
Donna Hall: Thank you very much.
Jessica González-Rojas.: Thank you.
Donna Hall: Bye-bye.
Sarah Durham: Bye.