July 3, 2018

How can nonprofit leaders take successful sabbaticals?

Jessica González-Rojas, Executive Director of National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, shares her experiences planning for her sabbatical and the unexpected benefits it brought to her organization. She also shares tips for how nonprofit leaders can prepare for their own sabbaticals and set sabbatical policies for staff.


Sarah: Hey, welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I am Sarah Durham, the CEO of Big Duck, and I’m joined today by my friend Jessica Gonzalez Rojas. Hi Jessica.

Jessica: Hi Sarah.

Sarah: I’m a big fan of Jessica’s. I’m very fortunate to also call her a client, but she has been somebody I’ve learned a lot from, and really come to value and appreciate as a friend for the past couple of years. She, for those of you who don’t know her, is the Executive Director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, which is the only reproductive justice organization that specifically works to advance reproductive health rights and justice for the 28 million Latinas in the United States. She’s been a leader in progressive movements for over 15 years and she does a lot of work forging important connections between reproductive health, gender, immigration, LGBTQ liberation, labor and latino civil rights, breaking down barriers between movements and building strong Latina grassroots presences.
If I read you her bio, it would have a long list of awards. She’s an expert voice who’s often in the media. She teaches, she even has a background in community in electoral politics. So thank you for joining me.

Jessica: Thank you for having me.

Sarah: Before we dive into our topic today, which is sabbaticals, a topic you and I both love. Tell us a little bit about the National Latina Institute for people who don’t know about it.

Jessica: The National Latina Institute has been around now for about 25 years. We are a national organization who’s dedicated to building Latina power, to advance health, dignity and justice for Latinas, their families and their communities, and we do this a few ways. We do this by elevating Latino leaders, mobilizing our families and communities, catalyzing policy change and shifting the cultural narrative to ensure that it’s by us, for us. So we work across the country. We have offices in New York, Washington DC, Virginia, Florida, and Texas, and we’re continuing to grow over the years.

Sarah: And how long have you been the executive director there?

Jessica: I’ve been the executive director since 2011, so that’s almost seven years. And I’ve been at the organization for 12 years though in various capacities. We were five people in a small office and now we’re 40 staff across five states.

Sarah: So the organization’s grown a lot in the time you’ve been there and grown a lot under your leadership. And in 2017 after a lot of thoughtful prep work, you took a sabbatical.

Jessica: Yes.

Sarah: So tell us a little bit about why you took a sabbatical and what you did on Sabbatical?

Jessica: Yeah. So actually in 2016, I started talking to the board of directors. At that time we didn’t have a sabbatical policy, so I knew we had to start with looking at policies. and I began talking to the board and began talking to colleagues in the movement and not just in the reproductive health movement, but in various movements and ask them to share their policies. And this is where cross movement relationships really are beneficial, because leaders really share information and support one another. So it was wonderful to get so many different variations of sabbatical policies and I started looking at what was sort of the average time, what’s generally the average procedure. And what we walked away with was a policy and it took over a year to create and at that time I thought we’d have this different election and it’d be a very relaxing time in the summer of 2017 to take a break-

Sarah: Yeah, there wouldn’t be much going on for women’s rights.

Jessica: We’d be fighting proactive policies and seeing the world change, and it’s a change in a different direction. But nonetheless, I still decided to take it and I think that’s actually really important for myself and for other leaders, consider that there’s never the perfect moment. But I did plan it out in a way that we had time to assess policies, created new policies, have the board vote on it. And we walked away with something I’m really proud of, which is 12 weeks paid policy where you just work with the board or whoever your supervisor is. Everyone’s eligible to take it across the organization whether you answer the phones or you’re out in the field doing organizing or you’re the executive director. So I’m really proud of that policy that it will serve everyone, because everyone’s work as incredibly valuable.

Sarah: And do you have to have worked at the organization for a certain period of time before you can open up that conversation?

Jessica: Yes, seven years, seven years. Some organizations had like three to five, some had 10 to 15. So we wanted to find something in the middle and seven felt like a nice number.

Sarah: And I love also that you reached out to your peer network it sounds like, and asked for sabbatical policies. Usually they’re not published publicly, but you just emailed people, right? And said, “What do you do?”

Jessica: Yeah, it was great. I mean people were really supportive and a lot of folks who I reached out to actually said, “I don’t have a policy yet and can you share what you find?” So it’s been this sort of moment of discussion about leadership and taking respite and what the value is of a policy like this. And in fact, I have a group of executive directors that we meet regularly to discuss those sort of things. And we actually dedicated one of our discussions strictly to sabbaticals, and we were able to actually support other organizations in crafting their own policies and seeing their leaders take the break that they need.
Sarah: Oh, that’s so great.

Jessica: So it’s actually been a wonderful outcome outside of my own benefit and the benefit of the future employees that will be enjoying it at my organization. But actually the movement needs a break, right? Leaders in the movement really needs to step away from the work. And again, I ended up stepping away during a very, very difficult time amongst our policy priorities, amongst the issues that our communities were facing. But what was really important is that we planned for it and that I built a strong enough senior team to hold the work, and that was really important. And we got a consultant to help support the team in case any challenges arose. But really the team took the lead and was able to carry the work forward without my being there over the course of three months.
Sarah: So you had a consultant that I think you got some funding to come in and hold some of the work, so that they could sort of lighten a little bit of the load on your senior staff. But then other responsibilities were distributed among your senior staff?

Jessica: Yes. The consultant was actually primarily to serve as a resource to the senior team. so there was no external responsibilities the consultant took. There was actually not an interim executive director named. Some groups might take a different approach, but we decided we had the key leader, the senior staff of each department. I redistributed some of the work to the key leaders of each of these departments and there was a ongoing feedback mechanism amongst the senior staff. And the consultant provided guidance and support and if challenges arose, they were able to resolve them together and it was really wonderful. And I think actually the benefit was that I have now a stronger senior team.

Sarah: Wow, that’s great. And you might be wondering if you’ve been listening to this podcast, how this is a communications topic, right? But I would say this is a really important internal care, self care, fostering healthy internal organization and sustaining the people within it, is critical to being able to communicate well internally and externally. And this is a process that forced you to really communicate with a lot of people in new ways about your role, about their work.

Jessica: Absolutely.

Sarah: I’m curious also to hear … You were gone for three months, is that right? So can you talk a little bit about what you did during those three months and what it was like when you came back?

Jessica: Yes. I planned a few trips and I think the planning was also important, not just to plan for my departure and how the team was going to hold the work, but actually take some time to plan for yourself and how you were gonna remove yourself from the work. Because it’s very difficult, particularly for someone like me that has seen the organization grow so much. I’ve carried a lot of that growth on my shoulders and had built the team that we have and built the work. I’m very invested in it and I knew that I’d have challenges letting go. But this process … The planning allowed me to let go and knowing that I was looking forward to certain things. So I planned a trip to Italy. My partner celebrated his 40th birthday and we had a friend who was celebrating their 50th, so we combined trips. We had another trip to Massachusetts. We went to Los Angeles to visit family. We went to Florida to visit family. We really spent time with people that we would normally not get a lot of time with.

So spending two or three weeks in Florida with family, which was lovely. And again, not everyone has sabbaticals when you’re on sabbatical. So people work, but it gave me time to myself, time with my child and I was actually really looking forward to being at the beach and reading some books and just resting to be honest. And it was just wonderful to be able to map out some of those trips, but find those quiet moments for myself.

Sarah: Yeah. I think yours is a sabbatical that was soul nurturing, right?

Jessica: Yes.

Sarah: For you and for your family. And it was about rejuvenation, which is so critical when you are really in the front lines of a movement and fighting that. I took a sabbatical also a few years ago, I think four years ago now, also about three months. And I went into it with some really concrete goals. I had three goals. I think one was spend more time alone.

Jessica: Yes.

Sarah: The second was surprise and delight my husband, ’cause I had actually just come through a period of time where I had been grieving. I’d lost my mother and I felt like I had been asking him to do a lot of the heavy lifting. So I wanted to give back to him and then do things with my kids that I normally don’t do because of work, like pick them up from school or take a special day.

Jessica: Yeah. And we had talked before and I think your guidance to me was really helpful, because they were things I would never have been able to do my child that I was very intentional about. So one example is anyone who knows me knows I have zero skills in the kitchen.

Sarah: Me either.

Jessica: I am not a hook, but here we were making cupcakes for his birthday party at school. And it was beautiful ’cause I had time to bake together and have him turn the batter and decorate the cupcakes, and then I actually got to go to school with him that day. And operating really large busy nonprofit, I’m often on the road and not able to do these special moments with my family. So I love the word surprise and delight and it was wonderful to be able to spend that time with my partner as well and with my son, and do the things I would never have been able to do otherwise.

Sarah: So let’s talk about the impact that this had on your work. I mean, if the goal was to do something restorative and nurturing for you and maybe also empower other members of your team who got to hold the work, what did you come back to? And now that that … that was now 10 or so months ago, what’s the lasting effect?

Jessica: I think the important backstory is in 2011 when I started the organization, we were about 10 staff and we had only one other senior member of the team. So some of the hard work I’ve done through the years was building a senior team. So hiring folks and then ensuring that we’re operating as a team, operating as an enterprise and there was a lot of work put into that. And I think the biggest benefit was walking away, right? Trusting the team and being thrilled with the outcome. And I think what was important in having the conversations with my staff, is that they don’t have to do everything I would do. Right? If the request come to them, it’s not that they have to take everything on, but I trust you to make the decisions whether to act upon a request or take on a certain initiative or whatever came to them that would have normally come to me. And I think that was very liberating and it felt that they knew that they were trusted and that they were leaders of the organization, that it didn’t just sit with me.

So that was a really exciting outcome and I know for the staff they felt really empowered. I think they saw themselves as leaders, and again, I came back to a stronger team that operated much more sophisticatedly. And we’re able to operate with better trust amongst each other and be able to grapple with problems and issues in a way that came out with a wonderful, collective outcome.

Sarah: And 10 months later, has that stuck? What stuck and what’s changed?

Jessica: I think for me personally, I’ve tried to embody some of the learnings from the sabbatical for myself. Finding the time with my family, not kinda getting caught up in the work and the intensity and the pace. I haven’t been totally amazing at the work in terms of the pace, but I have gone on school trips with my son and I’ve definitely been much more present where I could be and carve that time to do so. With the team, I think we’ve continued to grow and operate from a better place and the language we use oftentimes as a senior team is enterprise. We’re acting as a enterprise together, that it’s not just about your department and the department needs, but how are we bringing the perspective of the collective and furthering the organization, our mission, our team, our values. All those things forward together. I came back to a wonderful team and we continued to strengthen that in the past 10 months.

Sarah: That’s been my experience too. One of the things I thought was really beneficial for me personally in preparation for my sabbatical, was just keeping a list of all the stuff that only I knew how to do and having to really force myself to think about who’s gonna do this-

Jessica: Yes.

Sarah: So that I’m not getting phone calls ’cause I wanted to be completely unplugged from the office. So I was forced to teach people and let go of things and empower people. And when I came back, I spent my first week asking people, “How did it go? What did you like doing? What should I pick back up? What should I not pick back up?” And it turned out that people loved doing some of the things that I hated doing and some of them are things I was really bad at doing. And there were a whole bunch of things that I kind of hadn’t really thought, “Oh, I’ll have to go back to do that.” But it didn’t occur to me I wouldn’t have to pick them back up again. But I still don’t do them.

Jessica: Yes.

Sarah: We got me totally out of things that I just wasn’t that good at that other people picked up and liked to do, and we’ve now figured out how to let them own that.

Jessica: Yeah.

Sarah: And that’s been great.

Jessica: That’s a perfect scenario. And one thing when you talk about communications, I think about … We embodied a principle at the senior team called radical candor and to be radically candid with one another, and that’s how we continue to be a stronger team. So that was an outcome as well, that we continue to operate and utilize it as a team. And yeah, there’s definitely things that I’m less involved in. Right? I’m sort of coming at it at a later process. They move forward with recommendations and maybe I’ll just say that I have the final input or you know, stamp of approval. But again, I think the hard work was actually building a strong and dynamic senior team, and then taking this moment to let them fly.

Sarah: So sabbatical’s almost like the pressure test-

Jessica: Yes.

Sarah: Of how strong the team-

Jessica: Exactly.

Sarah: You’ve built is.

Jessica: Yeah.

Sarah: So as we wrap up, I want to flag a couple of resources on this topic and ask you one final question. First of all, Jessica and I and Donna Hall who’s the CEO of the Women Donors Network, recorded a webinar about this, which is a video and it’s on our website … on the Big Duck website. So we’ll link to that in the show notes and I think I also wrote a blog about my sabbatical and how I did that. But going back to what you were talking about in the beginning about policies and practices. I’m very aware that the people I tend to talk to you about sabbaticals are leaders, executive directors, CEOs, and that we as leaders hold a lot of it power that not everybody in our organization holds. So you were very mindful in the policies that you established to make sure they were opened up to everybody in your organization. It’s not just a senior leadership member who can take a sabbatical. I’m curious for people who are listening to this podcast who may not be executive directors, who may work in organizations that aren’t at all thinking about sabbaticals and may not feel they have the power to influence this policy. Do you have any advice for them? Anything you’d encourage them to do that might help open up this conversation?

Jessica: I think talking to other movement colleagues and thinking about what principles do their organization embody, because as social justice organization, there’s certain values and principles that we fight for. And I think we have to actually challenge our organizations to live by those principles, right? We can’t just fight for liberation for others and oppress ourselves, right? We really need to think about how we can do that jointly, right? Amongst ourselves, our team, our organization and for the world that we want to see. So I think having those conversations, again, I had it at the executive director level. But I think peers having that conversation is really eyeopening and there are some organizations that are good models. Again, we’re always happy to share the policy and be a model for others.

There’s also something called the Windcall Institute that allows for organizers to have a space to take sabbaticals. Of course, the organization would have to support that, but it allows for kind of a purpose. Right? Where someone could actually use that space for respite, specifically as a social justice organizer. So there’s really interesting sort of resources out there and there’s also a report, I believe it’s called Radical Disruption and it’s about the research behind the benefits of a sabbatical.

Sarah: Yeah. We can share them in the show notes for sure.

Jessica: And yeah … And I think we have to challenge one another as social justice leaders, radical folks, progressives, to really think about this, not just at the nonprofit level, but even organizations that are for profit. But hold those values and that sort of mission.

Sarah: Yeah. That’s great. Jessica, thank you so much.

Jessica: Thank you so much.

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