4 min Read
December 8, 2009

Take time to smell the roses. And yourself.

Most of us work in the nonprofit world because we want to do some good. We’d like to leave our particular part of the earth a little better than the way we found it. Sometimes this feels like a higher calling. Indeed, for some religious organizations, it actually is a higher calling.

In other words, we’re saving the world. There: I said it.

The residency itself fell through (some sort of health emergency forced its closing for the season–a week before my arrival), but since I’d already made all of the other arrangements that go with taking a month off from one’s life, I scrambled, and thanks to a friend, a couple of farmers in Wisconsin offered me their otherwise unused cabin for the month.

October turned out to be a less than ideal time to go away work-wise. Three of my fellow Ducks were getting married, so nearly half of the staff would be in and out at different times during the month. But we’d planned well enough ahead (I was accepted to the program in May), and let’s face it: there’s never really a good time to get away.

Nonprofit staffs are notoriously overworked and underpaid, and if someone takes a sabbatical or even a vacation, that work just doesn’t get done. That client doesn’t get counseling. That grant application gets ignored. That Facebook page doesn’t get updated.

And if you’re an ED, you probably haven’t had a vacation in years–at least not a vacation that didn’t also include an enormous amount of regular contact with staff and/or clientele to make sure the organization doesn’t burn down while you’re away.

Hey, nonprofiteers! Take some time off!

I headed off on my sabbatical with a plan, and it included a lot of work, frankly. It wasn’t really my intention to rest. I had a month to get everything done I wanted to get done. My plan seemed ambitious but realistic, and a month flies by before you know it.

Because I wanted to be at my most productive, I decided to follow my own natural rhythms. When I felt like writing I’d write; when I felt like eating I’d eat; when I felt like walking I’d walk; and when I felt like sleeping I’d sleep. Rather than “create on demand,” which is what we creatives do at Big Duck, I opted to trust that I would physically feel like writing, probably even every day, as long as I paid attention to my needs at any given moment.

Waking with the sun has some real advantages.

Although the month breezed by, daily life itself slowed down. Each day was its own adventure. I wrote handwritten letters to friends with whom I traded letters before the days of email (I’m showing my age now). Most of them even wrote me back (getting a handwritten letter is still a thrill). I ventured to the main farmhouse once a day to check email and connect with the outside world just a bit (as much as possible I kept my online activity limited to getting baseball scores–I mean, come on, it was the playoffs). Through some kind of miracle, I had cell phone reception, so I kept in regular touch with my wife (we are, after all, married, and we like each other quite a lot).

My fine colleagues at Big Duck were kind enough to leave me alone and give me the space I requested to live my month of solitude. There were times I was tempted to check in, but I resisted the urge.

I was inspired to change the Big Duck logo. Good thing I do words, not design.

I was fortunate. The Big Duck team was very supportive, and we had an excellent copywriter who was able to be essentially “on-call” the whole time I was gone. At home, I have a wife who’s equally supportive of my various writing projects (and in that case, no other husband was required to be “on-call” during my absence). We also have no children, which makes the logistics of getting away (alone) easier.

I just wrote. Or ate. Or walked. Or slept. Or read. Or did nothing.

Creative writing restores me. But more important than the writing was the rejuvenation of living in my natural rhythm, something I couldn’t have gotten to know without the extended time off.

So plan ahead. Take that long vacation. Try to swing some extended leave. Why should academics be the only ones to enjoy sabbaticals?

Find a beach. Head for the mountains. Get in the car and drive. Read a stack of detective novels. Write some poetry. Break out the watercolors. Practice the mandolin. Experiment with some complicated recipes. Borrow DVDs from all your friends and figure out why everyone loves The Wire and Battlestar Galactica. Stop showering. Meditate. Do yoga. Go somewhere–anywhere–without any plan at all and find out what happens when you’re left alone with your thoughts.

In our desire to make the world a better place, it becomes easy to put off the care we need to give ourselves. Your organization’s mission is vital and can be all-consuming. But remember: you are vital to your organization’s mission. For your organization to succeed, you need to find some balance.

I got more done on my writing project than I thought possible–way beyond what I considered both ambitious and realistic. And that’s why I took the sabbatical.

But it was that slow-down, getting in touch with the natural rhythm of my life, that allowed me to come back to Big Duck restored and rejuvenated, ready to do my part in helping our nonprofit clients achieve their life-changing missions.

Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

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