Burnout Plagues Nonprofits, With Bad Effects for Mission. Sabbaticals May Help.
Trekking 20 miles a day through California, Oregon, and Washington, on the Pacific Crest Trail, Elizabeth Atwell rediscovered an identity as a curious individual, an explorer — not just a mission-driven professional. The experience was transformational.
“A lot of my sense of self is tied up with my work,” Atwell says. On the trail, that all fell away. Atwell was completely disconnected from the nonprofit work that had come to define their identity and values. They even assumed a new name, Golden. Rather than asking new acquaintances about their jobs — “a pretty serious faux pas,” Atwell says — they bonded over the brutal climbs and breathtaking vistas along the trail.
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Trekking 20 miles a day through California, Oregon, and Washington on the Pacific Crest Trail, Elizabeth Atwell rediscovered an identity as a curious individual, an explorer — not just a mission-driven professional. The experience was transformational.
“A lot of my sense of self is tied up with my work,” Atwell says. On the trail, that all fell away. Atwell was completely disconnected from the nonprofit work that had come to define their identity and values. They even assumed a new name — Golden. Rather than asking new acquaintances about their jobs — “a pretty serious faux pas,” Atwell says — they bonded over their favorite hiking equipment and what they planned to eat the next time they resupplied in a town.
It took roughly three months for Atwell to complete the thru-hike. Leaving the trail, they took home a deeper sense of who they were and what they were capable of.
“You reach that point where you realize, like, Oh, I can do anything. Life is a precious miracle and the chances of me existing on earth are one over infinity, and yet here I am,” Atwell says. “What am I going to do with this one precious life?”
All of this was possible thanks to Atwell’s four-month sabbatical from work as a project manager at the Wallace Center, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit housed at Winrock International. Ever since an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker visited Atwell’s sixth-grade class, they’d dreamed of completing a continuous long-distance hike. They’d even considered quitting work to do it. This sabbatical allowed Atwell to achieve a lifelong dream without sacrificing their career — or even salary or health care benefits.
“I am a stronger leader and a better person because I got to take sabbatical and got to focus on more fully becoming the person I’ve always wanted to become by achieving this truly childhood dream,” Atwell says.
Sabbaticals are most closely associated with academia, but the practice of periodically stepping away from day-to-day work has become more common in for-profit and nonprofit workplaces over the past 20 years. And while there isn’t yet sufficient data to prove it, the pandemic seems to have popularized sabbaticals.
“Everyone’s looking for something that will help folks fight burnout, that helps people find meaning, that helps retain talent,” says DJ DiDonna, founder of the Sabbatical Project, an organization that advocates for making sabbaticals a workplace norm. “I can’t make the direct correlation, but I have to imagine that this collective mortality event played a role in having people be, like, ‘OK, if it’s all so fragile, what am I waiting for?’”
‘I Really Felt Spent’
People generally take a sabbatical to realize a long-held dream — as Atwell did — or as a last resort because they can no longer endure their work duties or environment, says Kira Schabram, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business who has collaborated with DiDonna on sabbatical research. Schabram and her co-authors interviewed 50 professionals from a range of careers — including nonprofits — and found that those who took sabbaticals to recover from burnout were the least likely to return to their jobs.
“If I’m an employer running a nonprofit [and] if I am hoping to reap the benefits of a sabbatical but not lose my employees, waiting until they are so burned out that they’re pushed into it is a bad strategy,” Schabram says. “Having a more regular approach to it would be much better.”
Many nonprofits have such thin margins that employees don’t consider taking sabbaticals until they’re exhausted. That was the case at TeenSHARP, whose co-founder embarked on a yearlong sabbatical in July. Tatiana Poladko founded the college-access nonprofit with her husband, Atnre Alleyne, in 2009, and has worked six-day weeks for the past 14 years while raising three kids. Like so many nonprofit leaders, Poladko pushes herself beyond her limits to meet the organization’s mission. “Our families and our kids have always made it worth it for me,” she says.
But that commitment caused friction within her own family. Alleyne started to resent the nonprofit he had co-founded for running his wife ragged. He worried the overwork would affect her health. Their daughter asked Poladko if she loved the students she served more than Poladko loved her because she spent so much time meeting with them. “These things hurt,” Poladko says. “They hurt. The mommy guilt is real.”
Everyone’s looking for something that will help folks fight burnout, that helps people find meaning.
Poladko decided it was time to hit pause after a tumultuous three years during which she led TeenSHARP through the pandemic and a financial scare; lost her mother to illness; moved her family to her home country of Ukraine and then Poland after war broke out; and cared for her ailing father.
“I really felt spent,” Poladko says. “What I always push through, I’m getting too old for it. I’m running out of that resource, of that magic.”
The solution: A yearlong sabbatical for Poladko to recover that magic and for her organization to practice operating without one of its founders. It wasn’t an easy decision for the leaders of a chronically underfunded organization. TeenSHARP raised $125,000, far short of its $246,000 goal to hire a new student academic adviser for two years, fund professional and personal development opportunities for Poladko, and finance work with a consultant to sharpen the organization’s sustainability and pen a succession plan. Despite the shortfall, Poladko says they’ll make the sabbatical work.
The break, she and Alleyne hope, will put some boundaries on their passion project so they can be there for their children and their students for years to come.
Investing in People
Like Poladko, many nonprofit professionals are so committed to delivering their organization’s mission that they struggle to imagine stepping away. What’s more, sabbaticals are expensive. The Durfee Foundation in Los Angeles, for example, has funded sabbaticals since 1997, awarding $60,000 grants for travel and restorative activities during a nonprofit leader’s three-month leave. The domestic-violence-prevention nonprofit Peace Over Violence offers tenured employees a $3,000 stipend to use during their six to 10 weeks of paid sabbatical leave.
Paid sabbaticals, however, are not the norm. A 2019 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management polled its members and found that 11 percent of the industry group’s members had policies allowing unpaid sabbaticals for employees and just 5 percent had policies offering paid sabbaticals. For-profit employees sometimes take self-funded sabbaticals between jobs, but few nonprofit employees have the savings to do that.
Without an official sabbatical policy to lean on, Atwell spent nearly a year researching the benefits of sabbaticals and getting buy-in from colleagues. It helped that there was some precedent. A colleague at Atwell’s parent organization, Winrock International, took four months of leave to travel the world before starting a family and encouraged Atwell to request a sabbatical under the organization’s extended leave-of-absence policy. The idea also fit with the Wallace Center’s values, Atwell says, noting its commitments to “center emotional, physical, and mental wellness” and to “honor personal style, needs, and boundaries.” Armed with this research and support, Atwell requested permission to use three months of accrued sick leave and vacation for the thru-hike, plus a month of unpaid leave. Atwell’s request was granted — and even exceeded: They received full salary and health care benefits on sabbatical.
While the Wallace Center still does not have an official sabbatical policy, employees who have worked for the organization for at least five years can request one under the extended-leave policy. Atwell’s boss, for example, took a sabbatical the year after Atwell did. Elsewhere, nonprofit employees at organizations that do not have sabbatical policies can also find support from a smattering of foundations across the country that fund sabbaticals for charity leaders.
Twenty years into the Durfee Foundation’s program, it surveyed past recipients and identified burnout and overwork as top reasons leaders sought sabbaticals. Twenty-one of 61 respondents said they applied for a sabbatical grant because they were close to complete burnout. Three said stress and overwork were so detrimental to their health that they needed a break.
Long-running programs at foundations attest to the power of sabbaticals to promote resilience and build a deeper bench of leaders. A 2009 study commissioned by four foundations and one nonprofit that fund sabbatical programs for social-sector leaders found that sabbaticals improve the skills of midlevel employees, jump-start succession planning, foster a more engaged board, and build connections between nonprofit leaders and the foundations that fund their sabbaticals.
The fact that grant makers are endorsing sabbaticals should be a wake-up call to nonprofits, DiDonna says. “These are funders of nonprofits that are saying, ‘This is good for us. This is good for the nonprofits, and it’s good for us as the funders.’”
The Virginia Piper Charitable Trust, a grant maker in Maricopa County, Ariz., sees its sabbatical program as another way to serve the community. “The whole idea behind this is that we, as a philanthropy here, are investing and believing in our nonprofit leaders,” says Karen Leland, chief communications officer at the trust and an administrator of its fellowship program. “We want them to be strengthened, and we want them to stay here in our community.”
The fellowship program also creates a pipeline of new grantees. Fellows can apply for a Piper Fellows Organizational Enhancement Award for their nonprofit within six months of their fellowship. The grant awards a maximum of $50,000, which the organization can use to implement an idea the leader developed on sabbatical.
The Girl Scouts-Arizona Cactus-Pine Council, which serves girls across two-thirds of the state, received a $50,000 Piper Fellows Organizational Enhancement Award after its co-CEO Mary Mitchell completed her sabbatical as part of the 2017 fellows class. Mitchell, then the senior associate for community engagement, visited other Girl Scout councils and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of America chapter to learn how they were expanding their services to reach diverse youths. She also completed graduate courses in business and leadership. Throughout Mitchell’s sabbatical, she met regularly with council and board leaders, securing buy-in on the new ideas and strategies she’d uncovered.
The $50,000 grant from the Piper Trust enabled the Cactus-Pine Council to train the staff on how to better serve a high-poverty population. It also funded travel for 11 employees to visit other Girl Scouts councils and community organizations to learn best practices for building ties with communities that historically weren’t a part of the Cactus-Pine Council. “It created freedom in the organization, nimbleness,” Mitchell says. “We became much more fluid in our ability to think together, sit together, have hard conversations, shift our models.”
Managing the council’s efforts to reach more girls in underserved communities, Mitchell also stepped into a greater leadership role. Just two years after her sabbatical ended, Mitchell was tapped as the council’s interim co-CEO and has served as co-CEO since 2022.
“The fellowship created opportunities for the organization to see me and understand what I could bring forward,” Mitchell says. “They really leaned into it.”