Read today's post about what Michelle Dewitt learned from her time on Sabbatical and visit the grant page for more information about eligibility. The deadline for applications for the 2017 Sabbatical Program is October 1.

Michelle Dewitt Sabbatical

Rest, Reflection, and a Renewed Sense of Purpose

Grant page: Sabbatical

Michelle DeWitt’s three-month sabbatical was filled with firsts. She trained for and ran a marathon (the Twin Cities), spent six weeks traveling through England, France and Italy on her first European vacation, and took her first vacation from work that lasted more than a week.

She was a member of the original cohort of Rasmuson Foundation’s Sabbatical Program. Created in 2005, the program gives tribal executives and nonprofit executive directors/CEOs the chance to spend three to six months away from the office, in the form of a grant that covers recipients’ salary and expenses. Recipients are encouraged to pursue professional growth or personal renewal opportunities, which could mean travel, personal enrichment, time for reflection, or simply a much-needed rest.

Rest and reflection was exactly what Michelle needed – and gained – from her sabbatical.

“We get so immersed in our work – and it’s very important work – but we don’t always get the chance to stop and look up and survey the world around us, and participate fully,” she says. “We get tunnel vision.”

That tunnel vision put Michelle on a path toward burn out. When she applied to the Sabbatical Program, she had worked at the Tundra Women’s Coalition (TWC) in Bethel for eight years, five as its executive director. Though she needed a break, she worried about the affect an extended absence would have on TWC. But a conversation with an encouraging colleague a few days before the program deadline prodded her into action.

Rasmuson CEO Diane Kaplan remembers Michelle saying during the interview phase of the selection process, “If I don’t get this sabbatical, I don’t know how much longer I can continue to work like this.”

Michelle doesn’t remember uttering those words, but says with a laugh that it’s an accurate reflection of how she felt at the time, so it wouldn’t surprise her – though ironically, she didn’t realize just how exhausted she’d been until her three-month sabbatical ended.

“I was not fully cognizant of how mentally and physically exhausting this work is, and the effect it had on me,” she recalls.

Michelle says that after returning to the office it took several weeks to learn to balance the hectic pace of the job, but once she got into a rhythm, she was able to focus on herself and do things that she’d wanted to do for years, but kept pushing to the bottom of her to-do list. She spent time with family in Iowa, and even regained her sense of humor, she says.

Michelle says she also gained a much-needed perspective that helped her recognize the importance of taking time to recharge. She was reminded of what she loved about her work, and found the energy to tackle a large capital improvement project, something she says wouldn’t have happened without the break. Stepping back also allowed staff to step forward into new roles and gain new skills, adding a positive impact within TWC.

The extended absence wasn’t without its challenges, though in the long-run even those challenges turned out to be positive. She learned there were limits to how much a volunteer board can be expected to step in. The sabbatical also identified holes in the transition plan she’d established, which helped her better plan for the day she would ultimately leave TWC (which she did in 2013, to become executive director of the Bethel Community Services Foundation).

Despite these challenges, Michelle says she wishes she had taken even more time.

“The reality was, the world continued to turn,” Michelle says. “Whether I was gone three, four or five months didn’t really matter in the big picture of things. I was so anxious about not taking too much time off of work, and now I couldn’t even tell you what was so important to get back to.”

Tribal executives and nonprofit executives directors/CEOs who are Alaska residents with at least five years in the nonprofit sector and at least three years in his/her current position are encouraged to apply. The deadline for applications for the 2017 Sabbatical Program is October 1. Nominate someone today!