Executive director sabbaticals can strengthen nonprofit organizations, according to a new report jointly released today by the Alston/Bannerman Fellowship Program; the Barr Foundation; the Durfee Foundation; the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust; and Rasmuson Foundation. The report, Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building and Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector, finds that sabbaticals can be “a relatively inexpensive but highly productive capacity-building tool that yields measurable results.”

The report exposes the myth that an executive sabbatical will be a chaotic disruption, finding instead that the creative disruption of a well-planned sabbatical can be productive for the entire leadership of an organization. This finding is surprising to many, says Claire Peeps of the Durfee Foundation: “One of the things we hear is ‘I could never go to my board with a sabbatical request.’ But we’ve learned from 10 years of funding sabbaticals that they can improve the long-term health of a nonprofit organization.”

Key findings from Creative Disruption include:

  • Sabbaticals can be an opportunity for the second tier of leadership to gain new skills and take on new responsibilities
  • The “dry-run” of a sabbatical can be a best practice in succession planning
  • Executive directors who went on sabbatical were more likely to extend their tenure, not cut it short
  • Sixty percent of survey respondents said their board of directors is more effective as a result of the planning and learning that went into the sabbatical
  • The majority of leaders who went on sabbatical reported better relationships with staff, board, funders, and community
  • Eighty-seven percent of the leaders who responded report increased confidence in doing their jobs
  • Funders benefited from feedback and innovative ideas from executive directors who went on sabbaticals, gaining a deeper perspective on community needs

The five organizations that commissioned the report together have funded more than 325 sabbaticals for nonprofit executives over the past 10 years. Investigators from Third Sector New England and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services surveyed and interviewed sabbatical awardees and the managers who served as interim or acting executive directors during the sabbaticals.