Nonprofit Leaders Report Back on the Benefits of Sabbaticals

Emily Cohen Raskin

In this guest blog, Emily Cohen Raskin, Executive Director of O2 Initiatives, shares lessons learned about the benefits of a sabbatical from last year's O2 Sabbatical Award recipients. CompassPoint is pleased to be providing coaching support on this initiative.

Recently, O2 Initiatives announced the recipients of our second annual O2 Sabbatical Award, which provides three months of paid leave for Bay Area nonprofit executive directors. This year's awardees include leaders from highly acclaimed environmental, social justice, and educational advocacy organizations as well as nationally recognized health and social service agencies.

When we launched the Sabbatical Award last year, we were looking for ways to strengthen the Bay Area's nonprofit sector. Inspired by the Durfee Foundation Sabbatical Program in Los Angeles, we hoped that giving leaders time away would not only offer them the chance to rejuvenate and return with renewed energy and commitment but also create an opportunity, during their absence, for others in their organizations to take on new responsibilities and acquire new skills.

Now, as last year's awardees start reporting back, we're gaining deeper insight into exactly how sabbaticals result in greater shared leadership and more resilient organizations.

Take Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm. In his recently published piece, Stuart shares just how game-changing the O2 sabbatical was for him and his team. During his absence, TransForm's staff stepped up in significant ways, gaining extensive media coverage for one of their most prominent programs, launching a highly successful online tool, and producing legislative victories—all without his supervision.

Now, back at work, Stuart wants to nurture the leadership that emerged while he was away, and he plans to carry forward many changes made in his absence. "The sabbatical's impact was indeed profound," he says. "It was amazing at a personal level, and the benefits for the organization were more powerful than I anticipated."


Another of last year's awardees, Julia R. Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of OneJustice, told us that the sabbatical helped her reignite passion for her cause. "I found myself able to ask the big questions about how what I do matters to social justice," she says. "What came back to me was passion for the strategy. I fell head over heels in love with the work again."

Above all, we're hearing that when executive directors return, they can retool their leadership models—as both Stuart and Julia are doing—based not on abstract notions of what might work, but on experience of what has worked.

We can't wait to hear about the life-changing, organization-strengthening transformations to come for our next wave of leaders and their organizations. Over the next year, in partnership with CompassPoint coaches, we will once again work with O2 Initiatives awardees to create detailed plans for transferring their duties and responsibilities to colleagues during their sabbaticals. We’ll also support their interim leadership teams, and facilitate organizational learning once the sabbaticals are over.

Emily Cohen Raskin is the executive director of O2 Initiatives, where she directs the O2 Sabbatical Award program. In addition to her role with O2 Initiatives, she also serves as Senior Associate at Hirsch & Associates, an advisory firm that works with families, foundations, and corporations to maximize the impact of their philanthropy. O2 Initiatives will begin accepting applications for the next round of sabbatical awards in the summer of 2016.

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