What's the ROI for Nonprofit Executive Sabbaticals?

Why aren’t sabbaticals a household word among nonprofits? We’re known for flexibility, but we have our blind spots: at the moment, sabbaticals are about as much a part of nonprofit culture as robust pension plans! Yet when nonprofit boards encourage their top executives to take a much-needed break, the results have brought huge returns on the investment. 

A foundation leader in Denver heard about my interest in sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders and encouraged me to talk to one of his grantees in Albuquerque. He told me the highly-regarded executive director of 14 years took a leave that resulted in such success it created buzz among the city’s nonprofit community, not to mention the leader’s own Board, staff, and donors. She—and the organization—are thriving, more creative than ever, and expanding their vision. 

Below is a partial list of a nonprofit’s return on investment for a sabbatical for their highest-paid executive. The observations include data from research by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, Third Sector New England, Civic Venture, California Wellness Foundation, and others.

Sabbaticals are an exceptional recruitment and retention tool. Several EDs commented on the loyalty the sabbatical promoted, saying that before their sabbatical they were paying some attention to headhunter calls. That head-turning ended after a needed break.

Sabbaticals rejuvenate. They are probably the most cost-effective means of retaining an excellent leader in need of some time-out. And the research suggests there need be no agenda during that break for the resting executive director.

Sabbaticals promote a “practice” emergency succession plan, or can lead to one. They can engender an environment that builds an emergency succession plan for senior staff members, or points to the lack of one.

Sabbaticals require planning. In the process, both leader and staff will experience considerable psychological benefit while the leader anticipates a break. The “afterglow” helps too.

Sabbaticals are inexpensive, especially compared to replacing an experienced ED. The cumulative cost estimate to replacing an ED is easily $35,000–$50,000. On the other hand, a three-month sabbatical with a half-time interim ED might cost the organization no more in cash outlay than the equivalent of one and a half months’ of the same  executive director’s salary. And that’s leaving out the learning-curve that comes with bringing a new executive onboard. 

Why aren’t there more sabbaticals in the nonprofit environment?

It’s not a regular part of our culture, even if it’d be the wisest practice we could put in place. If you’re a great board member for your organization, the sabbatical is both a metaphor for putting in place best practices to develop key leadership and an example of such a practice. Yes, there might be “no good time” for the top staff executive to take three months off; but on the other hand, waiting might be the driving engine for unneeded turnover—and just when the organization needs its leader most.


“Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building & Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector.” 2009.  Deborah S. Linnell: Third Sector New England. Tim Wolfred, Psy.D., CompassPoint Nonprofit Services.  Download at www.tsne.org/creative
“Moving Over or Moving On: Next Career Steps for Health clinic CEOs” Tim Wolfred, Senior Affiliate, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. October, 2011.