Three Reasons Why Nonprofit Executive Directors Need Sabbaticals Now More than Ever

Hirsch Senior Director and Executive Director of O2 Initiatives, Emily Cohen Raskin, was interviewed in May 2023 on the Successful Nonprofits podcast about the wide-ranging benefits of sabbaticals in the nonprofit sector.

Emily’s experience with nonprofit sabbaticals began while she was the Development Director of the Jamestown Community Center. When the executive director took a sabbatical, the remaining staff piloted a new leadership structure that became transformative for the organization. Emily has since become an advocate for the power of sabbaticals to reignite one’s purpose and empower leadership throughout an organization. At O2 Initiatives, she leads the O2 Sabbatical Award, which to date has honored 37 dedicated Bay Area nonprofit executive directors with an essential three month break for rest and renewal.

In the podcast, Emily shares three reasons why nonprofit executive directors need sabbaticals now more than ever:

1. Rest is essential for nonprofit leaders.

Nonprofits enrich our communities and advance innovative solutions to our toughest challenges. This crucial work comes at a cost. Rising community needs, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to unsustainable conditions for nonprofits as their understaffed and under-resourced teams try to meet overwhelming demands for their time and services. These demands are often felt most acutely by executive directors, putting nonprofit leadership at risk of turnover, often with no succession plan in place.

According to a twenty-year retrospective study of the Durfee Foundation’s influential sabbatical program, 34% of applicants reported they were near burnout while seeking a sabbatical. A report by the Building Movement Project found that nonprofits led by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)—which are often smaller, community-based, and less resourced—are often at the frontlines of crisis responses related to the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for systemic change, compounding stress and exhaustion. The need for all nonprofit executive directors to have access and support for essential rest and renewal is paramount, especially those who identify as BIPOC.

2. Sabbaticals are an effective tool for nonprofits to explore more sustainable organizational leadership models.

Sabbaticals create opportunities for other leaders to step up during the executive directors’ absence and provide a strategic opportunity for organizations to think differently about how leadership is shared among staff—such as a distributed leadership model. When executive directors resume their roles, leadership responsibilities are shared more equitably with colleagues, empowering the team and building more resilient nonprofits better equipped to advance their missions in the long-term.

A sabbatical can also be a powerful tool for succession planning by serving as a dry run for eventual transitions. Since 2015, five executive directors that received O2 Sabbatical Awards eventually transitioned out of their roles and the person who was leading during their sabbatical became the new executive director.

3. Investment in employee wellbeing is becoming the norm.

One positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an awakening for employers that employee wellness is critical for staff retention and productivity. A 2022 Employee Wellness Industry Trends Report by Wellable found that 90% of employers planned to invest more in mental health benefits for their employees. While nonprofits generally have fewer financial resources to invest in employee wellbeing than the private sector, nonprofit sabbatical policies are becoming more common to promote healthier work-life balance and retain talent.

Nonprofit boards considering adding a sabbatical policy should ideally prepare for costs including three months of salary and benefits, a stipend for the employee to use during their sabbatical, coaching for the individual and the interim leadership team, and a stipend or bonus for staff taking on more responsibilities during the sabbatical. While some organizations offer unpaid sabbaticals, it is important to explore whether these policies are inclusive of staff whose salaries are not high enough to support the time and activities needed for effective rest and rejuvenation.


As executive directors and nonprofits realize the radical benefits of sabbaticals, our hope is that funders and boards will invest in these programs to build stronger organizations better poised to scale positive change.

To learn more about the groundbreaking impact of nonprofit sabbaticals, listen to the full episode of the Successful Nonprofits podcast, “Tips for Making Your Dream Sabbatical a Reality,” and visit the O2 Sabbatical Award website.