What I learned on my summer break (aka sabbatical)

Lori this summer, pictured with her husband and two daughters at a baseball game.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to write about what I did over my summer break. Once one enters the workforce, there’s really no such thing, other than a week here or there that you may take off to travel, visit with family, or relax at the beach. However, this summer I was given a gift by Triangle Community Foundation’s board and staff: I went on a 11-week sabbatical. During this time, I was told to unplug, refresh and recharge, as well as do some field research that aligned with some strategies we are considering at the Foundation. So, they turned off my email, and stepped up and in to fill my role while I was away.

As I noted in an earlier post, the idea of sabbatical is becoming more and more common in the nonprofit and corporate world, as it has been for many years in academia. During one afternoon at the pool, I chatted with another mom who works in the financial services industry. She shared that, in a recent workplace survey conducted by their HR department, sabbaticals were at the top of the list of new “benefits” desired by employees.

It can be a little scary, I admit, to completely unplug, and I also realize that we are perhaps privileged as a nonprofit that has the resources, capacity and leadership to allow this type of break. But as the idea gains traction, I hope that we can stand as an example on how this type of “reset” is beneficial, if not crucial, to both the health and perspective of the employee as well as the organization.

So, in no particular order, here are ten things that I learned during my time away:

1- I need structure. When we weren’t traveling, there were several days where I was left to my own devices, and the day was mine to do with what I wanted. These days proved to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. Do I work on the list of projects around the house I’d set for myself, or do I binge-watch the latest episodes of Castle Rock? There was a lot of binge-watching… Having a routine and structure is necessary for me to manage my time; I knew this already, but this time off definitely confirmed it.

2 — My children love me, but not that much. While I know that both of my daughters appreciated the many trips we took as a family, they were less enthused to spend the day with me (see #1), especially when it gave me time to find all of the “projects” they needed to accomplish (practicing piano, cleaning their rooms, etc.). When I’m working, they are much more “self-directed” during the day, and I think they missed that a little bit.

3 — I am not the be all, end all. I knew this already, but I have been overwhelmed with appreciation for how easily and effortlessly my colleagues took up the reins. In fact, I have a feeling when I go back, there is going to be a conscious effort on all fronts to re-focus how I spend my time, and that, while I’m still a part of a team, it’s ok for me to focus on the important roles that I need to fill, and not worry about some of the more administrative tasks that I’ve stayed connected to for so many years.

4- “Unplugging” is necessary, and we should do it every time we go away. I was surprised at how easy it was for me to “unplug.” I anticipated a day (or more) of withdrawal from the constant checking of email, but it never came. This, I think, may be one of the most important take-aways for me, and it’s something I want to continue to embrace, and encourage all of our staff to embrace, EVERY time we’re off. It’s ok, our colleagues have this, and whatever it is can wait until we return.

5 — The challenges of Triangle Community Foundation are not unique. While we are privileged to serve our community the way we do, we often lament that it’s challenging to balance the many priorities, issues, needs, and focuses of our donors and our community partners. I met with two community foundations — both nearly quadruple our size in assets, and both shared the same lament. It’s a blessing and curse of the work we do, and no matter the asset size, number of staff, and number and size of grants made, it’s still something that the field struggles with. While I didn’t come away with specific solutions, it was comforting to know we’re not alone.

6 — The constant evolution of donor behavior is something we all must face. I had the opportunity to meet with some former colleagues in New York that work for arts nonprofits, and we spoke at length about how they must continue to make their programming and funding opportunities relevant as their donors age, and as the philanthropic parents start to shift decision-making to their adult children. Will the kids continue to support us? Will they have the same passion and connection as their parents? How can we continue to be a relevant partner to these families? This is something we will be exploring in the coming months as we help our donor families think about these transitions thoughtfully, and it’s a really crucial set of conversations we need to start having throughout the nonprofit community.

7- You’re only as good as your team. Bottom line, as I said earlier, I could not have taken this time off if I did not have a talented, dedicated, skilled and enthusiastic team who really encouraged me to do this. That they continued to move the Foundation forward this summer and make important decisions is a testament to the team as a whole, and the individuals who show up to do this work with me every day. I can’t say “thank you” enough.

8- Having a supportive board is essential to every nonprofit. This is something that we speak of often with our nonprofit partners, but it can’t be said enough times. My time away was endorsed and supported by our Board of Directors, and in fact several of them stepped up in my absence to be ambassadors for the Foundation, touch base with the staff, and make sure my sabbatical was a positive experience. I spoke about boards quite a bit when visiting other organizations, and it goes without saying (but I’ll say it again), for the nonprofit sector to work effectively and strategically to deliver their mission, they must have a team of leaders that inform strategy, support the CEO, and serve as ambassadors to the larger community.

9 — It’s ok to get pulled back in. I was not completely “cut off” throughout the summer, and that was ok. In fact, it was a really good exercise for me to quickly weigh in on something and then “turn off” again. It was also important for me to connect back with the staff and the board as we learned of the passing of Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr., our former Board chair and an incredible mentor to several of us on staff. Phail was a huge supporter, counsel and advocate for me, and he encouraged me to ask for this sabbatical. His loss is still a huge one for me, as it is for many others. I’m grateful that I was able to re-connect with the team and the larger community to celebrate his life.

10 — Carpe Diem. The theme of “seize the day, life is short,” came up over and over for me this summer. Perhaps it was the feeling of “non-responsibility” that I was able to achieve many days; I know much of it had to do with the passing of a friend and leader that we lost too soon. We talk so much about work-life balance, and I really don’t think it exists. The message to me was: how can we keep what’s important at the forefront — our family, our health, our relationships, our community — and recognize that everything we do — whether in the office or at home — should positively impact one of those things. The rest is just background noise.

I look forward to sharing more about ideas and strategies I learned as we begin to incorporate some of them into our work at the Foundation. In the meantime, I know my colleagues have been cooking up lots of exciting ideas and activities in my absence. I can’t wait to be back and connect with all our friends and partners.

-Lori