A brief exploration of sabbatical opportunities for NGO Leaders in Asia

Kate Griffin
Firetree Philanthropy
19 min readSep 28, 2021

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Recognising the mental health impacts that running a non-profit organisation has on its leaders generally, and seeing how the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated the situation, Firetree Philanthropy wanted to explore this further, in particular drawing from the Durfee Foundation sabbatical model for NGOs (that has been in operation in the US for over 20 years and has proven successful).

Our exploration started as a way to establish what (if any) sabbatical opportunities are available to the CEOs of NGOs in Asia. Initial desktop research and reaching out to our networks showed there may be a gap. Given the lack of sabbatical opportunities identified, research was undertaken to see what would be necessary for a funder to introduce a sabbatical program.

We interviewed a number of people with experience and expertise in NGOs in the Asia region to establish what would be needed to implement a similar program. Twenty-six participants (NGO CEOs / leaders, board members, funders, consultants / advisors to NGOs) participated in one-on-one interviews that lasted from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours. Although their combined wealth of knowledge represented hundreds of years working in the sector, we acknowledge the limits of our sample group. Our research is not an academic study but a qualitative contribution, based on a rapid snapshot.

We found that there is great interest in availing of such an opportunity.

We also found that there were several concerns that were highlighted by non-profit leaders. The main challenges perceived are:

  1. Cultural and contextual nuances: How to make it work in a context where holidays are often not taken so the idea of a sabbatical may be alien. The challenges of running this model were highlighted in a variety of ways including the perception of donors, staff members, beneficiaries, etc. but more significantly in the lack of precedence of self care models that encourage CEOs to take time out;
  2. Messaging to all stakeholders to ensure the opportunity is properly understood and not exploited or wasted; and
  3. Sufficient support / processes in place to ensure all stakeholders are supported throughout the entire process to make the program a success.

While the process established the need and strong desire for sabbatical opportunities, the discussions highlighted the level of support that would be required. While it’s clear that Firetree cannot run a full-scale sabbatical that replicates the models we have studied directly, we really hear that some form of support for this, that is contextually relevant, would be valuable and is needed. So we’re currently exploring what this could look like. More on this to come.

In the meantime, we’re sharing the insights we gained from this research publicly in the hopes that this may be useful for others and also be a small contribution to a wider conversation on resilience, and supporting non-profit organisations and leaders.

Introduction & Background

This research was undertaken as part of Firetree’s Connecting, Sharing and Learning strand of our work. Recognising the challenges and stresses placed on CEOs working within NGOs, we are always on the lookout for opportunities that recognise and support leaders’ efforts.

Upon learning about the Durfee Foundation sabbatical model (an opportunity offered to CEOs of NGOs in Los Angeles which has been successfully implemented for over 20 years) we wanted to explore if there was interest in replicating the opportunity in an Asian context.

The Durfee Foundation model facilitates a sabbatical for NGO CEOs / leaders (i.e. the person who reports directly to the board). The program provides CEOs an opportunity to have an extended break from their work for personal rejuvenation. The opportunity provides 3 months paid leave with additional funding for personal travel, if desired. The CEO gets to decide how the 3 months are spent (resting, travelling, spending time with family and friends, retreats etc.) but must take the entire 3 months off and have no contact with the organisation during their break. In that time, the leadership team are afforded the opportunity to step-up to advance their skills and capacity as they assume increased leadership responsibilities (a small amount of funding is provided as a ‘reward’ to those who have stepped-up and taken on extra responsibility). Additionally, a small professional development fund is awarded to NGOs who either already have a professional development fund or who are willing to keep it as an annual budget line after the initial funding.

After the sabbatical, there is the opportunity for all sabbatical awardees to engage with each other through organised events facilitated by the Durfee Foundation. This is to ensure that awardees have the opportunity to network with others who have undertaken a similar experience and to leverage lessons learned.

Another aspect to the program is to allow senior leaders who stepped-up in the organisations where the sabbatical was awarded to undertake a short term (1–2 weeks) residency at a peer organisation. Support is provided before, during and after the sabbatical with consultancy support offered to each organisation. This can be used to help the CEO plan what they will do, or to help the team during the sabbatical if they run into issues or after the sabbatical if there are any challenges with the CEO reintegrating after the break.

We would like to thank the team at the Durfee Foundation for being so open in sharing their model, insights and learning with us. They have been a wonderfully welcoming and supportive team, thank you. This snapshot was undertaken entirely independently of the Durfee Foundation and so its limitations and any shortcomings in it are entirely Firetree’s.

Using the model outlined above, the basis of our exploration was to: 1) establish what (if any) sabbatical opportunities are currently available to CEOs of NGOs in the Asia-Pacific region; 2) to gauge the response to such an opportunity being offered; and 3) to investigate what would need to be considered if implementing such a program in the region.

Methodology and Ethics

We would like to acknowledge the limits of our methodology. This exploration was not designed to be an academic research piece. The sampling of interviewees was based on the contacts and connections available to the researcher and is not representative of all NGOs within the region — and the interviews were conducted in English.

Desktop research was initially undertaken to establish what (if any) sabbatical opportunities were / are available to CEOs of NGOs in the region.

In order to further explore what was available and to consider the views of a broad range of actors in the sector, one-on-one interviews were undertaken with:

  • CEOs of Firetree NGO Partners (4 participants from NGOs in The Philippines and Hong Kong)
  • Firetree Staff Members (5 participants — many of whom hold / have held CEO / senior positions within NGOs in Nepal, The Philippines and Thailand)
  • CEOs of NGOs (not funded by Firetree) (4 participants from Cambodia, The Philippines and Vietnam)
  • Funders: Trusts/Individuals/Corporations that support organisations throughout the region (6 participants — two of whom also sit on NGO boards in the region so were able to provide the perspective of a board member too)
  • A board member of several NGOs in the region (representing NGOs in Cambodia and Hong Kong)
  • Individuals who include development peers, consultants and advisors (6 participants) — many of whom have worked in or with grassroots organisations throughout the region over several years

The outline of the model and links to additional information on the Durfee Foundation website were provided before the conversations. Participants were asked for their input on the model based on their expertise of the NGO sector in the region. All information provided was anonymised.

Findings

In order to provide a full picture of the information contributed by the participants, the responses to the questions asked are presented in the order the questions were discussed with the participants. Examples of experiences with sabbaticals are also included to provide a sampling of some of the successes and some of the challenges experienced.

As the desktop research failed to find any specific opportunities for CEOs of NGOs in the Asia-Pacific region, the majority of the information contained within this document is based on the contributions from the one-to-one interviews undertaken. We fully accept the limits of our desk-based research though and so recognise that there may well be opportunities that we missed. If you know of any, please let us know.

1.There is a need — a programme like this would be welcomed:

The majority of those spoken to were excited about the possibility of such an opportunity. Many of the CEOs talked about how such an opportunity would benefit them and their teams by providing a great learning experience. Almost all participants agreed that there is a need for such a program. The main reasons given were:

  • To prevent burnout / support those who have burned out
  • As a ‘reward’ for the CEO’s hard work
  • Allow the CEO space to learn more things they can bring back to the NGO
  • To assist succession planning
  • Capacity building for the staff
  • Highlight gaps in staff capacity

Most in the position of CEO commented about how it would benefit them personally as well as allow for succession planning with a safety net in place.

‘I looked for such an opportunity previously when in need of a break and was burned out and exhausted. I didn’t find anything.’ — CEO participant

2. It seems there are limited other similar models out there — although we fully recognise that this was a ‘quick snapshot’ not an in-depth research piece:

The majority of the respondents didn’t know of any similar programs, or programs along the lines of what Durfee Foundation is offering. Some respondents had heard of sabbaticals but knew them only to be offered in western settings or in companies (mostly in the US).

There was a lot of familiarity with academic scholarships, professional scholarships / fellowship opportunities and residencies / NGO exchanges. However, the majority of these were offered as study opportunities for professional development — not necessarily to CEOs but to any leader within the organisation. Such opportunities were typically for a set period and the person awarded was expected to return to their previous position.

Participants had heard of opportunities for sabbaticals in larger NGOs where the CEO sometimes got paid and sometimes could take leave unpaid. One NGO interviewed offered sabbaticals to it’s staff but it was limited to 5 days. Another offered sabbaticals of 50 days for every 7 years service but admitted that it wasn’t properly understood by the staff and that sufficient processes weren’t in place. They will use the Durfee Foundation DIY guide to help them develop better policies and processes going forward. Another NGO had experience of the CEO taking a sabbatical but as the information about it was only communicated at the top level of the organisation, the rest of the staff were left to wonder if there was an issue. For the interim CEO of this NGO, they delayed or put off decisions as they were not clear about what their role was and this significantly impacted the day-to-day running of the organisation.

Another area that sabbaticals were known in was for religious missionary organisations where after the mission term was complete, the staff member was given a year-long sabbatical. Similarly in large organisations some have policies where staff who work in certain countries / situations, take an 8 week break after every 6 months of continuous work.

Some funders interviewed provide capacity building grants but not specifically for sabbaticals and no funding was ever requested for such an opportunity. However, two funders did say they would happily provide it to their partners if asked to, and that their flexible funding allowed for that.

One funder believed there was a similar program offered a long time ago but it was ad hoc and not really structured. They couldn’t remember who offered it to allow for further research.

One philanthropist who sits on a board for a network of funders to environmental projects experienced their CEO take a 3 month sabbatical. The sabbatical worked for the CEO who came back refreshed and revived but not for the staff who stepped-up as their expectations were not properly managed. As the sabbatical was provided by the board and not through a program, it was not properly managed and without proper processes, the benefits of it were limited. This philanthropist could see from the Durfee Foundation model how their board could have made it successful with the right structure, processes and support in place.

Opportunities for human rights defenders to take some time off were also identified in cases where a person is in a dangerous situation and needs to be physically away from their context. However, it was noted that providing such an opportunity and taking someone out of their country of work in this region could result in them being denied access to return to the country after the sabbatical.

One respondent had significant experience in offering sabbaticals to NGO leaders (about 10 years ago) and some of the learnings from this experience highlight some additional challenges that weren’t raised by any of the other participants. The sabbatical was provided through the equivalent of a parent NGO that offered the opportunity to its partners on the ground. The CEOs were offered a break of 6 months to study, or undertake personal or professional development. The lessons learned included but were not limited to:

  • Transparency: issues of poorer practice being unearthed or in some cases sensitive information (e.g. salaries) was shared and this caused issues.
  • Risk to funding. This interviewee highlighted that this was always a concern to CEOs.
  • It backfired where patriarchy existed as the CEO kept getting involved while on leave.
  • If running such a program, the robustness of the organisation is key.
  • Sufficient resources to run the program and support the process are needed in order for such an opportunity to succeed.

3. While interviewees felt a programme like this would be valuable, those with experience of sabbaticals highlighted that structure, support and processes were key to such a program’s success.

They cautioned that it would need to be well planned.

‘When the organisation is not well prepared, it’s less likely to succeed.’ — Development Consultant with significant experience of sabbaticals

The challenges raised with such a program were varied but the majority come under three headings:

a. Culture

b. Messaging

c. Sufficient Support / Processes

It is important to stress here that the intent in the following sections is to share back, anonymously, what was heard from the discussions, not to state a position from Firetree. The discussions highlighted a number of points that we had not thought of.

a. Cultural and contextual nuances

By far the biggest concern that we heard from leaders was that it’s not typical to take long holidays / time off so the opportunity may be alien to many people who are learning about sabbaticals for the first time. There was a concern around the perception of taking time off, we heard a range of thoughts on this — many that we hadn’t anticipated:

  • Might it be perceived that you’ve been let go for some misconduct?
  • Might it be perceived that there are significant mental health issues?
  • Guilt of the CEO for leaving the team with their workload etc. There is dialogue around self-care that needs to be considered.

‘As the leader, they should be the last one to take a break. [They] would feel it’s not fair to get this opportunity. Feel like abandoning the team. Although it is appreciated that the team would develop and this would be a good way to rationalise it.’ — CEO participant

NGOs who are existing partners of the funder may be concerned that they will lose their wider program funding if something ‘went wrong’ with the sabbatical opportunity so they may not apply or may not give honest feedback. Does there need to be a clear separation of the projects and the staff running them (i.e. grants provided by the funder and the sabbatical program)? If they are not being funded as a partner (but just for a sabbatical) will this make them more or less open to sharing challenges?

The challenge of no contact with the organisation was raised in light of the fact that most organisations based in the region are a family of types. If you live close to the office or regularly socialise with the staff, it’s difficult to maintain a complete separation during the sabbatical period — most staff are connected on social media. When organisations and people are identified, if the design of the program can be such that a certain amount of time is required to be spent away from home, this could help. This would not however work in situations where there are couples / family members working within the same organisation as it would be impossible for them to disconnect from their family during a sabbatical period.

In some countries most families are supported financially by family enterprises, therefore taking time off is not an option. Even if a CEO were to take time off, they may end up working to support their family business. They may not necessarily be able to step away.

‘In Asia the concept of vacation is very different. In the Philippines most families are supported financially by family enterprises, therefore taking time off is not an option. Even if a CEO were to take time off, they may end up working to support their family.’ — CEO participant

In relation to the aspect of the model that offered a short term sabbatical program to the leaders who step-up while the CEO was away, the general consensus of this aspect of the program was that it would be difficult to run for such a short time (2 weeks). It was considered a disruption to the hosting organisation (similar to supporting short term volunteers in the NGO), that the duration would limit the amount of knowledge that could be imparted to the person receiving the opportunity. In two conversations it was likened to mission creep, and in another that it feels like trying to achieve too much. There are likely to be challenges if offered outside their country of operation e.g. language, cultural, logistical etc. It was also thought that the costs to time and resources needed to implement this may outweigh the benefits.

One of the participants was part of an exchange organised through another funder in 2017. While the intention was similar to what Durfee Foundation intends, this participant noted that there were no notable benefits to the organisation as the cultures were too different and the time was too short to make any significant impact. In two cases, however, the CEOs said they think opportunities like this are of value.

If it were to be part of an overall program, it was suggested that opportunities could potentially be lost if it’s only offered to the management and not to others within the organisation.

It was highlighted that there could be security / confidentiality concerns depending on the organisation or person availing of the opportunity. That being the case, how much of what is being shared will be of benefit?

Furthermore, it was suggested that if there was the opportunity for the staff stepping-up to learn / develop skills in the ‘offloading period’ that would be more beneficial.

‘It would be difficult to implement in an organisation that didn’t have the right culture — if the CEO is working to empower the staff and that is their passion rather than the love of their own job, they’ll be willing to take on this opportunity.’ — CEO participant

At the end of each interview, participants were invited to add any additional thoughts to the conversation. Some of the ideas / recommendations included:

If paying staff additional money for extra responsibilities, tack on an assignment e.g. ask them to keep a weekly journal answering the following questions: 1) What has worked better without the CEO? and 2) What is more difficult without the CEO? This way you can properly analyse what’s happening as well as justify the additional pay.

The selection of coaches to support the process is very important. They would need to be familiar with the country’s context. It’s also recommended this person is separate from the people who are running the sabbatical program on behalf of the funder so that the CEO can confidentially engage with a relevant professional without concern that what they discuss will be shared.

‘As the process and outcomes will be different for each organisation, it will be good to have alumni connections so people will be able to share the process and impact — which could be quite interesting.’ — CEO participant

Likewise for those stepping-up, it would be good to have a network to liaise with. The knowledge exchange that could be gained from this would be important. There may be unknowns going on in the organisation (good and bad) that could surface while the CEO is away. It’s good to have relevant groups going through a similar situation to reflect on issues with.

Running a pilot is probably the best way to see if this works. A mix of partners and non-partners will establish if knowing the organisation better is a help or hindrance. Taking people with different motivations for the sabbatical will allow for learning about the different dynamics and influences on why it turned out the way it did.

b. Messaging

Messaging to all parties (board, CEO, staff stepping-up, the other staff within the organisation and HR departments, and the other funders to the organisation) was discussed by those who contributed. If the program is not properly understood, it runs the risk of mismanaged expectations on all levels.

The benefits to each participating party need to be communicated clearly and there may be hesitation to participate in the program if it’s not properly understood.

If the board doesn’t understand the opportunity properly they may not support it. If the CEO doesn’t understand the potential, they simply won’t sign up for it. If the staff stepping-up aren’t clear about the terms, they may fear getting things wrong. If they step-up and their expectations are not clearly managed, there is a risk of miscommunication and possible resentment.

If funders don’t understand the opportunity they could see it as a risk. There may also be the perception that money is being put into one person as opposed to being provided for the overall organisational benefit.

If more than one CEO in a funders portfolio is selected for sabbatical, funders may be concerned about the impact to their portfolio.

There may be challenges justifying the need for such a program when there are other more pressing needs in the sector.

The program needs to be clearly communicated so everything can be fully understood and considered by those interested in the opportunity.

Due to very limited exposure of sabbaticals, NGOs may have no policies, limited board understanding and will need to be familiarised with the opportunity. Evidence to support the benefits will be key along with the tools to explain it internally and externally.

Language was also highlighted as a significant point in relation to how to ensure that this is accessible linguistically, both in terms of people applying and in terms of materials being translated and culturally adapted for the different countries the opportunity is being offered in.

How the opportunity is promoted is something several people commented on. What we heard was that it should be called an award / prize / scholarship sabbatical / a professional development program or something similar so that it’s rebranded as a ‘new concept’. That way people are exposed to a new opportunity rather than something that’s not typical for the region. The understanding of ‘sabbatical’ differed and varied so that needs to be taken into account.

‘Supporting one person can get a lot of criticism for putting resources on someone who already has a lot of opportunity and knowledge.’ — Consultant

‘There is a need to consider donor cross over (where other donors fund the same organisation). It may cause concern to other funders if several of the CEOs of the organisations they work for are leaving for a sabbatical at the same time.’ Firetree Staff Member

‘If offered as a prize it would be seen as a reward / recognition for the great work they are doing. That could help to mitigate the impression of there being something wrong by the CEO taking time out.’ Funding Foundation

‘CEOs are typically workaholics and believe everything will collapse if they are not there. There are lots of local leaders burned out. Seeing the initiative is funder approved, it would justify them taking time out.’ Consultant

c. Sufficient Support / Processes

Having the support of all the key stakeholders is imperative. Without the board’s approval and support, it would be challenging to implement. The board will need to be a mature and responsible one to ensure the most is made of the opportunity.

It was noted that such an opportunity would not work well in new organisations / organisations in a growth stage or during a time of change or crisis. This is backed up by research on the Durfee Foundation model (and other sabbatical programs in the US). As strong foundations within the organisation, culture and team are needed, it would work well for organisations that are stable and mature and looking to innovate.

Adequate processes that are clearly defined and communicated need to be in place including:

  • Support and guidelines throughout the process from preparing an application to the CEO returning to the organisation after the sabbatical.
  • Sufficient time to prepare and ensure that the knowledge exchange is transferred from the CEO to the other staff members stepping-up.
  • Guidance on contingency planning and on managing the message to all stakeholders.
  • Processes to support the CEO to actually take a break from the organisation.
  • Support to ensure there is a good plan in place for the CEO’s sabbatical and for the staff stepping-up.
  • Assistance in setting the expectations for staff who step-up — before, during and after the sabbatical.
  • Support throughout the process for the board and the staff stepping-up — sounding-boards, mentors, coaches etc.
  • Support in transitioning the CEO back into their position.
  • A clear process for the alumni groups and how they would work.
  • A process to measure impact so that the sabbatical can be assessed.

All materials will need to be in local language and culturally appropriated. It is worth noting that the Durfee Foundation have very clear guidelines on this for the sabbatical programme that they run.

‘There are lots of cultural aspects to the program, lots of human relationships to navigate so it will take time to get it right.’ — Donor participant

‘Support throughout the whole process is key.’ — Funder with experience of providing a sabbatical

Conclusion and recommendation

If a funder / NGO were to decide to offer a sabbatical opportunity to their CEO, it’s recommended the processes are clearly thought out, documented beforehand and communicated adequately to all relevant parties. Durfee Foundation provides great free resources on their website to help with this.

While the process established the need and strong desire for sabbatical opportunities, the depth of input provided highlighted the level of support that would be required. For Firetree, while we feel we can’t run a full-scale sabbatical, at this point in time at least, we are working on what we can do in relation to this. More to come…

As detailed at the start, we are sharing this information so that anyone considering offering a sabbatical opportunity in the region in the future can benefit from the insights we gained. We are happy to be contacted for further information on our exploration.

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