A brief exploration of sabbatical opportunities for NGO Leaders in Asia

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
  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.
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.



Reflections, approaches and updates from Firetree Philanthropy. We support work that creates long-term positive change in communities ​in Southeast Asia.

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