Land Your Dream Job
Careers that help you move from intention to action

How to Ask For That Much-Needed Sabbatical

A miniature yellow van with suitcases on top.

Remember those summers you enjoyed as a kid sleeping in and spending the day in your pajamas? As you’re busy slogging through the daily 9 - 5 this summer, it may seem like those days are long gone. But with more nonprofit professionals taking sabbaticals, you maybe able to turn those memories into a reality.

Taking time off from work is a great way to ease burnout and improve confidence. And studies have shown that sabbaticals are not only beneficial to the employee, but also to the organization, since it requires that boards and other staff members step up and take on some new responsibilities.

But how do you ask for weeks or months off? And, if your boss or your board of directors agrees, what are your next steps along the road to making it happen?

Asking for a break

There’s a chance that your employer may not have any experience with this sort of request, and if that’s the case, it can be difficult to know how to approach the topic.

Chrissy Califf, Operations Director at Words Alive in San Diego, is about to embark on her first sabbatical. She has been with the organization for more than seven years and was feeling burned out, overworked, and unbalanced.

Chrissy initially planned on combatting her work fatigue by resigning. But after talking to her boss, they decided on a sabbatical instead. She will be the first employee at her organization to take time off in this way. Her advice is to approach your boss with transparency and openness. She suggests first doing your own market research into how other local nonprofits handle sabbaticals so that you are prepared to answer any questions your boss may have.

“Self-care should be a bigger priority,” Chrissy said. “I find myself giving everything I have. But at the end of the day, if my cup isn't full I can't be impactful in my role. It's important and imperative for us to focus on work-life balance.”

Go into the discussion with solid reasons for how the sabbatical will benefit you, the organization, and the community you serve.

  • How will you come back more productive and engaged? You may even want to use the SMART goal setting strategy for this piece by identifying objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
  • How will you spend your time off? Studying? Participating in a project that will benefit your work (like traveling abroad or learning a new language or skill)?

The idea is to spend considerable time defining the purpose of your sabbatical so that when you approach your supervisor, you can frame it not just as an escape, but as something that will help you succeed.

If your organization does not have a sabbatical policy, it’s worth taking a look at a sample policy before approaching your supervisor. Policies may include a requirement that an employee has worked for a number of years or has not taken a previous long absence. The policy might also specify whether a sabbatical is paid or unpaid. The Society for Human Resource Management has some great examples of leave policies for a variety of situations. You’ll also want to research other organizations’ time-off policies to give you a a better sense of what other policies there are in the sector.

 What about the money?

You may be thinking: “Sure, I’d love to take a month off from work. But how am I going to pay the bills?”

Again, the best place to start is the employee handbook to determine if your organization offers paid or unpaid sabbaticals. If it doesn’t mention sabbaticals, talk to your supervisor about other possibilities, including using or advancing your paid time off leave. If your organization has a policy allowing employees to donate sick leave, perhaps ask your supervisor if time could also be donated for part of your sabbatical.

If there is no possibility of getting a paid sabbatical, try talking to HR or your supervisor about the possibility of grant funding. As nonprofit sabbaticals become more common, foundations are becoming more likely to fund them. Your development staff likely has relationships with funders and may have some ideas of how to seek grant funding for your sabbatical. You can do your own grant research online through the Foundation Center.

Pro Tip: Many local libraries and universities offer free access to the Foundation Center's resources.

Your employer is okay with sabbatical! Now what?

Delegate responsibilities

Before you begin your sabbatical, make sure you have a plan for who will be taking over your work responsibilities. This may help ease any worry around your absence. Chrissy suggests that the best approach is one that involves plenty of communication and transparency.

Make a plan

First, put together a proposed plan for how your responsibilities will be delegated. Determine which of your colleagues will take over which specific roles and what training or meetings need to be scheduled before your leave. Here’s a helpful timeline to support your planning process:

  • Six months out: Sit down with your supervisor and colleagues to talk about their new roles. Find out what training they may need and work together to determine how they’ll attain it.
  • Three months out: Schedule trainings with colleagues so they feel prepared and confident, and have a chance to experiment with their new responsibilities ask questions while you’re still in the office.
  • One month out: Introduce colleagues to any partners with whom they’ll be working and make sure they’re on invites for any meetings or conference calls that they will be taking over in your absence.
  • Two weeks out: Present colleagues and supervisors with your written work plan that outlines all of your current projects and any information you think your colleagues might need.
  • One week out: Be sure to set boundaries for when, or if, they can call you. Do you want to be available for emergencies or stay away completely? Whatever you decide (or your organization policy dictates), make sure it is clear to your supervisor or board of directors as well.

And then relax and enjoy your time away. Because stepping back might be just what the next level of management underneath you needs to soar.

In fact, Chrissy feels strongly that her “leave is actually transitioning into opportunities to elevate [her] teammates' roles.”

Did you enjoy this post? There's plenty more where this came from! Subscribe here for updates.

About the Author | Samantha Fredrickson has worked in communications and nonprofit advocacy for more than a decade. She has spent much of her career advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations. She has degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno and New York Law School.

Explore Jobs on Idealist