Sabbatical recharges nonprofit CEO

Nonprofit: Bread for the City.

Area location: Northwest and Southeast Washington.

Number of staff: 80.

Annual budget: $7 million.

There are those nonprofit executive directors who feel if they left today, the whole organization would crumble. And then there’s George Jones.

Jones led human services nonprofit, Bread for the City, for 16 years and then felt he needed a break.

“I’m 51 years old. In theory, I have 15 more years left to work,” said Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit. “I started thinking about [a break] as a halftime, like a vacation where I was able to disconnect from the work.”

So Jones took a three-month sabbatical. He spent six weeks in Costa Rica, did a two-week road trip across the United States and attended March Madness basketball games.

The closest he got to working was writing a blog of his travels and checking e-mails — but not replying.

It’s a move that more nonprofits are thinking about as executive director burnout becomes a growing problem for administrators overwhelmed by fundraising and mounting caseloads. Two-thirds of executive directors plan to leave their jobs in the next few years, according to a national report released last year by the Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint.

To take time off, Jones researched how to draft a sabbatical proposal, developed an operations plan for his leave and approached the board.

“It really felt like a no-brainer,” said Jeannine Sanford, who assumed Jones’s role while he was gone. “We have a strong senior staff in place.”

Senior management initially followed the nonprofits playbook for an emergency succession. The first three weeks were bumpy as they realized how much work Jones did but they gradually adjusted, even managing the organization’s annual gala.

Jones returned to his role in March, refreshed, with creative ideas on how to strengthen programs and partnerships.

The organization benefited as well. It has a tested succession plan, and is making tweaks. Senior staff became better acquainted with board members and donors. And now Jones’s role is more clearly defined. He’s now less involve in day-to-day, logistical duties and more focused on burnishing the charity’s image.

Jones, whose leave was partially financed by foundations looking to experiment with sabbaticals, said, “I came back doubly committed not because I was about to burn out, but because I had a chance to explore this other side.”

His co-workers noticed a difference, too.

“I didn’t realize a better George was possible, but a better George is here,” said Kristin Valentine, development director.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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