Part One

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to take a 6 month sabbatical from my work in running the charity Stay Up Late. It was an incredible opportunity (that I was hugely grateful to all my team for) and one that I seized with both hands. It gave me the opportunity to try new things, or do things I’d dreamed of, with complete spontaneity. Consequently, I had some wonderful and unexpected experiences (some in the most unexpected places) and it was also a great opportunity for my team to develop and grow in their roles. Charity sabbatical planning is something that needs to be considered carefully though to make the most of it.

Snowdonia, charity sabbatical planning

I could go on and on about some things I got up to, but I thought it may be more helpful to use the experience to reflect on some of the key things I learned from the experience and in carefully planning for your sabbatical.

You can read more about my reflections on this sabbatical here. Charity Sabbatical Success: How To Prepare For Sustainability

Top 10 charity sabbatical planning tips

Here are my top 10 things to think about:

1. Be clear about what you want to achieve

– Is if for research and innovation?

– Is it to learn a new skill?

– Have a complete break?

– Test the charity’s sustainability?

– A mix of the above or something else?

2. Select the right time to take your sabbatical

Choose a period when the charity is in a stable condition, not during a busy funding cycle or perhaps when a new project is about to start. But also think about the time of year. You might plan to do something outdoors (like long multi-day hikes). Make sure you’ve got the likelihood of some pleasant weather if that’s the case.

3. Communicate early

Talk to your board and key staff well in advance to prepare them for your absence and listen to any thoughts and concerns they may have.

Be cautious about when communicating with the whole organisation. You want to reassure the entire organisation that you have thought of everything and the board is confident that everything is in safe hands.

4. Appoint an acting leader

Identify your colleague who will act as the leader while you’re away. Make sure they have a good link with the board and ensure the team knows they may make any decisions, and have the resources to do so.

5. Develop a sabbatical transition plan

Take the time to reflect on all the responsibilities you have and who will be managing these in your absence. Leave no stone unturned in doing this. I’d recommend going through your diary (forward and back a year) and scribble down everything that comes into your head.

Then work out who will cover those things in your absence.

6. Document procedures – create a ‘How To Handbook’

Part of taking a sabbatical is going to be a useful exercise for testing a charity’s sustainability. But as CEO or founder, or both, you’re be going to be carrying a lot around in your head.

So I found it essential, and a valuable exercise, to document everything I did over a period of a couple of years. For example, a step-by-step guide to submitting returns to the Charity Commission, or how to work the backend of the website, printing suppliers, fundraising and reporting, and hundreds of articles on just about everything I could think of.

This will create a lot more work in the short-run, but over a long period I created a ‘handbook’ to running the charity. This sits on our shared Intranet and now serves as a useful resource.

I would recommend doing this as you go, rather than trying to write it the month before you leave.

7. Train key staff

Ask key staff if there is any training or support they need so they can prepare for their additional responsibilities. Planning your charity sabbatical should involve the whole team so they know where they fit in, and have the opportunity to develop.

8. Establish clear boundaries for your sabbatical

I wanted to have a clean break but also clarified that I would want to be informed if there was anything critical that I should know about it, for example, a serious health condition affecting one of the team or a serious an unexpected crisis or incident.

Permission was with the board and my deputy make the call whether to contact me.

I also live in the same community where I work, so there’s a chance that people might see me around – I clarified that it’s okay to say hello to me!

9. Automate where possible

Do some research to consider if there are ways to use technology to automate some of your more routine tasks. For example, automating email responses to new contacts via the website or social media posts.

10. Plan financially for your sabbatical

Write a budget to work out the cost of the sabbatical. Will you need to buy in any freelance support? (Or at least create a contingency for this). And ensure the charity has sufficient funds to operate smoothly during your absence, and that you will not be off during a key funding cycle or application process.

If you identify any potential financial risks, you can shift the start of your sabbatical or plan for how you are going to achieve any shortfall.

More charity sabbatical planning tips

In my next post, I’ll continue with some more tips for planning a charity sabbatical. It’s a significant piece of work and an investment in the whole charity, as well as a potentially life-changing opportunity, and not something to be taken lightly.

With careful planning and being flexible, a sabbatical can be a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved. I’d wholeheartedly recommend working one into your plans.

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Paul Richards Executive Director, Stay Up Late

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