Why take a sabbatical in a nonprofit?

Building a charity (Stay Up Late) changed my life, but it wasn’t easy. It’s also been exhausting and huge amounts of work. My public speaking has taken me to the US, Europe, and the near East. Learning new things is essential, even if they aren’t all thrilling or captivating. However, some of them fascinate me and intensify my desire to dig deeper. I’m sure many founders share the same experiences in different ways. For me, starting a charity, and creating an international social franchise licence, weren’t plans. I was simply swept along by the experience and events and opportunities unfolding. It’s perhaps hard to think about a sabbatical, especially if you’re the founder.

children playing with a globe, sabbatical

On my journey, I met amazing individuals who supported and mentored me. I discovered a community of like-minded people striving for positive change in the world.

In this post I’m reflecting on my experience of taking a sabbatical for people in leadership positions.

Testing Your Charity’s Sustainability During Your Sabbatical

I had been considering taking a break, a sabbatical, for some time. The timing became right last year for me to take a 6 month hiatus. The purpose of my charity sabbatical wasn’t just to check everything would run ok in my absence (spoiler alert – it did!)

The purpose of this was two-fold:

1) Testing the charity’s sustainability

Founders carry a lot of information in their heads. You develop your own ways of working that, while perfectly logical to you, might be confuse your colleagues. There’s also always the chance you can’t continue in your role for any reason. I wanted my sabbatical to test the charity’s resilience, as we cannot predict the future.

2) Regenerating your passion for your charity’s mission

This wasn’t just breaking from the role’s demands, but also separating myself as the charity’s figurehead. Colleagues in the past would tell me I’m a ‘thought leader’, this troubles me. I have my perspective on the world that I’m happy to share. However, I prefer to present my viewpoints rather than impose them. I’m not trying to ‘lead’ anyone’s thoughts.

It felt important to me that colleagues can take on the more public nature of my role, speaking engagements, workshops, meetings, conferences etc and for them to develop their roles.

This also links back to the charity’s sustainability. It enables colleagues to bring their stories to their work, meaning the charity is shaped by all of our ideas and experiences.

Embracing ‘meaningless outcomes’

When first proposing a sabbatical, a former trustee suggested writing an ‘outcomes plan’. I have to be honest, I still don’t know what they were talking about, although an ‘outcomes plan’ does sounded quite profound and important.

For this person everything was about processes, which isn’t always helpful in a small charity where over-complicating things just delays and stifles innovation.

Instead I should have been clearer saying, “I need a break. You need me to have a break.” (Not a plan for more work creation for me.)

Embracing joy

In social care, you’ll often hear the phrase ‘meaningful outcomes’. It is woven into the way we speak and plan the lives of people (often living as passive recipients). I prefer focussing on ‘meaningless outcomes’? Doing stuff that brings us comfort, or joy, or maybe just relaxes us? We don’t need to consider the purpose, just act in that moment. Meaningless activity can be anything. Watching crap TV and having a beer, dancing round the lounge, making someone laugh, noticing the nice weather and going for a walk without warning.

‘Meaningless outcomes’ are being present without aiming for specific outcomes.

In the same way my sabbatical approach was similar – not describing outcomes, and no ‘outcomes plan’! In fact I view planning in this context as a surefire way to fail as it constrains draining every drop of spontaneity and less room for discovery.

My sabbatical theme – ‘pilgrimage’

Having no big outcomes didn’t mean I didn’t have any ‘rules’ for my sabbatical. Instead, seeing it as a unique opportunity, sacred to me. With my rules and boundaries.

The theme of ‘pilgrimage’ became appealing. Pilgrimages are not limited to lengthy hikes spanning hundreds of miles. Instead, being about the journey and the intent behind that journey. View a painting in a gallery can be a pilgrimage. In that scenario, it starts with learning about the painting that first caught your intrigue. Then exploring ways to travel there, not just hopping in the car. A pilgrimage shouldn’t be too easy. Despite my frustration with process-oriented individuals, a pilgrimage includes the procession. It could be as easy as walking or finding alternate routes. The process of preparing and getting there is the key point. That’s where you will encounter new things.

A pilgrimage can take an afternoon or many weeks.

My pilgrimages were things like climbing certain mountains, cycling to ancient downland churches, walking the Southdowns Way, finding stone circles and trying new experiences.

My sabbatical rules

If you’re taking a nonprofit sabbatical I’d recommend setting some personal rules. Consequently, these are the rules I set for myself:

1) Switching off all my social media on day one, deleting all the apps from my phone.

2) Every day, I had to be active, whether it was walking, cycling or doing something else.

3) Not to have too many plans. Letting the weather decide. Being spontaneous.

4) Not worrying about the time – if a walk is further than expected (a common occurrence with me!), it doesn’t matter, I get home when I get home.

5) Embrace new opportunities. Embracing a unique opportunity to explore, disrupting routines, and witnessing unexpected outcomes.

6) ‘Homes Under The Hammer’ is a red line, an alarm bell.

Watching ‘Homes Under The Hammer’ or other daytime TV would ring my internal warning alarm that I was failing. A warning sign that I was wasting my time and that I need to go out!

Some sabbatical experiences

I was on a tight budget so accordingly I was making the break as affordable as possible. Therefore going for walks, meeting friends, or taking a train somewhere and walking home.

Additionally, I spent time decorating at home discovering a new hobby (although now I’ve run out of things to paint!). Consequently my skills reached new heights, as I honed my focus on minute details. I am learning that sanding and filling can both be contemplative practices!

Some of the big highlights were:

Walking the Southdown’s Way

I’d never walked the whole 100 miles, from Winchester to Eastbourne in 6 ½ days, camping along the way. Picking a record hot week in September (30 to 32 degrees) I also learned the value of investing in lightweight gear and not using cheap £25 sleeping bags from Argos. It was hard work, I need much better equipment. The heat meant my feet blistered, the sun relentless, on long exhausting days but I saw some wonderful things and met some lovely people. I absolutely loved it.

I’d do it again without hesitation (but need better gear!)

Getting lost up a mountain in Snowdonia

Anyone who walks with me knows I get lost easily. My brain has a habit of ignoring what’s right in front of me.

On a walking break in Snowdonia, I was planning a wall up some mountains called The Glyders. My book warned the walk was for seasoned mountain walkers. “How hard could it be? (I thought). I walk up hills all the time.” A reckless thought.

It’s taught me to not underestimate walks like this, to make proper preparations, and to share my destination.

The weather was pleasant, but halfway up the mountain I couldn’t see the path. Turning to my map book to check my location, and discovering I’d dropped it somewhere below.

What to do? Being a determined person, I carried on towards a man who was having a tea break further up. Thinking I’d follow him.

On reaching him and asking if this was the right way and he invited me to join him asking “have you done any scrambling before?” I hadn’t, but I trusting him and his assurance he had I let him lead the way. The next 30 minutes filled me with terror but we scrambled and chatted to the summit, and what a view.

Asking me what I was doing next, I pointed to the next mountain saying I fancied walking to the top of that one. He said he did too, so we walked and talked together. Through walking, he told me about his work stresses, his relationships problems, but also how his autistic daughter was flourishing at college. I met a man lost in his own thoughts, whilst I was literally lost, connecting randomly halfway up a mountain. That was an unforgettable experience.

A month in Uganda

I wanted to try something big that I’d never do, so I signed up to the website Workaway.com and find a volunteering opportunity overseas. After lots of searching, I decided on a school for orphans and children from broken families in rural Uganda.

People have asked me why I chose Uganda. I’ve never visited Africa, and Uganda is right in the centre. Therefore, it seemed to tick all my boxes.

The school, run by two kind sisters, aimed to give a fresh start to children from poor backgrounds, and that resonated with me. To experience a non-profit in a different culture and different field. In addition I supported them to make promo videos for their social media and critiqued their new website suggesting ways to develop it.

For a month, I lived at the school, teaching the children, singing with them, and soaking up their way of life. It wasn’t always easy, but it was also incredible. The people were beautiful, and the children even more so. Given the chance, I’d be back in a heartbeat.

Vietnam

This trip capped off my sabbatical. It was a chance to visit our son in Hanoi and explore Vietnam together. Vietnam’s beauty is undeniable, something that blows up social media. But even so, no selfies or likes could capture the joy of reconnecting with our son and discovering new wonders alongside him. Sharing that on a timeline wouldn’t do it justice; this was a private and precious experience.

Returning to work at the charity

Seeing how everyone had grown and changed our practices upon returning to the charity was amazing. Without me there, they were able to challenge and refine our processes.

My neurodivergent brain can make my logic confusing for others. Simplifying processes turned out to be helpful for everyone. My sabbatical was an opportunity for everyone to have a break and develop, meaning everyone benefitted.

Finding Meaning in the Meaningless

Despite resisting the “outcomes plan,” the sabbatical was a positive experience for me, the charity, and my colleagues. I’m grateful to the trustees for making it possible.

It allowed me to break some habits and experiment with new ways of living. One discovery that intrigued me was reading about a Trappist Monk named Thomas Merton.

He turned photography into a contemplative practice, using his camera as a lens to examine his world. Instead of capturing grand landscapes or dramatic moments, he photographed things most would consider mundane: a broken window, a rusty wheel, an old chair, a weed. He saw the sacred in the ordinary, a practice that fuelled self-reflection and deepened his spiritual path.

Inspired by this, I’ve embraced a fresh perspective, finding beauty in the everyday. I’ve even taken a few crap photos of these ordinary wonders myself.

For Thomas Merton, photography was an extension of his prayer life, a way to slow down and appreciate a deeper reality.

My own journey isn’t as profound yet, but my sabbatical allowed me to slow down and experience life differently. Even a simple rest on a bench during a long walk or bike ride can lead to surprising conversations with strangers.

My “crap photos” will stay hidden for now – I’m still off social media, and they’re for my own quiet reflection. But I’ve been integrating what I learned on my sabbatical into my regular workweek, making some lasting changes.

Being open-minded about sabbatical outcomes

In a future post, I’ll share more about planning a nonprofit sabbatical. For any non-profit CEO or founder, I highly recommend incorporating a sabbatical into your plans. It can be a healthy initiative that everyone can get behind.

In reflecting on my experiences I know I couldn’t have dreamed about the changes I’ve experienced by trying to predict some sort of ‘outcomes plan’.

On the other hand, whilst finding the concept of an “outcomes plan” bureaucratic, reflecting on your motivations for the sabbatical is still essential.

In conclusion, I view a sabbatical as essential in planning for sustainability and supporting health and wellbeing. Make it your own and seize the opportunity to try surprising new things.

Read our top tips for getting the most out of your charity sabbatical here:

The Ultimate Guide to Charity Sabbatical Planning – Part One

Discover more Charity Sabbatical Essentials for a Successful Break


Read more about how and why the charity got started through the experiences of the punk band, their rise from playing day-centres to starting a social movement, playing Glastonbury Festival and being the subjects of a seminal documentary. Heavy Load’s story.

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Paul Richards Executive Director, Stay Up Late

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