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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2019

Sabbaticals Give Nonprofit Leaders and Organizations Room to Regroup

Wednesday, August 21, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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 by Sam Hurwitt

Even as a simple phrase, there’s something disturbing about the idea of tireless leadership. People need a break sometimes. And yet in the nonprofit world, and particularly in the arts, there’s often a sense that—even in order to take a vacationmanagers have to find a way to do everything in advance that they’d normally do if they were at work, and stay in contact in case anything comes up. 

To avoid burnout and to keep the institutions themselves healthy, it’s important to take a breath from time to time. That’s why San Francisco’s O2 Initiatives started the O2 Sabbatical Award in 2015 to enable longtime executive directors of Bay Area nonprofits to take a few months off to regroup and to revitalize the organizations they lead.

Modeled after the Durfee Foundation Sabbatical Program in Los Angeles, the O2 award includes $40,000 for a three-month sabbatical plus consulting support for the organization’s leadership team before and during the executive director’s absence as well as through re-entry. 

Although the Sabbatical Award is not specific to arts leaders, this year’s awardees include the artistic directors of two local theater companies, Z Space executive artistic director Lisa Steindler and Shotgun Players founder and artistic director Patrick Dooley. Steindler starts her sabbatical in January, and Dooley started his in June, due to return mid-September. 

Patrick Dooley.

“It covers Patrick’s salary for three months and it also covers his adventures,” says Shotgun development director Joanie McBrien, part of the executive leadership team (alongside managing director Liz Hitchcock Lisle and production manager Hanah Zahner-Isenberg) taking care of business during Dooley’s absence. “It’s a very generous grant that also comes with consulting hours in case you want to bounce any ideas off a consultant about what happens when the executive leader’s not there. Are there any changes you’d like to make?”

“The folks at O2 are very aware of the incredible burnout factor that many nonprofit leaders face,” Lisa Steindler says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in the arts or not. There is, unfortunately, a kind of ethos that we work endlessly. The hours are 15 hours a day, seven days a week. That can wear on you after five, 10, 15 years. It’s exhausting. And ultimately it’s not healthy for the organization. The O2 initiative is not about outcome or product. It’s really about time off and stepping away, and self-care, which is such an incredible gift.”

Other current sabbatical awardees include Westside Community Services chief executive officer Mary Ann Jones, BAYCAT founder and president Villy Wang, and Kai Ming Head Start executive director Jerry Yang. 

“We had a meeting with all the people that were awarded the grant and with also with some past grantees,” McBrien recalls. “One of them shared a story that while the executive leader was on sabbatical, one of their employees who was working somewhere in South America went missing. With this grant, you’re not supposed to contact the executive directors. You’re supposed to have zero communication. And in that scenario, it turned out okay. But you can imagine the magnitude of: do you let the executive know that one of the employees has gone missing?”

While O2 awards nonprofit leaders in a wide variety of fields, this isn’t the first time the Sabbatical Award has included arts leaders in the mix. Past awardees include AXIS Dance Company artistic director Judith Smith, Destiny Arts Center executive director Cristy Johnston Limón, and East Bay Center for the Performing Arts executive and artistic director Jordan Simmons.


Lisa Steindler.

“The simple idea behind it is rejuvenation for the leadership and giving the organization an opportunity to hopefully thrive without that leader in place,” Steindler says. “No organization is healthy if they 100% are relying on that leader. Otherwise when somebody leaves at the top, we’ve seen organizations implode and fail because that person has left. And I would never want that to happen at Z Space. It’s important to me that when I do leave it’s thriving and it’s financially stable and a sustainable business model. Because then I’ve done my job.”

Steindler is so ready for some time off that she’s actually taking an extra month on top of the three months the grant covers.

“I am going to go sailing with my husband for probably three and a half months,” she says. “I’m going to totally unplug. It’s about spending time with my husband and my dog and not being on a schedule and not looking at email and being able to read and be present in nature.”

Dooley has been traveling in Europe, first with his family and then solo, reportedly squeezing in some theatre-related pursuits such as checking out the arts action in Edinburgh this August. 

“Part of us getting the grant was being able to demonstrate that we had certain structures in place that would be able to support the executive leader going on this long of a break,” McBrien says. “But they also wanted a personal essay from Patrick of why is this important to you. One of the things that he really emphasized was being able to take a trip with his family, which he had never really done before. Also just wanting to have the space to think about: this has been part of his life for so many years. What’s the next step for the organization? What’s the next step for him personally?”

Both theatres had already done a lot of work on spreading leadership duties around.  “We didn't reinvent any systems for this,” Shotgun’s Zahner-Isenberg says. “We looked at Patrick’s functions, and we were able to distribute those pretty directly. There were some natural things for us to take into our jobs. It hasn’t felt like there was anything that was completely new. It’s just a little bit more than usual.”

“The Kenneth Rainin Foundation had this cohort for the last year that I’ve been a part of, and implementing distributed leadership within our organization has been a big part of that,” Steindler says. “Really trying to cultivate the next leaders for the field. If we don’t create room and responsibility, I don’t think it will happen. I’m not sure that we as a field nationally have really been cultivating that next generation and making sure that there is room for growth for potential leadership. If you’re in a field where you just see those leadership positions being held for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, at some point you’re going to probably leave because you don’t see a way of moving upward.”

One natural part of this program is trying new ways of getting things done in the director’s absence, some of which may well be worth continuing afterward. There may especially be some tasks that artistic directors have been doing out of habit that really don’t need to be on their plate at all. 

“With a founder especially who used to do everything, you’d love for him to focus on the art and the things that give him joy,” McBrien says. “It’s not uncommon for me to know that Patrick has arrived because I hear the compost bin being moved around outside. There’s part of him that just likes the hustle getting different renters in there. But you know, you don’t need to do that.”

One of the big lessons of sabbaticals like these is that if things run smoothly in the leaders’ absence, it doesn’t mean they’re dispensable. It means they’ve been doing something right.  

“I’ve been appreciating how relatively smooth things are, and that there are backups for everything,” says Zahner-Isenberg. “If you take a very big puzzle piece out, the whole thing doesn’t fall apart. And I think that’s been a thing that has happened with the growth of the company”

“I think the sabbatical is a precursor to when I do leave I’m going to feel okay about leaving, understanding that what I have built over the years is going to be okay,” adds Steindler. “I’d be handing over to the next generation something that’s healthy rather than something that’s not healthy and just saying here, you deal with it. I don’t want to ever do that. I’d rather close the doors than do that to somebody.”

Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright. Follow him at