We must prioritize nonprofit leaders’ rest and healing, and here are some cool funders doing that

Written by Vu Le

I know I criticize our sector a lot (and more is coming!). But there are amazing things going on, and I am really grateful for the organizations and leaders who are doing awesome stuff. Recently in my state, the Washington Women’s Foundation released a grant to provide $100,000 each to 10 Black women working in nonprofit in Washington State, with the expressed purpose of funding their rest and renewal. This is mind-blowing! The approach is thoughtful, recognizing the burdens Black women have carried in our sector and trusting Black women to know what’s best for themselves.

Meanwhile, also in my state, the BIPOC ED Coalition just announced the 20 recipients of its Sabbatical awards, which are up to $60,000 each. Here are some of the quotes from these leaders on what these awards would do for them:

  • “In my line of work, we deal with the darkest part of humanity, while balancing our personal struggles, worries, and joy. To be able to rest and rediscover myself, I know I will be in a better mental and emotional space.”
  • “I can get centered again, start putting myself first. My creativity would look different and my health would be significantly improved because stress levels would minimize. This would be pure soul care.
  • “A sabbatical would allow me to be fully present for my 7-year-old, and show him that he is important and does not have to feel in competition with those I am able to assist through my work.”

I have worked with some of these leaders. I see, at least partly, how much they’ve contributed and sacrificed over the years to make our community better. To hear that they are getting an opportunity to rest, to spend time with their family, to try out or get back into creative hobbies, to just breathe and exist…it’s heartening.

Our sector is complicated. On one hand, this work is fulfilling and meaningful and it is a privilege to be able to do it. On the other hand, it can be soul-crushingly stressful. It consumes us, demanding more and more, constantly taking. It takes our sleep. It takes our health. It ruins our natural good looks, leaving us many of us with sunken eyes and a general haunted visage accompanied by a pervasive scent of ink toner and despair. And this was before the pandemic; the past three years have been even worse.

Which is why it’s so important that there are funders who are paying attention, who understand that taking care of individual leaders is vital to our sector. There are tons of research now proving how beneficial sabbaticals are. Here’s a report from TSNE that shows that sabbaticals increase leadership skills among both leaders taking them as well as those who step up during their colleagues’ absence; governance is improved; leaders come back with fresh ideas and energy for their work; and funders benefit from the knowledge and connections gained.

But I want us to get away from the “it benefits the organization and the sector” arguments for a second. People have intrinsic worth outside of their usefulness to the field, and yet the sector often treats them like batteries to be burned out and discarded. If we have any hope of creating the kind, caring, equitable community we want to see, we need to model it by valuing the individuals (of ALL leadership levels, not just EDs/CEOs) doing this work and providing them with the support to be their full selves, regardless of what they’re contributing to the sector. Especially leaders from marginalized communities.

In addition to Washington Women’s Foundation and the BIPOC ED Coalition (and its funders), thank you to the following funders below (in no particular order) for providing sabbatical support to the leaders in the field in varying amounts, in different ways, and in different geographies; it’s appreciated. Thank you to the colleagues who pointed me to these grants and programs. I hope funders across the globe currently not providing support for nonprofit and movement leaders’ rest and renewal will be inspired by these colleagues and start doing so:

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.