Funding Individuals: Rejuvenating Leaders Durfee Foundation

“We believe that human resources are the principal asset of the non- profit sector,” explained Claire Peeps, executive director of the Durfee Foundation. And yet many of those human resources — particularly, nonprofit leaders — work under constant stress and are subject to burnout. That insight led the foundation to establish a sabbatical program for nonprofit leaders in Los Angeles, which provides recipients with $35,000 to “travel, reflect, or renew themselves in whatever manner they propose.”

The foundation originally conceived of the sabbatical as an opportunity for personal development and got IRS clearance to make grants directly to the individual leaders. “But over time we’ve come to understand the impact of funding an individual within an organization,” Peeps said. The foundation now disburses the sabbatical money to the organization, for use by the individual leader. “If you fund a grant for an individual within an organizational context,” she noted, “it’s tough to shake the individual loose from the organization. They tend to think of it as a grant for general operating support. It takes a few conversations to really drill it in that this is for the leader.”

One executive director went through the application process and became a finalist before the foundation concluded that his organization was not prepared to support his time away, or to benefit from it. “They made a pretty good assessment,” the leader acknowledged recently. The initial rejection “raised the stakes, and it made clear that the intent of the sabbatical was not that I have a nice break. We needed to see something change when I got back.” He re-applied successfully and took five months off to travel. According to a colleague, the director has given more attention since his return to “strategic issues across the region and expanding his voice through speaking and media engagements.” For the organization, the colleague said, the sabbatical was “the first time in more than 30 years that staff members had to run things on their own. They saw how dependent they had been” on the founder.

Durfee imposes strict rules on grantees — including no contact with the organization while they’re away and no use of funds for professional development — to ensure that the sabbatical is used for rejuvenation. The foundation also works closely with the organization during the grantee’s absence, making available up to $7,500 toward the creation of a permanent, revolving fund for professional development for staff. The organization assesses and brings up interim, second-tier, and next-generation leadership, so that its overall functioning is improved. Biannual retreats and other gatherings for past sabbatical recipients help create a community of leaders who are otherwise often “curiously isolated,” said Peeps. “There’s a burden they carry that they can’t share with their staff or board. It’s been important to them to have that forum.”