Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

What I Did That You Should Consider

The Rasmuson Sabbatical Experience of Dennis McMillian

With the strong encouragement of The Foraker Group board, I applied for and was granted one of the coveted Rasmuson Sabbaticals in 2006. Having been in nonprofit management my entire career, 30 of those years in health and human service organizations — with the last six years involved in starting a new organization while transitioning out of leadership for two others — I was moving quickly toward total burn out.

My board’s expectations for the sabbatical were that I should not think about work, call work, or do any work for three months. They also strongly recommended that I leave the state in order to avoid the eventual accidental meeting where someone needing my help would pull me into service. It was also my understanding that the Rasmuson Foundation board and staff were in full agreement with these objectives.

Another outcome that was never clearly stated was that my absence would allow the board and staff to experience operations without me. I furnished a “cardboard Dennis” to help with visual separation. The board and staff functioned at full capacity during my absence. No one needed to contact me. Everything stayed on track, including preparing for our Annual Meeting the week I returned. No surprise, everything was expected to be OK and it was.

I started the sabbatical on October 19th. By the morning of October 21st my wife and I arrived in Cabo San Lucas and drove to the village of Todos Santos where we spent eight very restful days in a friend’s house. We ate, slept, read, went to the beach, took siestas, and generally did nothing. It was great!

Then we flew to Puerto Vallarta — then north to the village of La Piñata where other good friends own a home on the beach. La Piñata is not a tourist town. We spoke little Spanish and very few people there spoke English. It was a wonderful experience! We slept, we ate, and we read; we sat in the sun and shade, we walked, and we rested. One of the most significant outcomes was realized through this isolation and slow pace –we were able to re-connect in a way that all couples married for three decades should experience. We were in La Piñata for almost two weeks and at the end of that time we were brown, rested and very happy.

From Mexico, we flew to Seattle, almost home. While the weather was rainy, it was good to be back on American soil and eating diverse cuisine. We also purchased a hybrid vehicle that became our home away from home for the next two months. We drove south to Medford, Oregon. From there we spent a wonderful week in California for Thanksgiving.

We then started our trip east. We spent time with friends in Sedona; visited friends and family in Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee. We then drove to Florida to visit our parents and our daughter. We stayed in Florida for the Holidays and maybe had the most relaxed visit with our family since we moved to Alaska 15 years ago.

From Florida we drove up the East Coast to visit relatives in Pennsylvania for New Years. On January 3rd we started our long trip home to Alaska — up the ALCAN in the winter! In total we visited four towns in Mexico and drove over 14,400 miles, visited 27 states, and 5 provinces. It was a long, very nice trip and in our dreams, we are still on the road.

Since the board’s objectives were to get away, stay out of touch and relax, I feel that I was able to accomplish what they expected. I did not call work, work did not call me. I spent quality time with relatives — many of whom I have rarely seen while living in Alaska. I also reinforced an insight I had prior to the sabbatical – that I needed to be more disciplined about taking time for me. After the sabbatical I committed that discipline will be continued.

A few weeks ago, the Rasmuson Foundation held a discussion with the individuals that have completed or are scheduled to take such a sabbatical. Some of the past recipients of this award did something meaningful during their sabbatical like learning a new language, visiting other programs to learn how to do their job better, etc. Most however did what I did and took a great break. It also seems that most had to be strongly encouraged, like me, by their board, their staff, their friends to apply for the sabbatical. It seems that many of the people who need to take a sabbatical are the ones most reluctant to do anything for themselves. That’s a shame.
I encourage any CEO of a health and human service organization who has served for many years taking care of clients, staff, volunteers and everyone except themselves to do something smart — take this article as my strong request to apply for a sabbatical next year from the Rasmuson Foundation. As I learn more about what Rasmuson is providing for us in Alaska as compared to their foundation colleagues around the country, we are lucky to even have such an opportunity. We are crazy to not take advantage of their attempt to help reinforce the good work we do. Your organization will benefit far more from a refreshed leader than it will miss from a burned out leader.