Board Member Sabbaticals: A Good Idea?
Sabbaticals are not too uncommon in the nonprofit world for foundation executives or senior management. It can be a useful time to reflect on past accomplishments, revitalize, and gain renewed inspiration for future work. Sabbaticals for board members likewise can have similar positive effects but should be approached with care.
When to Think Twice
When the request from a board member for time off comes midterm, organizations would be well-advised to approach it with caution, especially if there is not a particularly compelling reason for the request. Board members are normally given clear expectations before they join a board, such as attending all board meetings for the duration of their term and to stay actively involved in between board meetings. If they cannot or wish not to perform these duties for a substantial period of time, it may be in the organization’s best interest for the board member to resign and have the vacancy filled by someone who can. Aside from expectations, it is hard to justify midterm sabbaticals for terms that typically only last a few years to begin with.
A request for time off is even more troublesome if the request comes from a board member whose board performance is lacking conviction and/or who is not attending most meetings. In this case, it may be helpful to have the board chair have a candid conversation with the board member to remind them about their responsibilities and inquire about his or her ability to serve. That may either resolve the situation of their lack of commitment or provide the board member with an often welcome opportunity to resign from the board.
When It Makes Sense
Sabbaticals are not altogether unavoidable or a bad idea. Some board members may have very good reasons for needing time off: a personal tragedy, illness, or other unexpected circumstances of a temporary nature that prevents them from spending sufficient time on his/her board duties.
Sabbaticals can also work well for those boards on which board members serve for long periods of time. Board members upon completion of their term are encouraged, sometimes required, to leave the board for a period of time before they can return for additional service. This allows board members to periodically reflect and evaluate their service and think about whether they want to continue on the board. This measure is also one way to help prevent board burnout. Board members that serve for many years may also benefit from a period of absence.
Mind the Legal Implications
Unless your state laws or governing documents prohibit a leave of absence for board members, it is up to the organization to decide whether it will permit leaves of absence. If so, it is highly advisable to develop a thoughtful policy first so there is a written, detailed process to follow and the request and necessary approvals can be documented. A policy will also provide a framework for any future requests. More importantly, a policy may help protect the organization from any accusations of wrongdoing on the part of a board member (and vice versa) while they are on sabbatical. While on sabbatical, the board member in question is exempted from their fiduciary duties and accordingly they should be stripped from voting rights, effectively discounting them as a board member in the eyes of the law (note this will affect your quorum). At a minimum, the policy should address eligibility requirements for a sabbatical, timing, board member liabilities during the sabbatical, and an approvals process. Consultation with local counsel on such a policy is an important step to making sure your policy is in compliance with state law.
While implementing a policy permitting sabbaticals for board members is not right for all organizations, for those that are considering it, it provides a structured, deliberate, and consistent process to follow going forward.