Cynthia Wallace of the Oasis Project and Bible Center Church. Photo courtesy of Oasis Project.

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise, was surprised by the call from the Richard King Mellon Foundation telling him to take a break. Ghubril, along with seven others, was invited to take part in a pilot program to award three-month sabbaticals to executive directors of high-performing nonprofit organizations. The McCune Foundation is a partner in the effort.

“It is an incredible gift of grace,” Ghubril says. But he reminded the foundations that “sabbaticals are mid-career things to do and I’m not a mid-career person.

“Their response was just classic,” he says, laughing. “They said, ‘We’ve been funding you for 35 years, Saleem. We know how old you are.’”

Ghubril admits there is a certain amount of guilt associated with accepting the sabbatical. “Just in Allegheny County alone, there are another 2,500 nonprofit executives who would benefit greatly from something like this.”

Each of the eight organizations chosen for the sabbaticals will receive up to $75,000 to cover the cost of the sabbatical and help develop the systems that will keep operations running during the director’s absence. Professional development opportunities for senior staff will also be provided by the POISE Foundation.

Pittsburgh Promise students with Saleem Ghubril, Communications Director Lauren Bachorski, and Board Chairman Franco Harris. Photo courtesy of The Pittsburgh Promise.

“Nonprofits perform essential and often heroic work in our communities, and strong leadership is essential to their success,” says Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation. “But even during good times, nonprofit executives often are under-resourced and over-worked.”

Since the pandemic, he points out, those pressures have magnified considerably.

“Many leaders are experiencing burnout and stress, and opportunities for visionary thinking and planning for organizational enhancement are consumed by daily crisis management,” Reiman says. “A sabbatical offers the opportunity for professional development, big thinking, and much-needed rest and rejuvenation for these key leaders.”

The other recipients of the nonprofit sabbaticals include:

  • Janis Burley Wilson of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center
  • René Conrad of the New Hazlett Theater
  • Danielle Crumrine of Tree Pittsburgh
  • Kathi Elliott of Gwen’s Girls
  • Cheryl King of Franklin Center of Beaver County
  • Cynthia Wallace of the Oasis Project and Bible Center Church
  • Darryl Wiley of FAME

Ghubril will begin his sabbatical in mid-June with a long-postponed trip to London and Paris with his wife to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. Upon his return, he plans to focus on three key areas: physical health, mental health and spiritual health.

“For physical health, I plan to engage a trainer and help me get this old body in shape,” says Ghubril, who will add regular bicycling to his fitness regimen.

For spiritual health, he’s looking forward to having time to read and reflect, write, journal and pray.

On the mental health side, he says: “I’ve been playing the guitar since I was eight years old, but I’ve never taken a guitar lesson. Guitar is the place where I kind of work through my head stuff. I’ll get a guitar teacher and try to up my guitar playing game a little bit.”

Saleem Ghubril playing his guitar with the All City Choir at a Pittsburgh Promise event. Photo courtesy of The Pittsburgh Promise.

The countdown is on for Cynthia Wallace, whose sabbatical begins April 18.

“I’ve never had a sabbatical so I could not be more excited,” she says. “Now, it’s pretty busy. It’s kind of like going on vacation and you have all these things to do. And then the sabbatical will happen. We have a pretty strong plan in terms of training staff and getting people in place.”

Wallace came up with an acronym for what she hopes to accomplish during her sabbatical: REST. The “R” is for realign, pinpointing healthy practices like exercise, sleep and eating right. “E” is for evaluate, looking at her responsibilities and considering which of those might be best to delegate to others. “S” is for sabbath, which is rest. And “T” is for think.

“It’s always dangerous when leaders are so busy that you don’t have time to learn yourself and you don’t have time to think,” says Wallace, who plans on attending a weeklong program for nonprofit executives at Stanford University.

Stepping back from her organization will be difficult for Wallace. She, like many in nonprofit leadership roles, tends to work nights and weekends.

“I know my staff are taking bets,” she says, laughing. ‘I’m notorious for going on vacation and they’re like, ‘When are the emails going to stop?’

“Part of my problem is I like to work. And so, I have learned the skill of scheduling emails so no one has to know that I’m really sending that at one o’clock in the morning. And I think that’s the problem when I’m on vacation. As soon as I can sit and think, then the ideas just start flowing.”

Danielle Crumrine has been with Tree Pittsburgh for 15 years. Photo courtesy of Tree Pittsburgh.

Over at Tree Pittsburgh, Danielle Crumrine has been prepping the staff for her sabbatical that begins May 9.

“I have an amazing team at Tree Pittsburgh and they’re all seasoned professionals,” she says. “I have full faith in everyone to keep the ship running.”

Crumrine plans to first head to Tahoe for a leadership retreat that was canceled three times due to Covid and forest fires. She will be working on conscious leadership training, too. Her list of goals includes a focus on physical health to kickstart healthy habits and get inspiration from nature. Nurturing relationships with family and friends, planning adventures with her twin daughters and visiting relatives are other aims.

“And the third thing is reading the huge stack of books that has been piling up,” Crumrine says. “Some are tree-related, for sure, but some of them are just interests that I have. I’m just really excited to have the time to enrich my mind.”

Still, Crumrine knows she will miss Tree Pittsburgh.

“I’ve been at this for so long, my professional life is intertwined with my personal life. A lot of my colleagues are more than colleagues; they’re friends. I just enjoy my work so much. But that factor is really going to be a driver for me to dig into these books, make those visits, write it all down so when I do go back, I’ll be coming back with all sorts of great ideas for the organization.”

One of the benefits she sees coming from her sabbatical is that the board and the staff will interact more.

“Even when I’m back, they can start delivering their own reports at board meetings. That’s going to give some other staff the chance to be in the front, being a spokesperson for the organization. Actually, at this stage, I’d prefer to be Oz behind the curtain and let others step forward in the limelight.”

And that’s another part of the endgame for all of these sabbaticals. Yes, the time away allows the leaders a chance to regroup and refresh. But their absence is also a way to strengthen staff responsibilities, delegating tasks and challenging their teams to step up with new duties.

“It really does pressure test the organization,” says Wallace about the Oasis Project and Bible Center Church. “One of the things we’ve been talking about for years is secession planning. What do you do? I am not indispensable. And that’s the thing for any position, any organization. Now we really do need to know all of the things that you do. You need to know these systems are in place.”

The message for Ghubril from the foundations was to ensure that The Pittsburgh Promise team has enough depth and that the board has a plan for its future without him.

“Now again, I’m several years away from that happening,” he says. “But this is prudent. This is responsible to say OK, so if we are four or five, six years away from having leadership change, let’s start prepping for that now and testing the depths of the bench.”

Sally Quinn

Sally Quinn is a Pittsburgh-based editor and writer who writes about food, entertainment, kid stuff, pop culture, cocktails!