Last year, Michelle Baldwin, executive director of Pillar Nonprofit Network (Pillar), found herself reflecting on the whirlwind of change and expansion that Pillar, Innovation Works, and VERGE Capital had emerged from.

She wondered how to make space for intentional thinking to be ready for the next steps.  Michelle’s coach, Janet Frood, suggested taking a sabbatical a couple of years prior, and at the time Michelle had laughed. “We don’t do that in the nonprofit sector,” she recalled saying, “but then, once I started to think about it, I thought why not, and why don’t we create these kinds of sabbatical reflective moments in our leadership?”

Slowing Things Down

The team at Pillar planned for Michelle to take a six-month period of reflective fellowship and research. The sabbatical began in March of 2019.

Michelle looked for opportunities for formal learning in her sabbatical. This included enrolment at the Maytree Policy School to develop a policy strategy for Pillar. Michelle also took part in a program at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. 

There was also a lot of what Michelle describes as “inner work” happening. She took the time to be in nature, get out into museums and observe the arts, and even venture into artmaking herself, experimenting with performance, watercolour painting, and poetry. 

Finding time for a sit spot. Photo provided by Pillar.

The reflective side of things included a daily “sit spot” practice. Sit spots involved taking time to sit out in nature with a question in mind. Rather than writing down thoughts, the practice is to simply allow quiet reflection and re-connection with nature.

While there was much inner work happening for Michelle, her sabbatical was far from a solo journey. She travelled across North America and Europe to connect with other organizations.

We’re In This Together

As Michelle travelled through her fellowship, she spoke to several organizations and networks, asking questions about their approaches. What did collaboration mean to them? How were they using cross-sector collaboration and storytelling in their work? What were they doing to make equity and inclusion front and centre?

These questions among others created a shared exchange as Michelle shared insights from Pillar’s own story. “I came away with more questions than answers, and I think sparked some questions for other networks, which was… maybe not what I thought would happen. I thought I would come away with answers.” Michelle shared.

National Council of Nonprofits group photo
The National Council of Nonprofits. Photo provided by Pillar.

While blogging about her experiences, Michelle wondered how to best collect her findings. She wanted to share the tools she and the Pillar team were developing with the greater community.

“How do you open source what you’re doing?” Michelle asks, “and rather than thinking that you’re doing things in order to further your own organization… if the whole point is to create a more vibrant, engaged, inclusive community, we can’t do that on our own.”

Another challenge was what format would be best for the collected knowledge. E-publications would be frozen in time, and the team was looking to find a format that would allow for evolution of ideas and tools. Thus, the Network Approach microsite was born. Michelle and her team wrote dozens of articles, under the four principles of Collaboration, Equity and Inclusion, Leadership and Governance, and Storytelling and Impact.

The Network Approach has become a living document. The site shares the histories of Pillar, Innovation Works, and VERGE Capital, along with several tools organizations can take into their own practices.

Let’s Get Uncomfortable

The Network Approach contains several approachable stories and resources for organizations of all sizes, including in-depth articles on best practices for equity and inclusion and how to use storytelling in a smaller team.  This comprehensive project was born from a different way of approaching strategic thinking in the sabbatical format.

Seeing the benefit that Michelle found from taking time to reflect, we talked about how all organizations might find value in reflective practice – particularly when a six month period is not possible.

“There’s a culture of busy that exists,” Michelle said. “I would do the deep work at work, but my own deep work as a human being was not always prioritized.” 

Doing that deep reflective work might mean taking just one day a month. That is a practice Michelle has carried past her fellowship period. Putting aside emails for the day in favour of more creative activity can benefit not only the individual, but the organization as a whole.

Pillar Nonprofit Network Team Photo
The Pillar Nonprofit Network team. Photo provided by Pillar.

Michelle acknowledged that taking pause for reflection might seem strange, particularly in the nonprofit sector. “You know, I heard that it’s a privilege to have time to reflect, because right now we’re facing such wicked challenges going on, there can be push back on that,” Michelle shared, “and I kind of answer to say that, to me, now, it’s an imperative that we do that.”

Even if it’s one day a month, take some time to set aside your traditional ways of working. Take a walk outside. Write a poem or make a painting. Spend time in a museum. Breathe, and make space in your brain for a different way of thinking.

“I think there’s a shift that needs to happen,” Michelle said, “to realize in order to step fully into your leadership and be the best version of yourself for others and the community, that you need to create the space for yourself.”

You can read more about Michelle’s reflective practice and research fellowship on The Network Approach microsite.

This post has been powered by Pillar Nonprofit Network. Pillar Nonprofit Network strengthens individuals, organizations and enterprises invested in positive community impact. 

Feature image of Michelle’s artmaking practice provided by Pillar Nonprofit Network.



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