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Donna Murray-Brown’s Sabbatical - “A Human Being, not a Human Doing”

Donna Murray-Brown’s Sabbatical - “A Human Being, not a Human Doing”

MNA President and CEO Donna Murray-Brown reflects on sabbatical

Donna Murray Brown official headshot black jacket 2021In 2019, the McGregor Fund invited MNA President and CEO Donna Murray-Brown to apply for their Eugene M. Miller Fellowship. Created in 2009 to honor Trustee Emeritus Eugene Miller for his years of distinguished leadership, the fellowship honors outstanding, experienced leaders of McGregor-funded nonprofit organizations in metropolitan Detroit. After a competitive process, Murray-Brown was selected as a fellow with the opportunity to take time away from MNA to invest in herself and her leadership. “It created a unique space to do deep self-reflection toward becoming a better human being and, ultimately, a better leader.”

As part of the fellowship, Murray-Brown was given time for a sabbatical. This eight-week block was the first time she had stepped away from work long-term. “You never really think about what you would do with that much time off,” she said. “With the fellowship, I got the enormous gift of a break, but it was not without structure.”

Murray-Brown created an initial plan to conduct site visits to see the programming for women of color nonprofit leaders, in hopes of adopting and sharing strategies more broadly in the field. “My plan to focus on supporting the success of nonprofit leaders who are women of color expanded to finding ways to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) nonprofit leaders,” she said. “I became convinced my leadership of MNA should include finding effective ways to break down strongholds that make it challenging for BIPOC nonprofit leaders to succeed.”

Her original plan was attending a program from the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Brussels, Belgium. She wanted to learn more about strategic leadership, and ways to better improve her own effectiveness as a nonprofit leader. When the summit was cancelled due to COVID-19, Murray-Brown pivoted her learning goals, and remained excited and focused on learning at home. “What ended up happening was like the Wizard of Oz - you try to go to these different places, but everything you need is in front of you.”

The importance of accountability

Instead of going abroad, Murray-Brown connected with four other women of color nonprofit leaders in the Detroit area, discussing and learning from one another issues of leadership and self-care during the unprecedented times they faced. The five of them became a collective known as the Transcending Solidarity Collective (TSC), working together to support nonprofits through the pandemic. “My best laid plans became something more beautiful than I could have imagined - the deepening of my relationship with these four other leaders.”


Murray-Brown also connected with other women of color leaders at the Living in Your Light Bootcamp. Facilitated by Rebecca Thompson, the Bootcamp is a three-month holistic intensive program designed for high-achieving black women. The program provides strategies to break away from the behaviors that are barriers to continued or heightened success, including setting healthy boundaries, eliminating negative self-talk, and leveraging skills in leadership. “I developed relationships with women across the country, and finding that group of people in this program saved my life,” Murray-Brown said. “I now have a group of people who can give me grace, but also hold my feet to the fire to take care of myself.”

Sacred rest

During her sabbatical, Murray-Brown was recommended the book Sacred Rest by Dr. Sandra Dalton-Smith. Murray-Brown realized how exhausted she had been and the kind of rest she needed to invest in herself.  “My constant state of perfectionism robbed me of getting the kind of sacred rest that was described in the book,” she said. “I learned several areas that I needed to focus on to restore energy: emotional, creative, physical, and spiritual.”

She began acupuncture and therapy as ways to not only relax, but feel liberated in her own skin. Murray-Brown says the impact of taking sacred rest in her sabbatical not only made a difference mentally, but also physically. “It was this enormous weight lifted to unapologetically feel good about myself,” she said. “I’ve had an outward demonstration of the internal change that has taken place for me. My appearance now mirrors my authentic self.”

image007Giving from an overflowing cup

Murray-Brown noticed that her creativity and leadership suffered when she was over-committed. As a natural people-pleaser and perfectionist, she used to feel guilty for saying no to opportunities, even when she didn’t have the time or energy. “It would be me giving more than my bandwidth, and giving the resources I needed for me to someone else. Women, and especially women of color, feel like we always have to work harder and be better because of our societal challenges.” Instead, she started setting boundaries to preserve her time. “The first no was painful for me, but it didn’t last as long as I thought. I can say no now, and say yes another time.”

Once she started investing in herself, setting boundaries, and taking time for valuable rest, Murray-Brown noticed that she became more present and attentive in all aspects of her life. She is able to give more of her authentic self and emulate self-care in leadership. “Today, I no longer give from an empty cup,” she said. “Instead, I have decided that I will give from the overflow in my cup so that my cup will never run empty.”