You deserve a break, nonprofit Jedi Unicorn


[image description: Dandelion stem, with a few seeds left, unfocused background. Image obtained from pics]

My friends in the nonprofit sector. I am writing this to you with mashed blueberries and oatmeal in my hair because my partner is in Boston for work for several days, leaving me alone with our boys. I have not slept very much. And didn’t shower today. The walls are covered with food stains. There are Cheerios everywhere. And everything is sticky. The kids are both asleep now, but who knows how long that will last. I was writing a long post on a different topic, but given that I’m hallucinating again—“Yes, Your Holiness, I’m glad you agree it’s ridiculous to expect 10% or even 20% indirect rates. Please pass the garlic potatoes.”—I’m going to take a break to implore you to take a break.

Today is the day before the Fourth of July, a national holiday in the US, when we celebrate independence with grilled meats, beer, and setting things on fire. Yet many of you are probably reading this at your office instead of taking a four-day weekend. And if you’re actually off today, you’re still reading this, aren’t you? Which means you’re likely next going to check your work email on your phone. And maybe answer a dozen or two of them.

I know taking time off is hard to do. The work of restoring balance to the world never ends. Even when you’re not actively working, you’re still thinking about stuff, ruminating on how to raise more money, why your desk is a mess, when you’ll get around to filing things, whether you should check-in with a client you helped five years ago, etc. Most of us are never truly off in this vocation. We don’t make widgets. Or ice cream. Our work is often life or death. That’s why I keep hearing some of you say things like “I haven’t taken a day of PTO in three years.” Or “I haven’t had a real vacation in a decade.”

That makes the Great and Loving Unicorn of Equity cry bitter tears of sadness. As Thich Nhat Hanh says:

“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”

Look in the mirror. That is one smart and dedicated nonprofit professional. Dashing too. Have you been so busy making the world better that you’ve neglecting yourself?

We are dedicated to our important work. But resting and renewing is good for our work. Taking breaks and vacations makes you more productive and creative. It’s good for our sector.

So, try to take some time off this summer. Or soon. Plan a significant continuous number of days off. Learn to do nothing. Let go of work for a moment. Let go of your guilt. You are not indispensable. You don’t need to be. There is no glory in burnout. You deserve time to let your body, mind, and heart rest. And if you have it in your control, be generous with time off for your team. The sector will be better for it.

I know, that can be hard. We deal with a lot in this line of work. As my colleagues Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman wrote in their awesome new book The Happy Healthy Nonprofit, we need to discuss not just self-care, but “we-care,” including organizational and societal factors, such as decent salaries.

Still, there are too many of you not taking time to rest even when you can. Please do so, and encourage your colleagues to do so as well. We need you for the long haul.

And if you won’t rest for your own and the sector’s benefit, there is one more reason, probably the most important one, that many of us keep forgetting.

It is summer. The days are longer. These days are the inspirations of countless poignant short stories with cicadas singing at twilight and lakes dappled with late-evening sun like someone scattering a thousand pennies across the water, or something poetic like that. And for good reasons. There are only so many of these days left in each of our lives to spend with the people important to us. Kids grow up fast, and the hours with our parents, siblings, and others we love are not infinite, as I learned over a decade ago. As this illuminating article by Tim Urban of Wait But Why says,

“Despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life.”

You deserve this time with the people you care about, and they with you.

With that, I am off. Today and tomorrow, I am going to pull the kids around the neighborhood in their little red folding wagon. We’ll blow dandelion seeds and and collect rocks and look at bugs. We’ll watch the setting sun burnish the clouds into glowing embers as popsicles melt down the boys’ tiny hands. We’ll eat 20 dollars’ worth of organic blueberries, or approximately 10 berries per child. There are no cicadas here to usher in the perfect summer twilight; I’ll settle for the rumbling of wagon wheels mixed with the kids’ laughter echoing down the sidewalk.

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13 thoughts on “You deserve a break, nonprofit Jedi Unicorn

  1. Amy

    YES!! I am very grateful that I was able to just take a week long vacation to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (a must visit if you love the outdoors!) My wife and I deleted our work email and social media from our phones. We completely disconnected and it was amazing. We talked to each other and just enjoyed the great outdoors. And when we came back to work…the organization was still there, nothing had fallen apart too badly. The world will continue to turn while you take time away to recharge.


    Thanks for reminder… I spent yesterday being impatient with my partner who had been totally gracious about numerous very late nights last week because I was so stressed about multiple deadlines and stacked up work .blah blah … feel kind of stupid now as there was no reason for this and my acting like a jerk didn’t speed up my progress! I am very lucky to work in an amazing dedicated community (Colorado disability community) and need to count my many blessings instead of freaking out. 10 members of our community spent 58 hours in Senator Gardners office followed by 30 hours in jail last week. They did this because he hadn’t committed to vote no on any bill that will cause us to lose lives or liberty as the AHCA and BCRA will go by gutting Medicaid . We had many other of our nonprofit friends support us at outside vigils both at the Senators office and the jail. I never need a break from my community which includes members of my Board and staff & members, but do sometimes need a breather from Medicaid regulations and obsessive interpretation of the horrific proposals coming out of congress targeted primarily against immigrants and PWD. Your post reminded me to focus on how lucky I am to be part of this community, to have a partner who loves me, two terrific adult sons, a new puppy, a roof over my head, etc. Justice will prevail …

  3. Elaine Raleigh

    I would so love to take your advice. Unfortunately we are right in the middle of the summer festival season, wrapping up a capital campaign, beginning union negotiations, and starting the budget. No break, but at least people keep bringing artery-clogging sugary sweets to the office to keep us awake. No helpful kids but one of the cats threw up half a mouse on the bed at 2am, so I know they still love me. Next day off is July 22. Yikes…

  4. Melissa

    Good advice. But having transitioned from a relatively generous nonprofit (5 weeks vacation from the 8th year on) to state government, I have only two weeks paid time off at the moment. ;-( That’s why I’m reading this at work. Enjoy your time with the little ones. Before you know it, they’re off to college!

    1. Heather Heater

      I feel you Melissa! I also work in government (county) and I was just lamenting to my boss that I feel incredibly disempowered because it takes months to earn enough vacation per pay period for me to take any significant time off. Both my parents have had major health issues in the last few years so my time “off” has really been care taking. I so need a real break. Luckily, things are stable enough with my parents that the 13 hours I’ve earned since May are going towards camping this coming weekend. TWO WHOLE DAYS IN THE WOODS!!

  5. Heather Heater

    Thank you for this. When I was in graduate school and I couldn’t even take a weekend off, let along a break, I would structure what I called mini-vacations: 4 hours per weekend where I was totally focused on being present with my family and doing things we loved together — hiking, biking, going out to breakfast, gardening. Whatever brought us joy together. It made a huge difference in my mental health and helped me survive graduate school. I foolishly thought that once I got a job my weekends would be free. BWAH HA HA — the responsibilities have just shifted. As I posted on someone’s comment below, the past two years the majority of my vacation time has gone to helping take care of my parents and I haven’t had a real break focused on me in a long time. After 7 years in local government, I’m just returning to this practice of taking mini-vacations: I’ve re-started Sunday Screen Sabbath where I don’t look at email or social media and instead try and commit to moving my body, cooking or making art. I’m scheduling hikes on Sundays so that I can get out in Nature as much as possible. I’m hold my Saturday mornings as Sacred — with few exceptions — no friends, no appointments, no dates, just me + books + my journal + coffee. It’s what I can do with the time I have (and I know it’s a lot more than most ppl have) but it’s making a huge difference.

  6. Rosemary Caruk

    Full disclosure–yes, I am at work. But I’m at work today so that my husband and I can take a long weekend for a little traveling next weekend when my sister and her family will be in town and can take care of our parents while we’re away. They are doing as well as can be expected, but Mom is 91 and Dad is 92 and there are health concerns. As I’ve read below, that seems a common theme. On the other hand, I have learned to, and actually do, take mini-breaks during the work day to re-charge, a favorite one being gazing out the window of my office looking west from Adams and State Streets in Chicago’s Loop (I’m only on the 15th floor, but hey, it’s the best view I’ve ever had AND I have my own office). And I do nothing. I clear my mind and that goes a long way towards peace.

  7. Sherrie Smith

    I cut my vacation short by two days earlier this month to come back early to deal with the emergencies I’d just KNOWN piled up. I made some meetings so I couldn’t change my mind.
    Nothing happened. There was absolutely no reason for me to have done that. Two of the meetings even got cancelled, and one I didn’t need to be there for.

    With Trump in office we all need to reserve our strength. Good reminder.

  8. Diana Burrell

    Thanks, Vu! I’m happy to report that I didn’t read this until Wednesday morning. My partner & I spent the long weekend in a fire lookout with majestic 360 degree views. We had cell coverage, but I pretended we didn’t. (And you know what? The world and nonprofit got along for 2 business days just fine without me!) I did think of work, but in a creative way. Solutions to challenges seemed so much easier from a perch on a 8,000 ft mountain top. I was able to cross five major things off my to-do list this morning in just a few hours. Seriously, Unicorns – take some time off! And do it guilt free! You, your loved ones, your nonprofit, and your community will be better for it. 🙂

  9. Andre Gallant

    About 18 months ago our association underwent a peer review on part of our business that needed help. One of the reviewers was assigned to continue to coach us. And one of the hardest tasks he asked of us was to each list five things we were going to stop doing, in order to give ourselves time to start doing five different things that truly needed to be done. Our tendency is to just add to the list and to never stop, such that our “normal” 50 hour work week becomes the fantasy week. Family time goes, self care goes, sense of humour disappears…. Its time to think deeply about what’s really in our control, and what do we do out of habit, as opposed to out of true necessity.

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