A Call to Inaction: Nonprofits, Give Your Staff a Break

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[Image description: A pair of feet in grey plaid slippers, next to a mug of probably hot chocolate with steam rising out of it, a remote control, a pad of white paper, and a phone that’s on. In the background, a fire is active in a red brick fireplace. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Once a while, I do a call to action. For example, if you haven’t written a review of a foundation on Grant Advisor lately, or encourage your grantees to do so, please do it! Grant Advisor is like a Yelp for foundations, and everyone who writes a review gets a basket of gluten-free mini muffins*! (*By gluten-free mini muffins, I mean the joy of advancing our sector by increasing transparency and decreasing power imbalance).

This time, though, I am making a call to inaction. I am giving my team and myself the entire week of Christmas off. If your organization can do it, I strongly recommend you to do that as well (or some alternatives to that, as discussed below). Here are several reasons why:

It makes up for the ridiculous hours staff worked throughout the year that they probably never reported: All of us have likely had 12-hour days, woke up early on weekends, missed dinner with our families to attend meetings in the evening. Then there are the nights when our kids or partners are asleep, and we stay up late to write a grant proposal followed by several hours making sock puppets that look like program officers and having them act out approving the grants: “Vu, we lovvve your program to bring more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and also get everyone to rethink how nonprofits are organized! You got the full grant award. In fact, here’s six million in general operating!” (Look, I don’t criticize your grant proposal writing process…) Seriously, considering the frequent unreported 50-to-60-hour weeks most staff put in, three or four bonus days in December barely make up for the overtime.

It compensates for lack of decent pay, retirement matching, or other perks: It is not a secret that most of us make less than professionals in other industries, unless leftover hummus and opened bottles of gala wine to take home are counted. Many of us also don’t receive retirement matching from our orgs and thus some of have been squirreling away kitchen gadgets as a retirement plan (Laugh now, but these scissors for cutting quail eggs are going to fetch a pretty penny on Mars when I’m 70). The least we can do for our professionals is to give them a few extra days off to spend with their family. Or on eBay, bidding on a cherry pitter.

There are significant benefits to organizations, with little additional costs: You may think it’s a nice gesture to give the team a bonus day here or there, but it also helps your organization. It improves productivity and quality of work. According to this article, a firm “conducted an internal study of its employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation time employees took, their year-end performance ratings improved 8 percent. What’s more, frequent vacationers were significantly less likely to leave the firm.” And giving staff a few bonus days doesn’t cost that much. Heck, it might save your org some money because staff are less likely to quit, which decreases turnover-related costs.

It improves individual and team morale: Having several days off without having to tap into our vacation days does a lot for our staff. For instance, there are tons of health benefits. And a bunch of others, In fact, studies show that there are significant benefits of just the anticipation of taking a nice long period of time off. If your team members know they get some bonus days off, the anticipation of it will make people happier, and that’s great for our orgs and the people we serve.

Many organizations are closed that week anyway: I surveyed the NAF Facebook community, and of the over-700 comments, quite a few people indicate that their organization will be closed that week. Which means not a lot of will get done anyway because many people will be off. A few people, however, indicate just how stingy and cheap their organizations are in this area. One colleague writes “we don’t get most other holidays throughout the year…just Thanksgiving, July 4th, Labor, and Memorial.” Nonprofit directors: unless there are valid reasons, forcing people to work while most people are off is a great way to foster bitter, grudge-filled employees who are probably making sock puppets that look like you and acting out scenarios of your getting hit by a bus.

Our sector has been talking about self-care a lot. Because people doing nonprofit work often burn out. But self-care can’t just be an individual thing. I appreciate Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman’s awesome new book The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, which encourages us as a sector to consider “we-care,” where organizations take responsibility for creating an environment where everyone is happy and healthy. And being thoughtful about giving people time-off is an element of that.

Honestly, most people actually suck at taking vacation, with only 23% taking all of it, and 66% reporting they do work while on vacation. The perfect length for a restful vacation, according to the latest research, is eight days. So 10 consecutive days off, taken as an org-wide practice, can do significant good for our staff, thus our orgs, thus our community members. So let’s do it.

I know, I know, there are other considerations:

Direct service organizations: Many orgs provide critical services to people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, hunger, mental health challenges, lack of heat, lack of social interactions, and other challenges. These issues do not take a break, and in fact might actually worsen during the holidays, so you are unlikely able to take a break either. And some of you work for museums or art organizations or animal shelters, and this is also a busy time for you. First of all, thank you. Second of all, you might need more of a break than the rest of us. Directors of these nonprofits: maybe you can’t give your entire team this time off, but please consider staggering schedules, or giving people some extra floating days to use at other times. Maybe have half the team take this week off, and the other half take the week of July 4th off, without having to use their sick or vacation time. Ask your staff what they prefer.

Fundraisers: This is a busy time for development professionals, as so much giving is done at the end of the year. I know what that’s like, waiting by the mailbox, answering questions by phone and emails, using sock puppets to act out a miracle surprise donor walking into the office with a major gift (OK, that will be the last sock puppet joke for this post). I know many of you, like our direct-service colleagues, will be working these days. Thank you for doing that. And I also hope that you will find some time off. Hey EDs/CEOs, how about giving the development team some other time off if they choose?

Part-time staff: While exempt staff can take this time off, hourly staff might face financial challenges if they can’t work during these days. Please be considerate of that. Maybe allow employees to do some work from home during this time. I’ve heard other organizations that can afford it also giving part-time employees these days off while paying them. The benefits to organizations in the form of happier employees and lower turnover rates are worth it.

Religious considerations: Not everyone celebrates Christmas. A colleague writes, “My organization does not believe in supporting Christian holidays while ignoring important days for others in our diverse organization. So we get the seven big federal holidays. Then we get sick, vacation, and floating (you pick) holidays in a massive time bank (six weeks). If you want to take Christmas Eve to New Years off, use your time. If you don’t care, come into work. It’s awesome. Client are happy as there’s always someone to talk to; team members are happy because we can take time off when we want to, not when days are short and cold, just because some religion happens to celebrate during that time.” This is definitely worth considering.

The point is, the benefits to health, well-being, morale, productivity, quality of work, etc., are totally worth giving our staff more time off. EDs and CEOs, set a good example for your team by taking some time off too.

Happy Holidays, everyone! Thank you so much for all you do to make our world better, safer, and happier. You deserve this break. I’ll see you in January!

Wait, I actually have three more weeks of work? OK, I guess I should get to work then; these sock puppets are not going to make themselves before the next major grant decision. (I lied; THAT was the last sock puppet joke!)

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Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.

Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

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  • Holly McGregor Anderson

    Yes! Easy… appreciated… deserved… and it’s actually one of the few luxuries I can provide staff without needing approval because we “go light” and don’t actually close. Each staff member picks one day to cover, pairing up with another for safety. I’ve been doing this for most of my sixteen years as ED, thanks to another ED who assured the novice me that this was “not only okay, but a best practice.” She retired many years ago but I am still grateful for her guidance in those early years.

  • Jessica Vibberts

    We did this at two organizations I worked for and it was a beloved benefit. The greatest thing is that the whole org shuts down, so staff don’t come back to a trillion emails that they missed. It was only hard on the development staff, as we often needed someone to be on call for last minute donor transactions that needed assistance (like stock transfers). We made sure to rotate the on-call and give them each an extra day to make up for it. Many corporations are also shutting down at this time, so it makes it even easier to step away.

  • James Greene

    Thanks so much for sharing this wisdom. In my (larger) organization, we have different departments and some are open on holidays while others are closed. It creates a burden that is not equally shared across the agency, and is something that we are also trying to address. All that said, I love asking members of my staff team to just stay home! We all need the time, and when we take care of each other, we are all better equipped to take care of our clients.

  • I just took ten days of downtime for myself. I set up an autoresponder on my email telling people “no email access until Nov. 27”. I shut down (and unplugged) my computer, didn’t answer the phone, didn’t look at social media, took lots of naps and played with my grandkids. I’m the boss but the world’s worst taskmaster of myself, so this was a big deal. I haven’t felt so well or energetic in years.

    Folks, pay attention to Vu and DO THIS. You’ll lie longer.

  • Sherrie Smith

    We do this at my work. It’s THE BEST. we have from xmas to NYE off and any weekends that butt up against those days.
    A lot of the folks in my office also live out of state so have a chance to go see family without using vacation time.
    It’s so hard to take vacation sometimes…everything is so busy! Stuff piles up! But this is the week with the least pile-up. And it’s pretty much mandatory.

  • Madeline Taylor Fish

    I’m all for a holiday break for staff – especially if it’s a PAID break 🙂

  • Mary Jo Kelleher

    My board is doing this, this year. I just wish they would 1) talk to the staff (or at least the ED) before they decide to be closed 12/23-1/1; 2) decide this well before Thanksgiving, so there’s a chance of making decent plans; 3) not decide at the same time that the Interim ED’s last working day will be 12/22, depriving him of the holiday by moving the last business day of the year from 12/29 to 12/22 (I am not the ED, I’m the one who’ll have a new ED to work with on 1/2).

  • baileyconsultinggroup

    Such a great summary of the benefits of taking leave – love your work Vu

  • Missy

    I’m new to my organization and I LOVE it here so far…how can I secretly and tactfully share this article with my CEO who makes these type of decisions.

  • Dan Hanley

    Our whole office closes that week, and myself and one other on my team stay as it is a great week for year-end fundraising. We then take the first of January off. I also take my team to lunch just before the holiday and do a “Dan’s favorite things” based on what Oprah used to do and pass out my favorite things for the year as gifts like gift cards to restaurants, a new treat, tickets to something, etc. It blows the team away and I love doing it.

  • bethkanter

    Thanks for the shoutout for Happy Healthy Nonprofit! And, even more the all the great advice around self-care and time off. We need this to boost our resilience.