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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