Unicorns, time for our sector to take a break!


sleeping_unicorn_by_maleiva-d66gt3zMy fellow nonprofit professionals, I hope you are reading this from home, because I am calling for our sector to take a long and much needed break. If you are at the office, I want you to put down your pen, save your files, turn off your computer, and take a deep breath. Listen to me: You need to rest this week, and next week, and maybe even longer.

Our sector is an incredible one. It is full of smart, thoughtful, talented, and ridiculously good-looking and nice-smelling people. You are one of these people, you sexy unicorn you. Your brilliance is only surpassed by your dedication to your work and your passion for making the world better. I could not be prouder to work in such a kickass field alongside such kickass colleagues.

Now, 2014 is almost done. Stop whatever you are doing at this moment and make a list of stuff you’ve accomplished this year, because chances are you have been so busy working and freaking out about budgets and reports and crap that you haven’t noticed all the sweet and amazing things you made happen. Yup, because of you lives are better, communities are stronger, the world’s supply of happiness has increased, and we are getting steadily closer to equity and social justice. Give yourself a pat on the back. You are awesome.

 A call to inaction:

dilbert2Each year, around this time, we have an opportunity to have a nice long rest as a sector. I know, there are many of you who cannot do that at this time. Those who work in shelters, or in food banks, or in advocacy, or in development, etc. For many of you, this is the busiest period of the year. Thank you for all you do.

But everyone else, you need to take a break and give your team a break.  You deserve it. Stop feeling guilty. Spend time with your family. Come back renewed. There are tons of studies demonstrating the positive effects of taking a break. Here’s one, published in Forbes. And here’s another 11 proven benefits of taking time off. It has been proven, repeatedly, that taking time off greatly improves your health, happiness, morale, creativity, productivity, and work quality.

Taking time off is good, but like immunization, it is most effective when everyone takes part in it. I am calling for our sector to take a collective approach to time off. Let us all, when possible, simultaneously take these two weeks off! Here are several reasons for sector-wide and not just individual-specific time off:

Prevent burnout: The work we do is critical. Our field tackles some of the toughest and most entrenched challenges in society. Meanwhile we are given the fewest resources and the most restrictions. Our work is never done, not when we go home each night, not when we take a few days off. We also have a culture that worships people who are constantly busy and perfectionistic (See “The courage for mediocrity: We nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break.”). These elements add up to constant burnout in our field. And burnout leads to smart, thoughtful, talented, ridiculously good-looking and nice-smelling people leaving our sector each day. Collective break taking is a recognition that we are going to be serious about addressing this issue as a sector.

Make up for low salaries: Many of us are underpaid in the field. (See “All right, you guys, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries.”) We are rarely able to compete with the business sector in this area. A promised organization-wide two weeks off around this time can be a critical incentive for people to enter and remain in the sector. Just anticipating a vacation and having something to look forward to can boost morale significantly up to eight weeks before the vacation.

Support your colleagues: If you’re working, and you broadcast it, it just makes your colleagues feel like crap for wanting to take some time off. How could they spend time selfishly relaxing with their family when they know you’re at the office doing stuff to make the world better? Supervisors, especially, if you don’t take a break, you make it hard for your team to.

Prevent a backlog. Also, if you’re working, it means you’re creating a bunch of work for people when they get back from break. Or, you’ll be emailing out stuff, and when I check my email during the break—I can’t help it!—I’ll see a bunch of your emails, and I’ll freak out about the potential backlog if I don’t tackle stuff now. If you don’t send emails, when I do check my emails, I may see there are no new messages, and I can go back to relaxing.

Think about teachers. Teachers are some of the hardest working people. Can you imagine teaching 30 kids with different needs every day, and then going home to grade homework, do research, and plan lessons for the next day? Dedicated teachers work 10 to 15 hours each day, and usually several hours each weekend. If it weren’t for the collective, sector-wide winter, spring, and summer breaks, I don’t know how anyone could survive teaching.

Why don’t we adopt that in our nonprofit sector. Some of us work 10 to 15 hours each day, and several hours each weekend, and our work is usually less stable than teaching. In addition to doing our work, we also have to fundraise so we can do our work. Our field will need to dig in and deal with the severe, sector-wide burnout issue that this frustrating funding system perpetuates. Having regular periods throughout the year when we can all take some time off—without draining our personal vacation time—may be one of the solutions.

Let’s institutionalize this!

So, unicorns, it is not just for your own sanity that I am calling on you to give yourself a break. You also owe it to your colleagues and to the nonprofit sector to do it! Forward this to all your unicorn friends! We must be united! I know that I have criticized Collective Impact in the past (see “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile“), but I think taking time off together is one area where we’ll be much more effective doing collectively. Let’s standardize this time off for our field, the way our friends in the public education sector have done for theirs.

vacationTo the unicorns who can make some decisions regarding your organizations’ operations—EDs and board members—please:

Look at your policies and change them to grant the team collective time off during certain periods in the year. One or two weeks off in the winter, maybe a week off during the summer? How about after special events, everyone gets several days off to regain their sanity? Work with your team to figure this out for your org, and then change policies to reflect this. Start planning for 2015.

Don’t force people to use their personal or vacation days around this time. I hear of nonprofits that make their team use their vacation time to take the Friday after Thanksgiving or Christmas off? Really? That’s just cruel. Just give it to them! Give your staff these days off as paid holidays. It’s not going to hurt your organization. If anything, more time off will certainly boost morale.

Grant additional flexible time off for staff who, due to the organization’s work, cannot take this holiday break. It’s unfair that everyone else in the field can take one or two weeks off around this time while your team is still working.

Reconsider policies on religious holidays. I know some organizations don’t recognize religious holidays such as Christmas, and that seems fair and PC. But then people are forced to use up their personal or vacation days anyway, because almost everyone else in the field is off, including most people who don’t observe Christmas, and it’s hard to get work done. If that’s the case, provide additional personal days. Or just close for the week and call it a “Winter Funtime Rejuvenation Break” or something un-religious-sounding.  

Also, funders: stop making stuff due at the end of December or early January! Sheesh! Make grant applications and reports due before December 20th, or after January 10th.

All right, with that, I am off until January 5th. I need it. I’m going to clean my place and spend time with my family. I’m going to take my 18-month-old to see Christmas lights, lots of them. I’m going to read to him tons and tons of books about “choo choo chains,” which he loves. I’m going to zone out on the couch from time to time, maybe binge-watch Sons of Anarchy or Scandal or something. I might not respond to my emails very often….

Unless you’re a funder. Then I’m free anytime… Yup…aaanytime…


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  • Devra Thomas

    OMG, YES. Thanks for this. I haven’t had a vacation in over 3 years and my husband and I are both taking next week off and getting away. I lead a small nonprofit theatre and he’s a retail big box store manager so both of us are feeling a huge amount of guilt about going on vacation. But we’ve also been looking forward to it for weeks, since we committed to doing it. He’ll get paid time off, I won’t, but it will be a chance to reconnect with each other, ourselves, and do that big picture dreaming for the next year that just doesn’t happen otherwise.

    • Guest

      Your blog is the only one I read besides Moment in the Word by Ronald Ovitt, I am taking a nonprofit class and found your blog! I am thinking about grant writing consulting to help nonprofits.

      Merry Christmas to you and your family. Since you bless me with your nonprofit wisdom I would like to tell you about two things you might like:
      1. Greek olive hummus
      2. Raising Unicorns , a book on unicorn farming by Jessica S Marquis!

      Thank you,

  • Pax Bennett

    Have an awesome and well-deserved break!

  • Courtney Workman

    Enjoy your break, Vu! And here’s to hoping people don’t send emails during it!

  • Brittny Nielsen

    This is an awesome post, Vu and I wholeheartedly agree! Yet what about those of us in lower development positions who have to process gifts in a timely manner for nonprofits whose fiscal year ends on Dec. 31! I’d love to take time off, but honestly, that’s the luxury of someone who doesn’t have to worry about gift processing and acknowledgement.

  • LongmontKathy

    Yes! And unicorns, stop working 15 hours a day! Create a new job for an assistant, a (paid) intern, even a co-director!

  • Jen Brady

    Your blog is the only one I read besides Moment in the Word by Ronald Ovitt, I am taking a nonprofit class and found your blog! I am thinking about grant writing consulting to help nonprofits.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family. Since you bless me with your nonprofit wisdom I would like to tell you about two things you might like:
    1. Greek olive hummus
    2. Raising Unicorns , a book on unicorn farming by Jessica S Marquis!

    Thank you,

  • XanNelson

    Someone please tell the foundations and government agencies with January 5 deadlines about this.