Get a Life, Take a Vacation, Have a Baby


I recently returned from “vacation.”

Why the quotation marks? Well, I worked the whole time.

This alleged two-week vacation was at a health boot camp. I feel really good. Strong.

Also, I learned an important lesson about the value of interval training. Work out really, really hard. Then take a short –- and real – break. Repeat.

See this image. This is a fairly standard trajectory for a job. There are peaks, lulls and then some plateaus.

work intensity

Now look at the nonprofit trajectory, where it feels like every decision matters all the time.

nonprofit work intensity

You know what I see?

  1. Express train to a heart attack
  2. Sure fire path to burnout
  3. An unsustainable work life

I’m not one to talk. As I write this, it’s a long holiday weekend and I’m working. I’m not exactly the ideal model for how to kick back and enjoy time off. Like the fantastic CPA who misses her own tax deadlines.

You can’t even imagine taking time off, right? You have your firefighter hat on and the alarm is always going off.

But remember — nonprofit work is a marathon and not a sprint. And just like with interval training, you can’t reach your optimal performance without taking intentional breaks.

There are three things on this topic we need to dive into:

  1. You MUST take time off
  2. You CAN take time off
  3. You must insist your staff actually use their vacation days

I will also offer some practical strategies on how to make this happen the right way.


It was my first year as an ED on October 31. I got an urgent call from a colleague.

I told her, “I don’t have much time – I have to go. An M&M, a clown, and a Power Puff girl are waiting for me.”

She had no idea what I was talking about.

“It’s HALLOWEEN,” I said, “I’ve got to head out early today.”

My colleague said the oddest thing. “All of us are really hoping you can prove that an ED can actually have a life.”

As a graduate of the School of Snappy Retorts, I responded quickly “I can’t take that responsibility on for the rest of you. I plan on having a life and suggest that you attempt to do the same.”

I had a ton of fun trick or treating that night. Spending time with my kids was good for my soul and I arrived at work the next day happy and motivated.


Everything rolls from the top. If you live each day at the office up there on that red line, that becomes what everyone expects.

Early on in my nonprofit career, my staff evaluated my level of intensity not by a graph but with shorthand.

Colleagues would ask each other, “How is Joan today?”

“Oh be forewarned. She’s a VENTE. Maybe with an extra shot.”

This didn’t mean I wasn’t nice or smart or funny. But it did mean I was up there on that red line.

Are you a “vente”? And if so, how do you take a vacation and prove that it can be done so others will follow.

Here are four helpful tips:

Set your “out-of-office” messages: Voice mail and email. The voice mail should explicitly identify someone other than you to talk to if the matter is urgent. That person can separate the wheat from the chaff and contact you only as needed.

Your staff will be thrilled to handle your messages. The WANT you to take a break. Two big reasons: a) when the boss is on vacation, the pace is just a bit slower and b) they get to see what a restful vacation looks like.

Have someone check your email twice a day: If you use Gmail, have them mark emails you must pay attention to. If you do respond to these critical ones, make it clear that you are away and checking email very infrequently.

Plan activities where cell service is spotty: I don’t expect you to leave your smart phone in the hotel but please don’t be like me. I hiked to the top of a beautiful waterfall in Yosemite and my phone rang. And I picked it up. No bueno.

Schedule emails: If you send emails to your staff at random hours while on vacation, why even bother going on vacation? Believe me – you’re getting eye rolls back at the office. It really annoys the staff when you do this, even if they won’t tell you so.

If you just can’t stop yourself, at least make sure the emails only go out during regular hours. How do you do that? Here are a couple tools. 

Boomerang and RightInBox. Write an email at 4am? Fine. But schedule it for 8:30am so your staff thinks you sent a quick email just before you went out to play golf.


Notice I am not using the word “encourage.” It has to be stronger than that. The quickest way to lose a superstar employee is to let her burn out.

But how do you encourage workaholic staffers? Isn’t their workaholism part of what makes them so great? Perhaps. But remember once again that nonprofit life is a marathon, not a sprint. If you try to sprint a marathon, you’re going to flame out quickly.

It starts with YOU. You have to model good behavior. Take your own vacation time – ALL OF IT. A culture of “intensity” where leaders don’t take time off sends the wrong message that time off is not valued.

Beyond that, here are four ways you can push your best employees to take the breaks they so badly need.

  • Ask them about their vacation plans: Any vacation plans this summer? I just noticed you haven’t used much of your vacation time – some big plans in the works?
  • Discuss it at a staff meeting: At your next staff meeting, discuss your philosophy of taking time. You have to give nonprofit staff permission to take time off or they just won’t do it. The best way is to talk about why it’s so important. Get a staffer who has recently returned from a vacation talk about what a great trip s/he had. Push people for 1 or 2 weeks off, not just days here and there. Tell them you believe that people do their best work when they detach and are rested.
  • Give folks a surprise day off: Make it feel like a little perk — part of the fabric of the organization.
  • Use it or lose it: This may be a bit controversial, but here goes. If you don’t lose it, there is less incentive to take it. Work with staff throughout the year to monitor vacation time taken. The organization can’t (usually) afford to pay attention on December 1 and then realize that in order not to lose vacation time, someone has to take off the entire month of December.


Your turn.

How does your nonprofit handle vacations? Does leadership encourage staff to take time off? Do you have a workaholic culture where people rarely take time off? What additional tips can you recommend?

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Kat

    Love this one, Joan, thanks for it. Here I am in July and trying to figure out how to take the ENTIRE month of August off because of my use it or lose it policy. (My contracted vacation time is taken during the fiscal year which ends 8/31.) My goal for next year is to schedule all of my time off in September and notify the president of my plans. Then the only challenge is making sure I take it!

  • Thais Perkins

    I run a tree-planting nonprofit, and trees in Texas get planted in the winter. There’s plenty of planning to be done in the summer, but it’s a little less intense, so I’ve closed the office on Fridays for the summer. It doesn’t work 100% for this committed staff, but it has set the tone for a slower summer.