All nonprofits I know have staff that is 1,000% committed to the vision, the mission, the organization, the work, the partners …. So much so that you can call them anytime, whether they are on leave (if at all they go on leave) or off sick (if at all they call in sick). They are ready to jump back in. Always. Golden, of course. And you should cherish your staff for this attitude. But at the same time, you must make sure that they cannot behave like this. Because we all know that this is a very unhealthy practice. You must, therefore, plan care for your team and yourself, too.

What must I do????

Obviously, staff needs to plan their own holiday plans. That’s not what I mean you must do. What you must do, is make sure that people use their annual leave and that they call in sick when they are sick. This is not about setting rules so much as about making it possible.

Rules are not enough

If I am sure that my project will go off track during my annual leave, I will not take that leave and will tell my boss that I do not need it, that I want those unused leave days paid out, or that sure, pinky promise, I will use these days next year …. In the same situation, I will not call in sick. In such cases, rules alone are not helpful. They do not give your staff the peace of mind they need to be on leave or to recuperate from being unwell.

Replacement …

To care for your team (and yourself) is to plan. You must make sure that you have enough qualified and enthusiastic hands on deck that people can be away without worry, for business travel, sick leave or well-deserved holidays. So, you need to have staff that can take over tasks or replace each other as needed. In such a way that you are not overloading these replacements, while you are at the same time trying to make their colleagues feel comfortable going on leave.


A good replacement plan includes having a genuine team of competent and collegial people, who are willing and capable to share tasks as needed. I am not talking about a plan to replace someone in a concrete situation. I am referring to a way of working that will make it easy for the team to take care of absences. It means you will have to invest in a culture for sharing real information on what is being done and especially on how it is being done. A culture in which colleagues learn from each other and feel free to share. Where staff does not feel threatened by competent colleagues who can fill in for them, fearing for their job now that someone else could do it, too.

And systems

You must also have systems in place in which information is captured. In such a way that I can find what my colleague was working on in a heartbeat. Where I can work with the same e-mail templates, data collection sheets, contacts, reporting style guides, etc. so that outside the organization no one need notice that my colleague is away and that I am stepping in. You must therefore invest in developing teamwide practices for filing things, in teamwide and shared planning and to do-lists, in teamwide accepted templates and in a teamwide shared contact database. So very logical. While in reality, most nonprofits find out these systems did not grow naturally of their own accord once someone falls sick seriously and unexpectedly or once someone leaves very abruptly.



Put your money where your mouth is

Even if all this is in place, there is one more thing you need to take care of that’s not setting rules and being a policeman or woman. And that is, you need to create financial space to not overload your staff. That means that you need to build your budgets with realistic costs for time spent by your staff.

Sufficient time

Budget sufficient time for the tasks ahead, bearing in mind the level of ambition and the size of the project you are budgeting for and bearing in mind that real life is never as simple as we design it on paper (or in excel). Make sure you foresee enough days to get all the things you promise your funding partner to do, done. If you are not basing this estimate on real data of past projects, as you can get out of time sheets and experience of your team, add 10% to your estimate. (and make sure you monitor so you will be more sure next time around).

Realistic unit price

Base the unit price of days worked on realistic working days and hours of staff involved. If someone is on your payroll for 40 hours per week, that does not mean the person can work on billable tasks all of their (likely around 240) working days in the year. There are official days off, people get sick, they may need time to visit a GP or to get married or have a baby. They need to work on fundraising, which is not a billable project task in most cases. They need to have meetings, etc. etc. Make a reasonable calculation of how many days you can in all feasibility assign to this person in a year to do project implementation tasks. Discuss this with your team to be sure it is realistic. And be transparent about it to your funding partner.

Check replacement cost impact

Check how a replacement would impact implementation and the budget and adjust accordingly. For instance, maybe you have one project manager who can be replaced only by the director. The daily cost of work done by the director is likely higher than the daily cost of the project manager. Make sure such a difference, for the duration of a holiday, does not throw your budget off course. Maybe you need to increase the unit price a little to accommodate a few more expensive working days in case the director needs to take over for a short while.

Check alternate

Alternatively, you might check if you could accommodate a junior project officer in the budget. This person could be an intern or a starter, learning from your project manager on the job. This person might replace the project manager in most daily tasks, with the director overseeing this in the absence of the project manager. That way, you can build a more robust project team. If this is in any way possible in our budget, this is a good way to work on future resilience.

Policies and policing

If you have all of this in place: a healthy culture of transparency and sharing and systems that support this, with financial resources available to make sure that work weeks are, in general, realistic, it is time to revisit the topic of rules. Yes, you must set rules in a policy document regarding annual leave, days off, sick leave, visits to the doctor and so on and so forth. And you must oversee that these are implemented and document it all very carefully.

Facilitating and role modeling

This policing, however, can be much easier and less of a chore, if you make sure people are on board. And the best way to get people on board is to make sure they understand the importance of the rules and policies as well as feel comfortable in following these. That is why you need to develop culture, systems and financial resources with their help and input. To reinforce the culture, which provides the basis for the systems and ensures financial resources are used optimally, the final thing needed is a role model. And that is where you come in.

Plan care for your team and yourself

Planning care for your team must include planning care for yourself, too. That way, the team can see that for instance a finance manager or director is replaceable. And that people in such positions can with good conscience enjoy life while on holidays and come back supercharged for work. That way the team can feel that 1,000% commitment is an admirable attitude that should not necessarily mean that you need to work 365 days per year to prove you are committed and believe in the cause and the organization. Cherish the attitude and make very sure that this attitude does not lead to an unsustainable practice. In your team and yourself.

How I can help

Check out my free mini course Build a Solid Base for your nonprofit:

In August 2023, I will host a few sessions talking about so-called soft skills nonprofit leaders need. Like how to have hard conversation, keep your team motivated, get through a crisis and take care of yourself. If you’re interested in joining, make sure you’re subscribed to my weekly Monday Motivations. That way you’ll be the first to know when they happen and how you can join!

If you want to learn about setting up and maintaining a good HR system for your nonprofit, join my course Practical Labour Law & HR for nonprofits.

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