Though today is a national holiday honoring Dr. King’s birthday, many of you are reading this from your desks–and few of you are alone at the office. It’s the Nonprofiteer’s impression that there’s a lively if sotto voce debate in the nonprofit world about whether Dr. King is best honored–and the mission of nonprofits best served–by giving employees the day off or by keeping them hard at work at the task of advancing social justice. It’s also her impression that this question persists year after year because of racism so pervasive we [white people] can barely see it: it somehow just never gets settled that there’s an African-American important enough to be worth stopping work over.
The first time the Nonprofiteer faced the question as an executive director, she made the mistake of suggesting that everybody just stay on the job. Though she said all the right things about serving social justice, what she really thought was that her staff was far too interested in not working in general, and that one holiday less would do them a world of good. (You may imagine how popular and successful a leader she was.) She was horrified when the African-American members of the staff interepreted her motives as racist and took the day off in protest, and still more horrified when this give white staff members the opportunity to condole with her about what they perceived as the over-sensitivity and laziness of black people. So let’s be clear: the Nonprofiteer does NOT think you should cancel the holiday.
But it’s a real question: at least one agency "observes" the holiday as a day of service, encouraging its regular volunteers to contribute an extra day of their time. This seems an inspiring and appropriate acknowledgement of the day–except for all those people who actually work at that agency, for whom the "observation" means not just no day off but an unusually long and difficult day. As nonprofit executives, we should probably resist the urge to inspire volunteers at the cost of exploiting our staff.
And let’s acknowledge, too, that this would be a small issue in a sector where staff members weren’t so routinely underpaid and overworked and underappreciated and expected to put agency mission above personal and professional satisfaction. Or in a society where African-Americans didn’t have to spend so much of their time explaining the significance of things to white people.
Nonprofit executives: how do you handle holidays? Do you give people days off because they’re cheaper than health insurance, say, or a raise? Is the Dr. King holiday a particular management challenge? Staff preferences aside, which really is a better way of honoring Dr. King: keeping staff noses at the mission grindstone, or giving them the day off–and letting clients shift for themselves?
Feedback earnestly desired.