Skip to main content

9 Ways to Ensure Your Vacation Is Really Time Off From Work

Written by: Rebecca Koenig
Published on: Feb 11, 2020

When you feel responsible for saving the world, it’s hard to justify a vacation. But nonprofit employees do deserve a break from the office, to spend time with family and friends, explore new places, and keep burnout at bay.

As most charity workers will readily admit, taking a real vacation is "really tricky," says Kendra Davenport, senior chief of development, communications, and international programs at Family Matters of Greater Washington. "As I’ve advanced in my career, I’ve found it very hard to take time off. You either have things that are pending with donors that you don’t want anyone else to take care of, or the buildup to an event, or the follow-up from the event, which is usually even more important."

Yet even major-gift fundraisers can escape the daily grind if they plan carefully. Here are nine ways to ensure your vacation is really time off from work.

1. Coordinate carefully with others in your office.

Plan your vacations around the schedules of the people in your office who can cover for you effectively to ensure ongoing work isn’t disrupted, says Stephanie Reyes, chief operating officer at the Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental organization in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"The two people who can most likely fill in for me are not going to be on vacation when I am," she says.

And of course, never take a vacation at a time when a scheduled major event will make it impossible for you to unplug.

2. Talk about your vacation early and often.

Well in advance of taking time off, start easing colleagues and donors into the idea that you will be out, to avoid any surprises or sense that you’re leaving people unprepared. Ms. Davenport says that if she has a vacation planned for June, for example, she’ll start talking about it in January.

"Instead of being irritated, they’ll have heard it enough that they’re on board," she says of her coworkers and donors. "They’ll ask, ‘Aren’t you going to France soon?’ "

3. Distinguish between "working vacations" and true escapes.

If you sometimes take days off but still conduct work remotely, you’ll need to tell coworkers explicitly that this vacation will be different.

Ms. Davenport identifies one trip a year — a big family gathering — during which she expects a true break from work and distinguishes it from other days off when "I’m reachable."

Being willing to communicate with the office during some of your vacations may make your coworkers more willing to respect those occasions on which you want to be left in peace.

4. Tie up loose ends — and drop what you can.

In the weeks before you take your vacation, expect to put in extra time finishing up tasks that can’t wait. If there is a grant proposal due during the week you’re gone, for instance, plan to submit it in advance, Ms. Reyes says: "It will be worth it to have it wrapped up."

But don’t try to reschedule everything that you’ll miss, she advises. If you won’t be around for a monthly team meeting, let the meeting go on without you, or check with coworkers about whether it makes sense to skip that month’s gathering.

5. Communicate what needs to be done in your absence.

Let your supervisor and other colleagues know what projects you’re working on and where they stand. Make sure someone is assigned to cover any work you usually do that can’t wait for your return. These steps will help prevent a situation in which coworkers feel the need to check in with you.

"I think the proactive communication piece is important," says Jessica Vibberts, chief people officer at Reading Partners.

6. Use your vacation as professional development for other staff members.

If you’re a manager, think about your vacation as an opportunity for your employees to up their game. For a supervisor to enjoy his or her time off, Ms. Davenport says, "you need to instill and build a culture in your team that [they] can handle a lot when you’re gone."

Make sure your staff knows what you expect them to accomplish in your absence, then set them loose. How employees react "is often very educational and elucidating to me as a manager," Ms. Davenport says, as is discovering "who fills the vacuum, who steps up to the plate."

If this idea makes you nervous, you can always do what she does: ask employees to include you as a blind copy on important emails.

7. Enforce reasonable boundaries and expectations.

After you decide how available you want to be to coworkers on your vacation, commit to those limits. If that means leaving your phone or laptop at home, do it.

Rather than tell the whole office how to get in touch with you, limit the number of people to one or two, Ms. Vibberts suggests.

"I don’t broadcast that I’m available. I don’t give my information out very readily," she says. "I was in Thailand for three weeks in December a year ago. There were two people who knew my itinerary and how to reach my hotel if anything came up."

If you only want to be contacted during an emergency, make sure your colleagues know what constitutes an emergency and how you prefer to be reached.

Jennifer Wheeler, chief development officer at Boys & Girls Clubs of Middle Tennessee, says her staff knows to call or text immediately if there is an urgent matter. If there’s a situation that needs her approval but is not urgent, they send an email with the subject line in all caps; Ms. Wheeler scans her email at least once a day for these messages while she’s gone.

8. Make a plan for your return.

The week before Ms. Wheeler goes on vacation, she schedules necessary tasks for when she’s back at work. "This allows me to relax, knowing nothing has been forgotten and there’s a plan in place for tackling objectives upon my return."

But try to avoid scheduling meetings for your first day back, Ms. Reyes recommends, to give yourself time to catch up on emails.

9. Construct your out-of-office messages carefully.

Explain in your voice-mail and email notifications when you will be back and which of your coworkers to contact until then. If you intend to check messages infrequently or not at all, say so.

Fundraisers might want to take extra steps like including instructions on how to make a donation or reserve a spot at an upcoming special event, Ms. Wheeler says.

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.